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University music schools might be the last place you would expect Internet connectivity to make a difference.
But these days, the network does matter.
By utilizing advanced research and education networks, musicians now are able to practice and perform simultaneously even when they're miles apart. This capability has broad implications for musicians everywhere.
For the past decade, universities have been working on broadband in music departments. But it wasn't until recently that a group from Italy created a technology that would solve some of the challenges music schools have faced.
Three of these hurdles have included low-quality audio, low-quality video and high levels of latency (time delay), said Paul Bauer, professor and director of the School of Music at Northern Illinois University. For example, when two people clap at the same time from different locations, it doesn't sound or look like they're doing it together on Skype and similar tools.
To address these challenges, a group of physicists, engineers and an amateur pianist created LOLA, software and equipment that minimizes latency as light moves over a fiber network.
"This is the first time that a software and hardware combination have been designed expressly for the performing artists, emphasizing low latency so that they can perform together without tricks or gimmicks," Bauer said. "And it was also designed with the idea that this technology can be affordable."
For less than $5,000, Northern Illinois University built a LOLA node by following instructions from its creators. Through Internet2's wide bandwidth, the university sends large streams of data to other locations. These two solutions combined give universities high-quality audio and video as well as low latency levels.
At Internet2's meeting in October 2011, Northern Illinois University demonstrated the technology with the University of North Carolina — Greensboro School of Music, Theatre and Dance. Cellist Cheng-Hou Lee played "Passacaglia for Violin and Cello" with violinist Marjorie Bagley.
Musicians from Northern Illinois University and the University of North Carolina — Greensboro play together over an Internet2 connection through LOLA technology in October 2011.
Even though the data traveled 1,000 miles through the network, the time delay only was about 35 milliseconds. (One thousand milliseconds equals a second.) Through testing, the schools have learned that musicians perform comfortably together if they have less than 50 milliseconds of delay.
In early March, for a Performing Arts Production Workshop, Northern Illinois University will connect to the New World Symphony in Miami to test LOLA again, this time spanning a distance of about 1,400 miles.
"This is what higher education is about — stretching the limits and finding new territory and then finding new ways to apply it now and in the future," Bauer said.
He envisions musicians rehearsing well in advance of performances and playing alongside students from afar.
Students at the University of Southern California's Thornton School of Music and the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami have already rehearsed together coast to coast. In the fall, four students in USC Thornton's Popular Music Program paired up with students from the Bruce Hornsby Creative American Music Program in the Frost School of Music to write songs.
On their own time, the graduate students participated in this extracurricular activity over Skype, iChat and other tools. They coped with a three-hour time difference, busy schedules and unfamiliar faces.
"You're basically thrown into a situation where you're being creative with a stranger," said Chris Sampson, associate dean and director of USC Thornton's Popular Music Program. "Songwriting requires a certain degree of vulnerability and trust to be able to try out ideas and bring to life possible ideas. And this is difficult under the best of circumstances."
But they soon immersed themselves in songwriting, with the goal of having the songs performed live in Miami. The Miami musicians would play to their live audience, and the USC students would join them for a song over the network.
Before Thanksgiving, they connected via Internet2 to rehearse. On December 1, a dress rehearsal went well. But between the dress rehearsal and performance, the connectivity was blocked from Miami's end.
The University of Miami show went well, with the USC students watching the whole time from Southern California. Then when it came time for them to start their integrated performance, the firewall blocked it.
While the finale performance didn't happen, both music schools came away thinking the collaboration was a great success. Sampson said they will try it again this spring.
"You have to take these chances to do something interesting," Sampson said.
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