Ask any musician about the pandemic year, and they’ll tell you that social distancing restrictions have made their work next to impossible.
As artists who depend on collaborating, the ability to meet and improvise, create and rehearse — even get together for informal jam sessions — has been greatly curtailed. Programs such as Zoom, which have been effective in linking people for talks, meetings and other social interactions, simply don’t work for making music in real time.
Enter JackTrip, a new system that is making connection possible for Bay Area musicians. Developed at Stanford University and now becoming available through San Francisco’s Blue Bear School of Music, the free, open-source software appears to be offering a lifeline for bands, chamber groups, choruses, teachers and students, and other musical collaborators.
“It’s a game-changer,” says Cole Odin Berggren, Blue Bear’s outreach director. Although the school, which is based at The City’s Fort Mason Center, is just getting its band workshop program interface up and running, Berggren says the initial results have been enormously promising.
According to Berggren, the JackTrip software works over basic Internet connections and can accommodate rehearsals, lessons or jam sessions in one-to-one links or groups. It functions in audio only, although it can be augmented with Zoom or other video-conferencing applications.
It’s having a remarkable effect at Blue Bear, an organization founded in 1971 that offers classes, music lessons and outreach programs, and bills itself as “the original school of rock ‘n’ roll.”
In a recent interview, Berggren said that, like many institutions, Blue Bear’s activities were curtailed when Covid-19 restrictions went into effect.
“As a music school during a pandemic, we lost a lot of the heart and soul of our work,” he said. “Musicians thrive on interaction.”
Throughout the past year, the school tried different approaches to linking musicians, teachers and students, but Berggren said that none was effective. Latency, defined by delay in signal response, is a particular problem in platforms like Zoom. “When you’re trying to hear what you and others are playing, 15 milliseconds of latency begins to be a problem,” he explained.
JackTrip, he says, is “light-years ahead” in eliminating latency.
“We were completely blown away,” said Berggren. “I’m still baffled that you could play something in San Francisco and it would go through to someone in Sacramento with no latency.” So far, he explained, they’ve had excellent results, with the program functioning without delay for musicians connecting as far apart as 200 miles.
“It’s something we never thought was possible,” he added. “Even after the pandemic, we’ll be able to do things we couldn’t do before.”
The school is now retooling its remote classes, group lessons, jazz band and other programs.
Frances Lee is one of the musicians who has been participating in Blue Bear’s JackTrip trials. A San Francisco-based singer, she’s in the school’s rock and blues band workshops. She also sings in the alto section with the San Francisco Bach Choir under artistic director Magen Solomon.
Both groups suffered during the last year, she said. The choir, she notes, usually has between 50 and 70 singers. But when the pandemic started, participation dwindled. “There was definitely some dropoff,” she said. “You miss the camaraderie, the experience of being together.” Lee herself allows that she’d been feeling “uninspired. It was a real shift, just not as enjoyable.”
Now, she’s seeing a lot of excitement, both in the band students and in the choir’s ranks. “It’s been amazing to be part of this experiment, to be singing and playing without any lag,” she said. “It’s exciting and I’d say it’s gotten me re-engaged.”
Lee also thinks JackTrip will be essential post-pandemic. “When we talk about collaborating in the musical sense, you usually have to get everybody together in the same space,” she said. “That’s not true anymore. If you have people in remote locations, or with mobility issues, now you can be playing with people all over the world. For me, seeing how this technology is being embraced is inspiring.”
Other musicians greeted the news with interest. Barbara Speed, a saxophonist with Juke Joint, an East Bay-based soul and R&B band, saw her work decline significantly during the last year. Speed did some sessions with fellow musicians, meeting outdoors and socially distanced, and rehearsed with the band a few times for outdoor gigs. But restrictions made things difficult, both for securing gigs and expanding their repertoire. “We didn’t introduce any new material last year,” she said. “We played the same sets for each gig.”
Rehearsing via a program like JackTrip would be appealing, she said. “For us, it would be great,” said Speed. “We’d probably rehearse more than we have for a long time.”
She also said it could offer new ways of performing. “Programs like Zoom have opened up ways for seeing people at long distances — I can imagine this working in the same way. We don’t know what the future holds for in-person gigging, and this could be great for online performances.”
David Martin, the guitarist and leader of the nine-piece, two-dancer big band David Martin’s House Party, reported a similar drop in engagements when the pandemic started. The band, which has performed widely in the Bay Area – past gigs included San Francisco Symphony gala after-parties, San Francisco Giants and Olympic Club galas, and frequent corporate events from Hawaii to the Bahamas – effectively went on hiatus as scheduled gigs on the 2020 calendar went by the wayside.
“After March 6, everything we had on the calendar was eliminated, canceled or ‘wait and see,’” he said. “With each new spike, we’d get a number of cancellations.”
Martin, also a member of the Bay Area bands the Lloyds and the Buzztones, said that the House Party has a repertoire of more than 800 songs, so frequent rehearsals are the group’s norm. But rehearsals became impractical, too. The JackTrip technology would have been helpful, he said. “We needed to rehearse for when we finally got the thumbs-up,” he said. “So definitely, a device like that, where there is no latency, would have allowed us to do the rehearsals.”
And when live performances resume, Martin said the new technology could have myriad benefits. “We’ve always had a strong in-person camaraderie,” he said. “It’s important that we know what each other is playing. That in-person feel can’t be substituted. So I think something like JackTrip could be very useful for us, at least for getting started again and to feel those vibes.”
And if live, remote-streamed performances become the norm, Martin envisions far-reaching implications. “It could make a big difference for private events,” he said. “If your bass player’s in Vegas and your drummer’s in Hawaii, you could sync up and play. I think it could create an entirely new genre of performance for people who can’t travel, or for spur of the moment performances. It could make a big difference for private events – and make a difference for who gets the gigs. In certain circles, I can see it becoming very influential.”
To watch Blue Bear musicians jamming with JackTrip, visit https://we.tl/t-BS2AOQ0WaS.
Blue Bear is now forming online band workshops, beginning in March. Tuition is $625 for 10 weeks, in two-hour band sessions. Tuition includes the JackTrip device and necessary cables and power supply. Contact (415) 673-3600 or www.bluebearmusic.org.