I have so much to say about this, I'm not sure where to start. @ocean-daughter, I will address your issue of "making the notes sound connected" in separate comments, since I have too much to say about virtual festivals.
Just last night was the inaugural event of the virtual dulcimer festival of the Dulcimer Association of Albany. There were no workshops, performances, or jams. Instead, it was just a kick-off Zoom session, when anyone who wanted to joined in to say "Hi." It was a two-hour event, and at its height about 40 people were in there just chatting away. That is only a little more than 1/10 of the number of people registered for the event, but it shows, I think, one of the main reasons we go to dulcimer festivals: camaraderie. We attend dulcimer festivals as much to meet other dulcimer players as to get formal instruction on playing. This is important to remember, especially for festival organizers.
I had the good fortune of being part of the first ever online dulcimer festival, the Berkeley Dulcimer Gathering. That event happens in May, and it was the first festival last spring to choose to go on Zoom rather than just cancel. Although I would like to think that the workshops were successful (especially the couple that I taught! ) our main success, I think, was structuring in lots of time for people to just hang out. There was a homeroom (meaning a Zoom link) where we all met in the morning just to chat and go over some festival logistics, but it was consciously treated as a social experience. The "homeroom teacher" was Erin Mae, and two or three times she broke us into small groups of 5 or 6 and put us in little breakout rooms so we could interact in a more intimate settings. We talked about where we were from, what instruments we were using that day, and so forth. After the morning workshops we again met in the homeroom for a lunchtime Q & A, when people could just ask questions of others. Some asked questions specifically of certain instructors and some just posed questions to the group at large. But some really interesting conversations ensued. At the end of the day of workshops, we met again in the homeroom for a song circle. And throughout the day, the homeroom was open for anyone who wanted to pop in. During one slot when I was not teaching I joined the homeroom to see how Erin Mae was doing and there were a handful of people there just chatting. One of them asked me a question about a particular technique I used in a video I had posted, and rather than inflict our conversation on everyone else, Erin Mae put us in a breakout room where we could have a private conversation, after which we just clicked into the homeroom again.
These kinds of informal interactions are an essential part of the festival experience, and we have to work on ways to incorporate them into virtual festivals. It takes a little work, and it is not exactly the same as sitting next to someone, but if virtual festivals are going to strengthen the dulcimer community and not just help us become slightly better players, they are essential.
So that community building, that room for social interaction is, IMHO, what's missing from many dulcimer festivals, especially the biggest ones.
What do the virtual festivals do well?
First and most obviously, the virtual festivals provide support for dulcimer teachers. How many of them freaked out a year ago when all their gigs got canceled? The online festivals have allowed dulcimer teachers and performers to continue as musicians and not take jobs driving for Grub Hub or whatever other jobs might exist in the middle of a pandemic. Many of them have adapted quite well to the virtual world and have started offering a range of different kinds of workshops and interactive concerts and stuff. Just last night night, Aubrey Atwater, who had never used Zoom before the Dutchland DulciZoom festival last summer, proclaimed "I will never be without a gig again." When she has an open date, she can just prepare a workshop or concert or some other kind of online event, put the word out, and easily get enough people from around the world to make it worthwhile.
And that brings up a second great benefit to both teachers and players: the lack of geographical boundaries. I have a job. And I have a family. And I don't have a lot of time or money. I would never have been able to drop my responsibilities and fly to Albany, NY to join the Dulcimer Association of Albany for an in-person festival. But I can click a Zoom link and join with others from around the world. @ocean-daughter has joked that she has "been" to Florida and Georgia for virtual festivals. I, too, have "been" to Pennsylvania and New York and LA and elsewhere for virtual festivals. I have been able to meet dulcimer players that I would never be able to meet any other way.
My own local dulcimer club is also no longer local. Although we started with those who had been meeting in person, more than half people of those who join my online group monthly come from some distance away, from Tennessee and Oregon, Texas and Maine, Ireland and New Zealand. One woman told me that she lives in a pretty desolate area, is not fully mobile, and had never been able to attend a dulcimer group or festival in person. But she joins our group every month and is having a blast. And when the North Georgia Foothills folks asked me to teach at their next virtual festival, they explained that many of their 400+ members have "aged out" of in-person festivals, meaning they have reached an age when traveling to a state park or other location, carrying around their instruments and music stands, and so forth, is too difficult. But they can sit down in their living room and turn on their computers. So a third benefit of virtual festivals is that they include people who could never attend in-person festivals.
By the same token, they can allow workshops on pretty esoteric topics, a fourth benefit. At a local or regional dulcimer festival, workshop teachers have to come up with topics that enough people will find interesting. When I proposed a workshop on Songs of the American West (I thought I was clever and called it Dulci-Ki-Yi-Yo), Neal Hellman, the festival organizer, expressed skepticism that I would garner enough attendees. But once the decision was made to go virtual, the question of popularity disappeared. In the end, the workshop got plenty of attendees to run (although my workshop on Irish ballads had twice the enrollments). That concern Neal expressed does not exist with large virtual festivals since the pool of potential attendees is so much larger. I took an advanced workshop taught by Bill Collins on Icelandic tunes. The music was pretty strange, I have to say, and I doubt that such a workshop would draw many people at a regional dulcimer festival. But we were online, so he was able to garner enough people from around the world to make it worth it. Workshops on bizarre tunings (beyond the main 4 or 5) or specific, niche techniques, or some little known corpus of music might be hard to justify at regional, in-person festivals, but they can thrive online.
A fifth and final advantage of online festivals that I'll mention now (the list goes on, of course), is that everyone has a front-row seat. Perhaps you've seen how Stephen Seifert teaches his online workshops. He uses three separate cameras. One shows a line or so of tablature, and one shows a close-up of his face. But the main part of the screen shows an overhead view of his dulcimer fretboard, so you can see exactly what his fingers are doing. If you've taken an intermediate workshop with him live at a big even such as Kentucky Music Week, you most likely had to sit so far away from him that you could barely see his fingers. I only use two cameras when teach online, one on my face and one angled from above on my fretboard, which I also flip around so you get the "player's view." I made that last adjustment at the request of students who love to see the dulcimer on the screen exactly the way it looks on their lap. The wonders of technology make it appear you are behind me with your head resting on my shoulder with a close-up view of the dulcimer, and yet, you might be thousands of miles away. What a world we live in!
I'll stop now. I've outlined a major piece missing from the large festival (the social experience) and highlighted several of the obvious advantages of virtual festivals. A big question confronting us all is what things will look like when we can gather together again. How can we enjoy gathering in-person without excluding those unable to travel to the location? Will regional, in-person festivals disappear as they're getting used to the extra registrants and the lack of venue costs? What will hybrid dulcimer festivals look like? Will our venues change from churches and community centers to conference settings better equipped with wifi? Will workshops join together people live and people online or will there be separate in-person and online workshops at each festival?
Dusty T., Northern California
As a musician, you have to keep one foot back in the past and one foot forward into the future.
-- Dizzy Gillespie
updated by @dusty-turtle: 03/05/21 01:33:28PM