YouTube Orchestra Brings Together Musicians Around the World

    by Alexander Zolotarev
    May 28, 2009

    Well, it’s Susan Boyle again singing “Now you say you’re lonely,” being not at all lonely with her 61 million YouTube viewers. That number makes the appealing British singer 61 times more popular than the YouTube Symphony Orchestra Global Mash-up musicians with their 1.1 million views. But the YouTube Symphony, a unique experiment uniting musicians from around the world, may be the one to watch (you can view the video embedded below).

    Ms. Boyle is singing a jazz standard and the YouTube Orchestra is playing the Internet Symphony #1 Eroica composed and conducted by the Chinese maestro Tan Dun. Both videos were uploaded to YouTube at the same time, in the middle of April. But 1.1 million views is still an impressive number for this genre, even if we subtract the several hundred thousands of views which belong to the musicians’ friends and relatives.

    Ms. Boyle’s sensational success is explainable: She was a show-biz heroine supported by the British and global television, and her story is based on contrast. Contrast of any kind. It’s all clear. But there is so much to discover with YouTube’s recent experiment in building the international orchestra: first appealing to the musicians in any wired corner of the world. Then choosing the best performers with the help of the Grand Jury (noted musicians) and ordinary users.


    Over 3,000 participants submitted their videos — and 90 musicians made it to Carnegie Hall. Some were absolutely homemade recordings with dogs barking in the background. Some were recorded in kitchens with boiling tea kettles whistling. A trumpeter performed in a horror-movie plastic mask. And on the stage on 57th street a musician played automobile circular plates.

    It has been the most democratic musical contest in the history of music. No language or gender or age barriers and both professional and amateur musicians were allowed to compete. Among the winners were doctors, lawyers, and even a poker player from San Francisco.


    The Russian Winners

    To musicians in the most remote corners of the world the web is now giving great opportunities to reach out.

    “To participate in the contest, there were only three things needed: a computer, a web camera and the ability to play a musical instrument,” says Alla Zabrovskaya, PR Director of Google Russia. “And now, after the success of the Orchestra, there is no doubt that any talented person can get famous quickly and at no cost on the web.”

    There have already been some cases in Russia of stars using YouTube to establish themselves. The singer Peter Nalitch became instantly famous when his ‘Guitar’ video attracted over 100,000 viewers in April 2007.

    I spoke with the Russian winners at CoffeeMania, a café by the P.I. Tchaikovsky Conservatory in the centre of Moscow, which is very popular with musicians and the creative crowd.


    YouTube Symphony Orchestra winners Anna Shumik and Alexey Zavgorodnyi played it cool and made their way to Carnegie Hall.

    “Well, at first I felt a bit uneasy about bringing my recording into the open,” said 24-year-old Anna Shumik, a violist and student of the Gnesin Academy of Music. “If my playing wasn’t perfect, anyone could hear it. But I risked it and made the recording in the special studio in Moscow (which contracted with Google for the purpose), and uploaded it on YouTube.”

    Now Shumik is an avid web user: she watches archive rehearsals at YouTube and downloads the music sheets. She says the web gives her great opportunities to find one-time gigs by surfing through the listings. Apart from studying, she works in the Cinematography Symphony Orchestra, which records music for Russian movies, and sometimes plays at weddings.


    After the victory, violist Anna Shumik (sitting outside the Gnesin Academy of Music) became a local celebrity at her school.

    Alexey Zavgorodnyi, a 23-year-old violinist studying at the Maimonides State Jewish Academy in Moscow, works in a drama theater. Zavgorodnyi admits that before participating in the contest, he wasn’t a frequent web user. He had to register at YouTube for the first time to upload the video and asked his friend to help him with mashing the bio-video.


    To upload his video recording, Alexey Zavgorodnyi registered at YouTube for the first time: in 4 months he’d star in TV reports.

    He also helped another participant, Anna Shemyakina, starring in her video as the guy turning the pages while she plays. Back then, Zavgorodnyi couldn’t imagine that in four months he would be hosting TV crews that had come to interview him in his home.

    “I doubted I would win,” he said, smiling, “as I didn’t meet the requirements in the second lap. I played none of the pieces which were offered to the musicians by the organizing committee, and performed the cadence at my choice.” Well, people at Google appreciated Zavgorodnyi’s creativity and audacity. And they might have liked his YouTube profile name — cdefgahb — the musical note scale.

    Now the young violinist has a Facebook profile, and it’s a great way, he said, to communicate with those numerous international musicians whom he met in NYC and with whom he performed at Carnegie Hall on April 15. Before getting to know each other in New York, the winners established a closed online community where they discussed the program and details of the coming concert. Everybody was inspired to meet up; the musicians sounded better offline than in recording, because some of them hadn’t used high quality video cameras to film their videos.

    Music Breaks Down Language Barriers

    The virtual auditioning brought very positive results. Objectively, the most talented players were selected. All the winners — and those were from countries all over the world, including Romania, Ukraine, China, Hong Kong, Australia, Hungary, etc. — were high professional. Guided by a virtual conductor on the screen in their homes, empty concert halls, doorways and in the yards by their houses, they all tried to perform at their best.

    Shumik and Zavgorodnyi were both born in the Northern part of Russia and had moved to Moscow in their adolescence, as they found out when meeting each other for the first time in Google’s Russian office. Last April, they both visited the U.S. for the first time in their lives. Beside having a wonderful tourist experience, they also mastered their performing skills by participating in master-classes.

    “We were rehearsing from 10 am to 10 pm,” said Zavgorodniy, “Working hard. And there were no language barriers: we speak the same language — forte, piano, iminuendo, ritenuto…”

    All the musicians signed the poster which is now hanging on the wall in the Carnegie Hall.

    Both musicians became local celebrities at their colleges and received congratulations from their deans. “In New York we felt we were making history,” said Zavgorodniy, “It was also the only concert where spectators were allowed to take pictures.”

    Back in Moscow, Shumik watches the videos submitted by other violists who participated in the contest. Though they didn’t win, she says, it’s great to see how different musicians are playing the same musical part. It’s like distance learning.

    Tagged: digital auditioning eroica internet symphony #1 susan boyle youtube youtube symphony orchestra
    • liza

      Sasha…that was awesome!!!!…

    • Thanks so much for the behind-the-scenes on this!

    • Isn’t the “horror-movie plastic mask” really a storm trooper??

    • Alexander Zolotarev

      Thanks so much! It was great working on this piece!

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