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'They recorded in bathrooms and garages': How a chart-topping orchestra released chart hits during lockdown

We go behind the scenes with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra.

Stephen Kelly's drums are now in his spare room.
Stephen Kelly's drums are now in his spare room.

PastedImage-61327 The orchestra recorded their parts remotely for their recording of N17 with Tolü Makay.

THE WHOLE POINT of an orchestra is that it’s a large group of musicians – its members are supposed to play together, and feed off the music each other is making.

So what happens when a pandemic hits? That was the question facing the RTÉ Concert Orchestra in March 2020 – and it’s now been a full year without meeting properly, aside from a couple of socially-distanced recordings.

It’s an unnatural state for the orchestra, which was formed in 1948 and has performed at Eurovision Song Contests, on the score for Oscar-winning movies, and at numerous operas, as well as being featured on RTÉ shows like the Late Late Show and the High Hopes Choir.

But through the pandemic, its members have been able to not just remain productive, but be responsible for a hit single and numerous streamed events.

With two more filmed events due to be broadcast this month (including one tonight), we chatted to the RTÉ Concert Orchestra’s general manager Joe Csibi, percussionist Steve Kelly and the orchestra’s leader and violinist Mia Cooper to find out how they do it.

From rehearsal to shutdown

Csibi Joe sound desk March 2021 (1) Joe Csibi

Csibi had been in the job for just under nine months when the pandemic hit. It was a less-than-ideal situation, as they were in the midst of rehearsing an opera.  

“The day we were rehearsing the opera Carmen the news came we were shutting down. That was it – game over,” he said. “We went into lockdown and really had to pivot and find new ways of doing things.”

As the weeks past, the members watched as the live entertainment business was “crushed completely”, he said.

The orchestra “works best as a team – the members lean on each other psychologically”, said Csibi. 

You miss the company, first and foremost, all the people that you enjoy going to work with, there’s a good sense of fellowship, of camaraderie in the orchestra generally.

All of the members had to get set up at home. They were given a click track and a track to play along to, for their pitching and timing. How it works now is that they make the recordings, send them in via Dropbox, and then a “brilliant, talented engineer” puts “the jigsaw together”.

It all takes a huge amount of work, which is why it’s remarkable then that during the past year they were able to release the chart-topping N17 single, with Tolü Makay on vocals.

“It hit number one and was released and commercially recorded, which was amazing when you consider the orchestra doing it in their bathrooms, garages, living rooms, and it translated into this beautiful piece. I can’t tell you the amount of work that went into it,” said Csibi. 

picture-kinlan-photography Recording while socially distanced, late last year.

When restrictions loosened before Christmas, they were able to record a number of shows together. “We sat at 2.5m apart and everyone wore masks. The woodwind section, if they didn’t have to play they put masks on. Everyone was so aware and so conscious of the parameters around what we were doing. Their level of positivity was fantastic.”

Csibi said that the musicians are extremely dedicated, even to the point of bringing instruments on holiday. It’s not the kind of job where you take weeks – or months – off practicing. For this reason it was important to keep the members stimulated, so they started off doing remote recordings using their phones. They then upgraded to better microphones.

They’re hoping to be back in the studio – socially distanced – for June, if restrictions allow. They’re also planning for live events next year.  

“From the musicians’ point of view, they feel a duty of care to the public to broadcast music and try to keep spirits up,” said Csibi. 

He said they’re lucky to be part of RTÉ: “If we were an orchestra that was self-run, self-governed, we’d be reliant for funding from other bodies and that might be difficult. Right now I have friends in London in various orchestras that have shut down and done nothing, or come back and are struggling to get back on their feet.”

‘Horrible self-scrutiny’

20210401_132417 Mia Cooper at home

Mia Cooper, violinist, said that it was “pretty extreme going from having a soprano blasting in your ear to making music at home” when they had to stop rehearsals of Carmen.

She records in her spare room. “At first it was a bit of a novelty,” she said, but recording at home means they are “under horrible self-scrutiny”. Normally they rely on the conductor or managing director for quality control. “Suddenly we’ve got this awful scrutiny of hearing ourselves recorded on not-great devices.”

Getting the new mics made it easier. But being away from the orchestra can affect how they play. For example, without fellow musicians around, it can be hard to tell “how this crochet is: is it a full crochet? Is it heavy? It can be played a thousand different ways, it depends on the context.”

Sections of the orchestra set up WhatsApp groups to discuss the finer points of the music.

While there’s been “a lot of guesswork”, Cooper said “it’s been fun too, the bonding through adversity, and there’s been a lot of craic on the first violin WhatsApp group – like when someone’s best take is interrupted by a delivery van from O’Briens [off licence]“.

The recording has to be worked around everyday life – Cooper said some members find it hard to record on a Thursday, for example, because the bin collection could appear at any time. 

Working in a studio in RTÉ there are no windows so you can’t be distracted by anything or disturbed, you’re kind of in the zone. Getting in the zone when you’ve just done the dishwasher and that sort of thing… you are distracted. It was hard forcing yourself to find half an hour and get a good take in that time.

Because of the way they record now, the “magic happens after”, which is “a shame”, said Cooper. She’s been a member since 2006 and said this is the biggest challenge the orchestra has ever faced. 

“We were recording before Christmas, we were allowed come together in the RDS but still 2m apart and following all the health guidelines. All your instincts for leaning over to your desk parter and giving a bowing, all the nitty gritty things, were impossible.”

It’s hard, too, to communicate emotions with masks on. “It’s very odd. It’s great obviously that everything is recorded but I miss the good old concerts where things are not recorded. Live, you can take risks because you’re not worried about posterity.”

She said that for freelance musicians in general, the last year has been tough. “We’ve all shared a sort of identity crisis,” said Cooper, emphasising how much they miss the chemistry of a live gig. 

“Even the idea of doing a duet at the moment is completely luxurious, let alone playing with 45 people.”

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‘A bit bizarre’

Stephen Kelly (1) Stephen Kelly's drums are now in his spare room.

Drummer Stephen Kelly described the last year as “a bit bizarre, because obviously nobody joins an orchestra to play on your own. The whole point is to play together in a large ensemble, playing music that can only be played in an ensemble”.

Like Cooper, he found recording at home alone completely different to his usual pattern. “You get no feedback – it’s very hard to know if what you’re doing is right,” he said. “But when you hear the results, it’s magic. There we all are.”

He said that the orchestra “haven’t stopped since the pandemic started”.

“I don’t know of any orchestras doing as much as we’re doing,” he said. 

Whatever about playing your violin at home, playing drums daily is a whole other ballgame. “I have a garage at the side of my house so thankfully it’s semi-detached, and the drum is in here and a microphone that’s hooked up to the computer. So I’ll set it up in the garage and bash away with the drums, whatever we have to do that day,” explained Kelly.

I do have great neighbours so that’s really important for drummers, that you can do it in the house. I don’t have any kids so at least I can do it whenever. 

But it’s not always easy: “If a truck goes past, or people are talking or the postman calls, you can hear them. There is no good time to do it, you just have to do it and hope nothing happens.”

This is a whole new ballgame especially for people on my street, I think they’ve never heard as much drumming.

He gets his wife to make sure there is no loud music on when he records – and that she doesn’t even turn the kettle on. “You have to make sure everyone is OK with the recording taking place.” It’s a far cry from recording in the studio. 

But for all the difficulties, it’s all worth it, said Kelly. 

“We all adapted pretty quick to get it done and it’s fun in a way to do because we’re churning out stuff for the public, for people to have a listen to, hopefully by way of distraction,” he said.

“Some really good stuff has come out of it. Even in a pandemic we’ve managed to forge new relationships with new artist and new arrangers. And hopefully then the result will be we’ll continue that when we’re done but in a live setting.”

His favourite moment? Playing on his own in the middle of the Croke Park pitch, wearing the Cork jersey, for a special recording of the Sunday Game theme

“You’d love 80k people cheering you on,” he laughed. 

Upcoming gigs

The RTÉ Concert Orchestra has two events coming up. The RTÉ Concert Orchestra performs John Lennon: To mark John Lennon’s 40th anniversary, the RTÉ Concert Orchestra teamed up with Andrea Corr, Jerry Fish, James Vincent McMorrow, Liam Ó Maonlaí, Faye O’Rourke and conductor Gavin Murphy. Saturday 17 April, 10.55pm, RTÉ One

The RTÉ Concert Orchestra Performs: The Musicals. Top musical theatre talent Killian Donnelly, Susan McFadden and Muirgen O’Mahony join the RTÉ Concert Orchestra and David Brophy for showstoppers from Oklahoma!, The King and I, The Sound of Music, West Side Story,  Company, Les Misérables, Phantom of the Opera and more. Saturday 24 April, 11.20pm, RTÉ One

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