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Zooming OR how to be sociable and busy when going out isn’t convenient

This blog is the first of mine with no illustrations. After a year of using virtual meetings I doubt very much whether anyone needs to see screen-shots of how to schedule a zoom meeting or yet another screenful of participants’ faces in their individual rectangles.

I first heard of zoom in April 2020 when a friend told me that it was a possible way for her daughter to continue her music teaching. This was a total surprise to me for a variety of reasons. Firstly, how do you play music with other people online? And secondly what is zoom anyway? Is it another version of skype or what?

In no time at all we were all trying it out.

But there were so many things to learn. Do you need to pay? What does ‘turn on original sound’ mean? How do you avoid having one person (the one who made a noise, maybe you even) filling up your screen when you want to see all the people in the zoom call? Don’t all speak at once – raise a hand. Use chat, etc. etc.

Here are a few familiar scenarios: ‘you’re muted’, ‘we can’t see you’, ‘you’ve frozen’, ‘you’re sharing your screen’, ‘you’re still not sharing your screen’, ‘sorry, I was distracted and forgot to let you in’. In some groups faffing about with unfamiliar buttons can cause a big delay but I have been in other zoom calls that have run incredibly smoothly. It depends partly on the confidence and skill of the person running the meeting and also on their ability to manage (or even sweep aside) the problems that others are experiencing.

At the start I printed out an article from The Times that explained the basics of all the online meeting platforms. The zoom section told me about background view (messy kitchen with washing up in sight versus neat study lined with erudite books!), angle of the screen and distance from it etc. It also provided details on setting up a (free) account, then scheduling meetings. So in theory all was set for a successful first meeting. But two thirds of my life passed without using computers at all so getting zoom right first time was not instinctive. It is incredibly impressive how many over 65 year olds are now totally competent zoom users when previously many of them failed with simple operations such as accessing emails on their phone.

My two sisters were also learning to use zoom so it was possible to test it with them before something more time critical was scheduled. They also helped when I decided to change to zooming on my iPad after a long spell of only using my laptop. Most importantly, at an early stage they pointed out that they could barely hear me when I used my laptop (admittedly it is 8 years old now), so IT savvy son Jim immediately lent me a hand held mic. I now have a fully functioning system with a choice of (hand free) mics depending on whether it is just me (headphones) or Patrick joins me and we both participate.

That’s enough background….

So what do I use zoom for? First and foremost, I do not sit and listen to lectures and talks, although I could as there are plenty available. My two main uses of zoom have been to keep in contact with people who I’ve not been able to meet and to play and sing in music groups.

Over the months I have had zoom teas and coffees with friends. We log in and have cake/biscuits and tea/coffee. This is a good relaxing starting point for talking about whatever we like, from books, to families, to walks we have done and so on.

As for my family, zoom has been an excellent way to keep in touch whether with those living far away or locally (when lockdown and/or weather means we can’t meet, even in the garden). One of the highlights was a zoom session on Boxing Day afternoon with 27 members of the family, including 8 children who made intermittent appearances. Henry and his family in Canada were travelling in the car on the way for a day of winter outdoor activities so we could see them bowling along as we all talked. The rest of us in the UK were in our respective homes. We have never had so many of us ‘in one place’ at Christmas.

Now for music – this normally depends on having people in the same room so they can see and hear each other as they play or sing together. When we are all housebound, as we have been during the covid months, this cannot happen.  Over zoom it is possible to hear people, as long as it is one person at a time. So playing or singing together in the normal way is impossible. However it is possible to play duets as a friend and I discovered. One of us plays, unmuted and the other one mutes and plays their part at the same time which creates a feeling of playing in the normal way. The significant difference of course is that the unmuted player cannot hear the other part and has to lead fairly confidently so player two can follow. That is why swapping over works – each person has a chance to lead (unmuted) and to play as though it were the real thing (muted). It takes a bit of practice but after a while it works.

With more than 2 people playing or singing the arrangement has to be different. Basically there has to be a ‘backing track’ to play along with. Now we have had over a year of this all the ‘backing tracks’ are relatively sophisticated. For the madrigal group that I sing with the organiser has perfected her IT skills and has collected a large number of pieces many of which are backed by accompaniments that she has created herself. We mute and sing our own parts as the music plays. It is a golden opportunity to try other parts too. I am normally soprano (top line, often with the tune) but have taken this chance to sing an underneath part, generally alto.

The recorder group that I help to run started with some fairly unsophisticated short zoom sessions. They were short because, with three or more participants, a ‘meeting’ held by someone without a zoom licence is restricted to about 40 minutes. They were unsophisticated as the best ‘backing tracks’ that we had were from choral wiki so we were adapting madrigals etc for recorders to play. However things swiftly changed thanks to two members of the group who became skilled making backing tracks and producing properly written out music for recorder ensemble on their computers. To add to this one of the country’s leading recorder players decided to produce pieces for recorder ensemble on a weekly basis that she conducted and assembled by playing all the parts. There is now a stunning collection that has made playing the recorder via zoom a really enjoyable (albeit different) experience.

There are other groups that I have joined via zoom over the past year. Two of them (a book group and a discussion group on biographies) are part of U3AC, an organisation that quickly took to zoom with a very large number of most successful courses, events, talks etc. Although some people do not like meeting online, there has been a very high level of attendance for many activities such as lectures (which previously involved travelling to the venue then the nightmare of finding parking). If we have to be locked down then it is wonderful to have some way to see and meet the members of each group even though it is virtual not face to face. There have been several initiatives to replace real socialising such as an informal zoom session instead of going to the coffee shop with friends after the ‘biographies’ discussions.

I have also been involved in a weekly discussion group (7-10 members) that focussed on outdoors.  It was a collaborative arrangement where everyone contributed their thoughts and ideas. We all became skilled at screen sharing our presentations as well as photos and videos. A group this size meant that there was time for everyone to speak in the 90 minutes sessions whereas very large groups can be less interactive.

There have been several one-off zoom sessions that I have joined over the year including a talk by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, a local quiz and a concert. It is a remarkably good way to keep in touch with what is going on and to enjoy a variety of activities that otherwise would be unavailable when venues of all types are closed.

Many people I know have done zoom exercise classes for pilates, yoga, dance etc. My exercise has taken the form of working in the garden and allotment, and when possible some walks – so nothing on zoom. Nor have I used zoom for teaching or playing games with friends online, useful/fun though that can be.

I am very keen for the benefits of zoom to continue after the constraints linked to this coronavirus pandemic have gone. When it is difficult to travel, whether long distances or just locally, zoom can be great. It is also a very good way to interact with people with no risk of any infection, whether a common cold or something more serious. And using zoom to keep in regular ‘visual’ contact with people is a definite improvement on phoning.

So what will happen in future?  Will zooming continue once it is permissible to resume face to face contact? I hope so.

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