Eric Whitacre: Helping People See in Technicolor

Watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

When I was asked to comment on Eric Whitacre's TEDTalk, "A Virtual Choir 2000 Voices Strong" and think about "how collective action can influence our world -- from social media driving social change to the mystical possibilities of collective consciousness", an image of a Star Trek Borg Cube popped into my mind. It turns out, my mind's eye was a bit off in its perception.

In Star Trek's fictitious world, the Borg represent what happens when individuality is replaced with a pure collective consciousness that is 100 percent technological. There is no soul. There is no personal awareness. There is no hope. There are no dreams. There are just drones doing collective work driven by a collective goal to assimilate other cultures and ideas and, basically, take over the universe. When removed from the hive, a drone becomes anxious and doesn't function well. Its only goal is to reconnect with the collective to hear the voices of the others.
The vision of the Borg world is not too far off from the world Sherry Turkle warns of in her April 2012 TEDTalk, "Connected, but alone", based on her book "Alone Together". In that talk, Ms. Turkle makes a very compelling argument that our addiction to technological connection is at the sacrifice of true self and relationships. As she points out, true relationships are messy and in the moment, unpolished. But, online, digital relationships are polished, edited, what we want people to see. The end result of our quest to connect is we fail to attach. So, we become lonely.

What I found compelling about Mr. Whitacre's comments and his virtual choir project is the concept of connection as a way to find one's self and be part of something that triggers a sense of belonging in the individual. This was really a huge collection of solitary projects merged together to create one gigantic masterpiece. It allowed each participant to tap into their musical passions as well as be part of a musical group, although time displaced. Through social media such as Facebook, the project was able to link the participants so everyone could feel part of the bigger picture and not just a cog in the wheel. By Mr. Whitacre's descriptions, this was felt very powerfully by the participants. A true sense of community and belonging.

And, the numbers of participation from one Virtual Choir to another confirm the infectious nature of what he created:

-- March 21, 2010, Virtual Choir 1.0: "Lux Aurumque" - 185 voices from 12 countries. It has had 3.5 million views since that date.
-- April 6, 2011: Virtual Choir 2.0, "Sleep" - over 2,000 voices from 58 countries. 1.1 million views on YouTube since its debut.
-- April 2, 2012: Virtual Choir 3.0, "Water Music" - over 3,700 videos from 73 countries. It has had 5.4 million views to date on Whitacre's website so far with ½ million on YouTube.

The fact that the numbers and global reach is only intensifying with each passing Virtual Choir is testament that Mr. Whitacre may have created a bridge to allow people to go from the existence Turkle warned about to a more healthy existence she concluded with that we all know we want to live: a connected but engaged existence.

Whitacre's virtual choir offers what many musical groups do -- a sense of enrichment and belonging, a place to live out dreams not yet fulfilled. Add to that an element of participation without risk, without the overhead of setting aside time for performances or auditions that the asynchronous online aspect allows, the allure to participate is compelling to those seeking out positive ways to connect with others musically, and perhaps otherwise.

The virtual choirs allow people to do something they love in a world filled with connections that are otherwise devoid of true meaning, and with other like-minded people. Because of the time and place displacement, the project allows people to dip a toe into the pond a bit and try it out. With a positive outcome, the amount of views and the incredible beauty of the project that keeps people talking producing pride in the participants, the participants will be more likely to seek out other musical experiences, online and offline. In essence, the project helps pave the way to finding true, real world musical connections, the type that will produce true, real time meaning. It helps solidify that if you connect in the right way, with the right project, the world has great beauty, great meaning. And, it isn't lonely at all. That type of collective consciousness is incredibly powerful for it's positive influences on the participants and those around them!

The roots of Whitacre's virtual choir go way back to his college days, to his first choir rehearsal where he noted that "my entire life I had been seeing in black and white and suddenly everything was in shocking technicolor".

That moment put him on a path of discovery that lead him to discover a form of music he hadn't realized existed, to an education that included time at Juilliard and to where he is today. Just imagine what our kids lives could be like if we do the same for them...allow them to dream and find their moment of seeing in technicolor?

Sit down with your family and watch Virtual Choir 2.0 together. Even if you're not a fan of choir music, this is an experience worth seeing. Perhaps you'll even find a dash of technicolor in there you didn't notice before.

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