On-Line Concert Is Next-Best Thing to Being There
Not every parent can make it to every concert of a child's school choir or band. But parents and other fans of young musicians in the Clark County, Nev., schools have a unusual alternative: If they can't be there in person--and if they have a computer linked to the Internet--they can hear live concerts on-line.
The district has aired about a dozen live events, featuring bands, choirs, and marching bands, since May.
The latest concert, on Nov. 19, was of the districtwide middle school honor choir.
Anyone can listen to a concert by pointing an Internet browser to the district's World Wide Web page, at www.ccsd.net, and clicking on the concert listing.
The user must have an Internet connection and a Macintosh or Pentium-class computer that is equipped with RealPlayer software, a free version of which is available at the Web site of Seattle-based RealNetworks Inc., at www.real.com. Concerts are also archived at the district site, where they can be heard after the fact.
The archive also offers video segments of some performances, such as marching-band routines.
Broadcasting over the Internet seems tailored to Clark County, which has 250 schools and 200,000 students scattered across 8,000 square miles, including the city of Las Vegas and a U.S. Air Force base.
"We're a 24-hour town," said Judi K. Steele, the manager of the district's development and educational improvement office. Her staff conceived of Internet broadcasts as a way to help overcome the long driving distances and the prevalence of shift work, which often stand between a parent and a 7:30 p.m. performance.
Bruce P. "Chip" Daley, an administrative specialist in the office's technology section, said the goal is to discover creative uses of technology.
"We're supposed to go out and find interesting high-quality activities, to use the technology in a new and creative way to merge and develop new types of collaborations," he said.
To mount a broadcast, he sends two people to the concert site, each with a laptop computer. The site must have an Internet connection over a modem that can transmit at 56 kilobits per second; a high-capacity ISDN or T-1 line is preferable.
One of the laptops has a sound card and a free software program, RealEncoder 5, which encodes the audio for live "streaming" over the Internet.
The other laptop is used to monitor the Internet connection and see how many people are listening.
To broadcast, the district also had to install RealNetwork's software on its network server, at a cost of $5,400. The software license allows a maximum of 100 people to listen on-line at any one time.
A free version of the software allows only 25 listeners at one time.
In practice, the 100-user capacity is bigger than it sounds. Concert-surfers tend to come and go; as many as 150 have tuned in to a single concert, Mr. Daley said.
The bandwidth available to the district also limits the number of listeners and the quality of the live broadcast. "You could easily fill up a T-1 line," said Troy J. Miller, the district's "Webmaster."
At the more modest rate of 16 kilobits per second, the sound quality during the Nov. 19 concert was agreeable, with a few fleeting gaps--apparently due to congestion in cyberspace--though not the near-cd quality that is technically possible.
The archived concerts are encoded at higher quality for different transmission speeds, Mr. Daley said.
But he doesn't make the sound quality too high. The reason: Individual schools have contracts with companies to press CDs of their concerts, and the district doesn't want those deals undermined by competition from the archives. For the same reason, listeners are not allowed to save a copy of concerts on their own computers.
But listeners aren't quibbling about those limitations, at least not yet.
The recent broadcast by the honor choir might not have had the highest sound quality, but it offered the verisimilitude of being there.
The obligatory introductions, the stray mike noises, and the reverberations of feet on the stage and climbing the risers gave way to the impressive sound of 40 harmonious middle school voices in a 60-minute program.
Afterwards, school officials said they received a grateful e-mail message from the PTA president in a remote village that had five students taking part in the concert, which was held in Las Vegas.
Another note came from a Canadian man who was thrilled to be able to hear his nephew perform. And the archives were tapped by some 50 listeners over the Thanksgiving holiday, Mr. Daley said.
School officials have ambitions to expand the service by hiring students from the district's "cybercorps" to be technicians, initiating broadcasts from remote schools, broadcasting major high school sporting events, and showing college recruiters video auditions of student dancers and other performers at the district's Fine Arts Academy.
For the next live broadcast, an orchestra and 150 choristers from throughout the district will perform Handel's "Messiah" on Dec. 11 at 7 p.m. Pacific time.
--Andrew Trotter [email protected]
Vol. 18, Issue 15, Page 7