BY SARA LONDON
Roll over, Beethoven--tell Tchaikovsky this news: Musicians at Mount Holyoke can now practice virtually anywhere at the simple push of a button--in a Gothic cathedral, a baroque concert hall, a vast arena, or a modern recital hall. It happens in a chamber called the "V-Room." V as in "virtual" acoustics. The new Pratt Hall installation just might be the most innovative practice technology since Beethoven popularized the metronome.
Here's how it works: You're practicing Bach's Sonata in G Minor for solo violin. Your goal is to achieve the melodic and emotional lucidity that constitutes ultimate Bach perfection for an upcoming concert in Pratt's performance hall. You dream of someday playing in Carnegie Hall, even touring Europe, perhaps debuting at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. To prepare for these wide-ranging acoustical environments, you enter Pratt Hall's new V-Room, a roughly ten-by-eleven-by-seven-foot cubicle with a perforated steel-paneled ceiling and walls that mask embedded speakers and microphones. You close the heavy double-paned glass door and then select one of nine location buttons on the wall panel. As you begin to play, your own sounds will be heard in a simulation of "ambiance sound." In other words, you will begin to hear the precise depth, resonance, and echo of the space you selected.
Gesheya "Sheya" C. Meierdierks-Lehman '03, who has been playing the violin since the age of four, was among the first Mount Holyoke students to practice in the V-Room, located in the basement of Pratt Hall. Her favorite setting is the large recital hall "because it carries the natural sound waves through the space, making it seem as though you have a super ringing tone." In other settings, "notes linger, meshing with others" and "mistakes echo all around you for what seems like an eternity." The arena setting seems less appropriate for "faster gypsy pieces," she finds, but ideal for "mournful ballads." Each setting calls for experimentation with "tone production and clarity of speed." Ultimately, says Meierdierks-Lehman, "the facility will be very helpful for making much-needed adjustments in style before arriving at a 'foreign' space on the stressful day of a performance."
Meierdierks-Lehman's violin teacher is Linda Laderach, associate professor of music at Mount Holyoke and an accomplished professional violinist. She was the primary force behind the College's V-Room acquisition, which was part of a major Pratt construction and renovation project completed this fall. Two years ago, Laderach visited a V-Room in Boston and was impressed with the the unique educational benefits of what the room's developer refers to as "variable, active acoustics."
Laderach notes that she herself has recently performed in such varied locations as "an ambassador's residence in Paris, churches of different sizes, and in large auditoriums--spaces that call for very different playing styles." But most students, she says, "are not yet aware of the adjustments such locations demand. We need to educate them, to prepare them for performing in a wide range of environments. With the V-Room, we're able to do this."
Pratt's V-Room is the first of its kind in the Five College consortium. In fact, only a handful of V-Rooms exist on the East Coast. For Laderach, the facility reflects exciting ingenuity in the world of acoustical technology. "The V-Room is a tangible example of how technology can be used to enhance learning in the same way that the mirror, metronome, tape recorder, and video do."
In most respects, the V-Room resembles a basic practice room, with its computerized mechanics hidden outside the space. The student simply flicks the "On" switch and selects a button. The College installed the largest unit available, so small ensembles may also utilize the space, and the room may provide a valuable tool for Mount Holyoke's speaking program as well.
Meierdierks-Lehman anticipates that once "the secret is out, open practice times for the V-Room will be few and far between. Perhaps the room will be so successful," she says, "that we will need to have more than one." In the meantime, the high-tech chamber provides a singular advantage that will give Mount Holyoke musicians much more than a virtual edge in the competitive world of performing arts.