Cleveland Institute of Music Orchestra dons GoPro cameras during Severance Hall concert

By Zachary Lewis, The Plain Dealer

February 4, 2016 - Time for GoPro to print new instruction booklets. For the company's trademark line of action cameras, the Cleveland Institute of Music has found an entirely new use.

Forget diving, mountain biking and surfing, GoPro's standard applications. Down at CIM, through a program titled "Perspectives," musicians are using the cameras to share their views of sitting in an orchestra and playing on one of the most beautiful stages in the world.

"Most people have no sensation of what it's like," said Alan Bise, the school's director of recording arts and services. "It's a thrilling thing to do, and it's hard to describe to someone who hasn't done it. We're hoping to bring that experience a little closer to people."

Picture the scene the evening of Wednesday, Feb. 3, at Severance Hall, home of the Cleveland Orchestra.

In most respects, the concert resembled a typical performance of Stravinsky's ballet "The Firebird": The CIM Orchestra took the stage, followed shortly thereafter by conductor Carl Topilow.

Only in addition to tuxes, gowns and instruments, 12 students also sported GoPro cameras, on their heads. Topilow himself wore one around his waist.

Conspicuous they were not. In fact, depending on one's seat, height and level of engagement with the performance, one might not even have noticed them. To the sharp-eyed viewer, however, it looked as if a group of miners had joined the orchestra.

"Once you get started, you don't really think about it," said Topilow of his camera. "There's a lot else going on."

Forgetting was a little harder for the students, whose cameras, about the size of matchboxes, were strapped prominently to their foreheads.

While the devices didn't interfere with their playing, and the performance proved a success, the musicians said they found themselves behaving differently as a result of the cameras, stabilizing their bodies and gazing at their instruments and colleagues more often than usual, so as to generate clearer, more interesting footage.

"We're kind of like recording engineers as we do this," said violinist Brian Allen, a late addition to the project. "They're healthy things to be thinking about."

There was method to the madness. Bise said his plan is to stitch together footage from the cameras later this month into one seamless, first-person "Firebird," a colorful, solo-filled work ripe for filming, then publish the video on YouTube and use it as a tool for recruitment and education.

It's not exactly a new idea. The use of GoPro cameras is simply a modern, technological twist on an age-old desire to welcome outsiders into the world of classical performance. For years, orchestras have made valiant attempts to share by raffling off chances to sit onstage or even to conduct.

[W]e have the technology to put people right in there, as members of the orchestra. -- Alan Bise

The difference here, of course, is that this effort affects far more than just one lucky winner. Thousands, in fact, stand to reap the benefits.

If all goes well, Bise said, CIM will consider filming more concerts this way and branching into the realms of opera and chamber music. Another possibility, he said, is streaming and displaying GoPro video live during performances.

"It's not an exact science," Bise explained. "There are a lot of artistic decisions to be made. But we have the technology to put people right in there, as members of the orchestra."

The students have other aims. They're less interested in generating candidates for their school than they are in transmitting their love of classical music and playing with their peers.

Specifically, GoPro cellist Sophie Benn said she hopes her camera conveys some of the camaraderie she feels playing in the CIM orchestra, the joy of participating in a grand, communal act.

"There's something really magical about being surrounded by people all doing the same thing, working together," Benn said. "Anything that helps people appreciate what we do, I love it."