McGill Reporter

Learning the strings

April 11, 2002 - Volume 34 Number 14

Photo PHOTO: Owen Egan
Pinchas Zukerman instructs Véronique Mathieu

Violinist and National Art Centre Orchestra music director Pinchas Zukerman took a sip of his coffee and leaned forward, looking intently at music student VÈronique Mathieu as she held her bow above her violin, ready for action. "Presto?" she asked. "Presto," he said and nodded slightly. She played a few quick ascending notes. He stopped her, saying, "more staccato, like this," picked up his violin and demonstrated.

Zukerman then showed Mathieu a thumb-strengthening exercise to do "on the bus, on the phone, at the movies -- don't hold hands with your boyfriend!" he laughed. "Tell him you're busy."

It could be any master class between virtuoso and disciple. Except for Mathieu was in McGill's Instructional Communications Centre TV studio, and Zukerman in a National Research Council studio in Ottawa, a couple of hundred kilometres away. This was McGill's first public "Ultra Videoconferencing," in which video and audio are transmitted as quickly as a violin maestro can wince at a wrong note.

Ultra Videoconferencing was conceived as part of the McGill Advanced Learnware Network Project, funded by Canarie Inc. and Cisco Inc. The project is headed by ICC director John Roston; Wieslaw Woszczyk, director of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music Media and Technology; and Jeremy Cooperstock of the electrical and computer engineering department. Research associate Stephen Spackman developed the transmission software.

Existing videoconferencing technology, often used for business meetings, needs a transmission delay to compress the signal so it can fit conventional bandwidth. McGill uses a special high bandwidth Internet that connects major research institutions.

There appears to be a slight echo, a result from the sound transmission bouncing between the microphones at the two different sites. The team is working on reducing the transmission time so that it seems as though you're in a large room where sound travels from front to back. Roston says that already, over distances such as between Montreal and Ottawa, "it's capable for the audio to be so fast that people can play together."

The digital wide-screen SDI video, a 50" flat panel plasma display, is remarkably clear. Roston's assistant, Adam Finkelstein, explained "It's like a window. Not a TV -- that's the hardest thing to understand. It's like a window between here and Ottawa."

Zukerman is excited about the possibilities. Top teachers all over the world will be able to instruct their pupils in all kinds of hands-on techniques, and provide instant feedback. He has asked the team to look into setting it up so he can teach remotely in two places at once -- McGill and the Manhattan School of Music -- so that the students could benefit from sitting in on each other's classes. "Remember, this is incredible!" he urged." This is not just talking to a banker in Zurich!"