“OK, we’re live in 5, 4, 3, _ , _ , _ .” 

Eric Pearson doesn’t say “2, 1, 0,” in order to avoid the possibility of broadcasting his voice right at the beginning of the live show. But everyone involved, from the emcee across town to the live performer across the country, have been trained and rehearsed in a minimum of four hours of tech rehearsals to know when to begin, to know which remote-controlled camera to look at, to understand when still slides and video assets will be played so they can take a break, tune, or blow dry their wet canvas so they can apply another layer of paint in the upcoming live segment.

The whole issue of audio bleed is a real one, because in spite of the amount of technology involved in these shows, it doesn’t always feel like an exact science. Eric has built high-powered custom computers that talk to a high-powered shippable on-site computer called a TriCaster, through which interfaces an array of cameras, microphones, audio gear, effects, and OBS software. That allows audio and video to be captured and mixed, more or less locally, piloted from another state, but also preserves the ability to “switch scenes” to Zoom where the emcee and other hosts appear, or to what is typically over a dozen premade videos, all before pushing the single stream out to YouTube where, nine to twenty-five seconds later, the audience sees and hears the result.

With so many systems talking to one another through the internet, which is variable in speed and stability, it’s best not to say “2, 1, 0,” at the end of your count down.

“Eric continually astounds me by what he brings to the table for each ACG production.”

Jess Griggs, ACG’s Director of Music and Community Engagement who has been on the production team for every show, commented.

“The quality of every performance is always better than the previous concert. I’ve worked in live sound, radio, television and in recording studios, and I can say with certainty Eric Pearson is the most hard-working and innovative person I’ve ever worked with for concert production. Without Eric our streams would not be possible.”

We wanted to dive deep. We wanted to learn a bit more about the technology and innovation that has made possible what will be, on December 12th, thirty live-stream experiences since the pandemic began. We also wanted to learn more about Eric Pearson, his story, and what led to the unique combination of skills, drive and resilience necessary to innovate and lead in a time of crisis.

The Technology

A great place to start is to watch Eric’s recent interview on GFAtv. He starts talking 35 minutes and 40 seconds in! In the video Eric sits at his “Command Center,” and discusses audio, video, lighting, and a range of other considerations in some pretty spectacular detail. He even controls the lighting temperature of the room from his cell phone. Pretty awesome. If you are considering creating your own live-stream concert events, this is the video for you!

ACG Streaming Concert Technology

We asked Eric to share a bit about this whole experience, and the technology itself:

“The quarantine times surrounding this pandemic have required tremendous flexibility, we’ve had to pivot quickly. I recently asked Vern Graner, our Concert Technical Assistant, ‘Can you imagine another concert presenter being on the phone with an artist and their internet service provider at nine o’clock at night, guiding them through upgrading their service, because the show is teetering on the edge of not happening?’ There’s a lot of going beyond what most might consider reasonable expectations, but that’s the hallmark of creative innovation, especially now. It’s worth it to put in the extra effort to make our experiences magical.

“I wasn’t an expert in video or streaming production before February of this year. But I saw it was something I could do, because of my computer and recording background. When we needed to pivot to online productions I spent hours every week – and I still do – watching videos, tutorials, and reading e-books on everything from Open Broadcasting Software to changing aperture and iso settings on cameras. At the start of this interview I was switching over to the new computer I just built to better handle the streaming requirements for our shows. We’re doing things that no one else is doing. We’re pulling off shows—essentially with me and one other person in our homes—similar to much larger entities with production crews and trucks. People are trying to figure this out all over the country right now, and they’re really taking notice. I get emails at least twice a day asking for help.

“We have built two large flight cases. One is the Audio Network Box, and the other is the Video Box. The first box includes an MR-18 remote audio interface, Neumann KM-184 microphones, network gear, a Dell Optiplex micro-computer that runs the networking software, and has a virtual Windows Operating System so we can get in and deal with some of the networking and the audio patching. The second box has a NewTek video rig including a Pan-Tilt-Zoom Camera that’s totally remote-controlled, and a streaming box called a Tri-Caster. The Tri-Caster is industry-standard—ESPN, CNN, they all use Tri-Caster equipment—it allows us to control the cameras without being present. 

“The software is complicated, so I won’t get into all that detail, but Vern and I both have something called TailScale which is a Virtual Private Network (VPN) that basically creates a tunnel between us and the remote location and all our gear. For each show I also spin up a Custom Amazon Server (AWS) that acts as the mid-point for the stream. I pick up the “RTMP” stream at home using Open Broadcast Software (OBS) where I can add the other components like video and Zoom interviews. I’ve got a piece of hardware called a Stream Deck with 32 buttons, each of which takes me to a different pre-determined asset or video stream. So that allows for rapid switching between content. Finally, I stream the end-product out to YouTube for our audience to enjoy!

“What’s truly unique is that we have these mailable drop-boxes. Through a lengthy tech call with a local assistant, we can guide the set up. This solution has opened up new options in terms of what artists we can consider. We’re still limited to US locations, and people with high-quality and stable internet, but having this hardware means that we can work with anyone inside those parameters. And because we can control everything remotely, we don’t need to have a technical expert on hand – just someone who can plug some things in. We’ve been trying to make it as plug-n-play as possible, but if you look at the layout of cables in the Jiji picture, you can see it’s not quite as user-friendly as we’d like yet!

“I really don’t like things not working because we didn’t plan ahead. So we’ve got a second internet service, and we’ve got a person in another location who can pick up the stream in a couple of seconds and take over the show. He’s got the assets and the scenes, so we can finish a concert even if my power or internet goes down. I believe that if there’s something you can do, spend a little money, or prepare a little bit to prevent a foreseeable problem from happening, you should do it. In our case, it means we can preserve a beautiful experience for hundreds if not thousands of people.”


Eric Pearson: The Early Years

At ACG Eric’s official title is Director of Curriculum. He’s a classical guitarist with a music education degree. A ten-year veteran of ACG Music Education, he has now stepped into this new role as our Virtual Concert Wizard. We wanted to learn more about Eric, and how he came to have such a unique ability to focus on minute detail while nurturing such a wide array of interests and abilities at exactly the same time. Here’s what we learned about his early years. 

“Both my parents were musical. My mother was an accomplished pianist, my father was really into the Beatles. He knew all the Beatles music, every Christmas was Beatles books or CDs or the next tell-all book by their limo driver! So I was aware of rock music, certainly the Beatles, and also Chopin’s piano music. A couple times my parents tried to get me to start guitar or piano, but I wasn’t interested until sometime in middle school. We had guitar in Ms. Curtain’s music class. Middle school is when you form your opinions on musical style, and everyone’s social clique starts to be defined by the music you listen to. I got really into the grunge and rock, so I started playing electric guitar. Sadly, Eddie Van Halen just passed away. I actually owned a guitar tab book for several Van Halen albums, before I even owned a guitar. So I was learning how to take that system of notation apart before I even had an instrument in my hands. When I got my first guitar at fourteen I learned Eruption right off the bat. 

“I added jazz guitar because I got interested in harmony and intricacy. Classical guitar actually came through Eddie Van Halen as well, because Spanish Fly and Cathedral feature nylon string guitar. So I was taking lessons with three teachers at the same time for a while. Then I figured that to continue studying music you probably had to do classical guitar, so I focused more on that. I was in a small town and it was hard to get people together for rehearsals, so classical guitar as a solo instrument was easier to practice anyway.”

Eric Pearson: College

As we get into Eric’s college years it’s worth highlighting two aspects of the early story that seem to be predictive of the future. One is the mention of “taking apart” the system of tablature notation before owning a guitar, the other is the part about three lessons with three different teachers. Already, a voracious appetite for learning and the wherewithal to pursue it, were evident.

“I had been doing a lot of science, computer science, and engineering, and all the math available in high school, simultaneously. I remember when I went to community college program fair they had a folder for the Engineering Program and a folder for the Music Program. I picked up both. So I was in the physics laboratory at 6:30am everyday, doing my lab work – I made a special arrangement with the professor – because I couldn’t get there in the evenings when we had musical and band rehearsals. I was in six or more ensembles at that point. Because I was also the department assistant, I had keys to the facility. I was often there all night doing stuff in the recording studio. I was definitely into technology by then. I continued with physics, math, and sciences, and I was considering sound recording as a career pathway. But I was also interested in music education. I was really inspired by some of the teachers and mentors in my life, and I wanted to continue teaching.

“So it was all really up to scheduling! There was no way to do the recording major, and still make 8am music education classes. So I focused on education, and just spent a lot of time in the studios. I enjoyed helping out friends with their recordings, and we would check out the new gear at night in halls when no one else was around. 

“During all this I was also working for an organization called the Infinity Performing Arts program. I had been a student there in high school, and during community college and college, I taught 10-15 students and coached ensembles. My knowledge of Infinity spanned being a student, a private lesson teacher, an ensemble director, and eventually the Education Program Director. In 2008 our founder retired and I stepped in as interim Executive Director. It was wild for a year, learning how grants and budgeting and reporting works, but I knew every aspect of the program by then, so I was a logical person to step in.”

A Guitarist in a Non-Guitarist’s World

The intensity continued for Eric through graduate school. But a new important theme also emerges here, and that’s the relative lack of higher education pathways for guitar, especially with regard to music education. At the same time Eric was wrestling with this as a college student and prospective employee, ACG was publishing its classroom guitar curriculum online, GuitarCurriculum.com, and expanding the reach of its school programs. So the seeds were being planted for our pathways to converge.

“As a guitarist you’re not always a perfect fit in most music programs. They never knew what to do with me. Several weeks into my undergraduate degree they asked me what my primary instrument was. I told them “guitar,” and they replied, “Yes, but you need to have a teaching instrument, or direct choir.” I didn’t really have a band or orchestra background, but I had done a little bit of percussion, so I started taking lessons immediately to try and catch up on the years of experience that everyone else had. I don’t know how many classes and lessons I was taking at one time, but I think I had the most overloaded schedule at my undergrad, because I had to do like six percussion ensembles plus guitar, plus jazz, choir, and more. I was probably in twelve groups, with three to four hours of rehearsal a day. It was a lot, but it was a great experience. My point is that guitar is always the afterthought. So that makes it tough if you’re a guitarist, especially trying to do a music education degree. 

“There were no jobs in 2008 for a non-standard music school graduate in Western New York. There was no guitar in the state beyond a few individual programs. I’d see over a hundred applicants for a single teaching job. I had friends applying who were competing in the same pool with their own former music teachers.  It was obvious there wasn’t going to be a slot for me. 

“So I went to Ithaca College for graduate school. I had an intense graduate assistantship with a twelve-hour teaching course load. At the same time I was adjunct teaching at Cayuga Community College twice a week, and I was added to the roster to teach privately at Cornell.”

The Road to Austin

“In the summer of 2010, I had the good fortunate of going to Italy to study with Matteo Mela and Lorenzo Micheli in their summer festival. That was the same summer ACG hosted the Guitar Foundation of America in Austin. If I hadn’t gone to Italy, I probably would have been in Austin for GFA, since I had begun volunteering for GFA in 2009 for their Ithaca convention. Plus I wanted to visit Austin because people had told me by then that Austin had guitar teachers in public schools. That was a real eye-opening possibility for someone from the Northeast, because those programs with full-time guitar teachers just didn’t exist there. 

“A year later the GFA was in Columbus, Georgia. I was there helping out with stage direction, and I met Matt Hinsley. He was standing in line, waiting to register. I walked up and introduced myself. We had a conversation about guitar teaching and guitar in Texas, and he invited me to contact him if I wanted to learn more. So later that summer I reached out by email to see if there were any public school teaching positions in Texas, and his response was, ‘No, nothing we know of, but… we are looking for a part-time ensemble conductor for our adult groups. Would you be interested?’

“At the time, I was trying to put together several part-time jobs that would allow me to stay in Ithaca, so Matt’s offer got me thinking. I remember he asked, ‘How mobile are you? How quick could you get down to Texas?’ I told him I thought I could be on the road in three days. A friend helped me mount a hitch on my van, I loaded everything I needed, and started driving on August 10th, 2011.  

“I was in Oklahoma City getting gas when Matt called me and said, “Hey Eric, where are you?” And I told him. Then he asked, ‘How soon can you be in Austin?’ At that point we had not set a specific date. ‘Can you be here tomorrow morning?’ 

“I cut short the visit I’d planned with a friend in Dallas, left early the next morning for Austin, and drove straight to the ACG office where I met April Long, who was the Operations Director at the time. Everyone else, including Matt, was out of town, and a need had come up they hadn’t anticipated. So I just parked my van and trailer across several spots in the office parking lot, April drove me straight to my first teaching gig at St. Gabriel’s school, and I went to work!”

Austin Classical Guitar and Flexibility

Things happen fast at ACG, sometimes too fast! The organization has grown every year for twenty years. Creativity can be messy, showbiz is unpredictable, guitar education in public schools has been a bit like the wild west, and ACG has been on the frontier. So far in this story we’ve learned that Eric gets interested in things. When he gets fascinated by stuff he dives deep. He’s also no stranger to extremes and intensity. The messiness of ACG has provided endless opportunities for learning, innovation, and sometimes-wild extremes.

“Situations forcing flexibility, is definitely a theme in my life. I don’t know any other way to be. Because I’ve always been in situations where I’ve looked around, seen that something needed to be done, and noticed that no one else was jumping on it. I can think of many cases in school and in previous jobs where I’ve realized that—while I may not be the perfect person for a particular challenge—if I geared up and trained for it, then I could meet the need, be it grant writing, managing twenty-five teachers, or learning percussion. 

“You have a choice when you meet challenges. You can give up and do something else, or you can figure out what sort of training and self-learning you need in order to accomplish the thing. If I have any sort of pathology, it’s that I really don’t like giving up and failing. So if I have some resource to exchange for not failing, be it my sleep schedule, or time, or having to do ten different projects, or learn a new skill set, I tend to choose that exchange. Not since I worked in a restaurant in my teens, have I had a job where you just punch in, have people tell you what to do, and everything’s clear. It’s always been messy. I assume that’s often the case in the arts, and in education. The circles we’re in, and the career path we’re on, demands flexibility.”

Thank You Eric!

Thank you Eric! Austin Classical Guitar is a better organization for your knowledge, your flexibility, your innovation, your drive not to fail, and your insistence to deliver magical results. It’s safe to say we wouldn’t be the organization we are today without you.

And while this interview came about because of Eric’s heroic and singular work to develop our online streaming concert capabilities during this pandemic, we want to be sure and mention that—in addition to being a tremendous music educator—Eric is our Director of Curriculum and is primarily responsible for our two key online curriculum resources: GuitarCurriculum.com and our Braille lifelong learning resource LetsPlayGuitar.org.

We would like to take this opportunity also to say a special thanks to the Still Water Foundation, who gave an unexpected gift over the summer specifically to assist with our pivots to online concert presentation. Purchasing the gear Eric mentioned in this interview, along with hiring our support personnel, was made possible by that gift. 

Finally, we’d like to share our opening concert, from September, 26th, with maestro Pepe Romero. If you did not get to see the concert, or even if you did, we know you’ll love this magnificent experience, and be able to appreciate it even more, now that you know a bit about how it happened!