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By Mari Angulo
The Santa Fe Youth Symphony Association shifts classes online without skipping a beat, as students and instructors take advantage of online meeting platforms.
The first 10 to 15 minutes of any youth symphony rehearsal are dedicated to the commotion of setting up chairs and dozens of music stands as students laugh, greet each other, unpack their instruments and shuffle through sheet music. The parade of parents, section coaches and players simmers down as the conductor takes the podium and violins lead the tuning of instruments to initiate group play.
Fast forward to Spring 2020. A state of emergency, reminiscent of the last outlandish sci-fi novel you never read, rendered all events cancelled until further notice. Schools were closed, groups cancelled, and “non-essential” in-person activities were considered all but criminal. Stay-at-home orders had everyone sheltering in place with little to no contact from the outside world. Music halls fell silent. Against the backdrop of COVID-19, the scramble to set up music stands was — for some lucky musicians — replaced by notification sounds as students enter a virtual meeting room hosted by an ensemble conductor.
Some music educators leapt into learning new technology, practically overnight. At the Santa Fe Youth Symphony Association, the entire community of more than 300 students and instructors began taking advantage of online meeting platforms such as Zoom and Google Meets. While so much else in children’s lives has been thrown into limbo by the coronavirus, these young musicians continued to meet regularly with their peers and instructors, instruments in hand.
More than just a damage-control measure for exceptional times, virtual connection is providing new opportunities for students to go deeper into their music education. The shift from in-person classes and public performance to an online platform has allowed students more one-on-one attention to refine their skills, and created new space for individual creativity to flourish where students can write their own music. It has welcomed in a time to go deeper. The online learning context has allowed for targeted group-listening sessions, Q&As and interviews with composers and performers in the symphonic world, and new opportunities for students to write their own music.
Virtual play may never be a complete substitute for the full in-person musical experience, but pandemic times call for social-distancing measures. And while the virtual medium doesn't come without its shortcomings and a learning curve, it does offer strong benefits that may help shape the nonvirtual futures of music organizations and budding musicians.
In SFYSA’s elementary strings classes, designed for the youngest musicians, the first 10 minutes are reserved for logging on, tuning instruments and saying hello to friends. Another class that combines all levels of the program covered topics relevant and now essential to all: tuning instruments at home, rhythm reading and writing.
In the Mariachi classes, some of the surprising benefits were especially exciting: for example, the ability to offer singing lessons in a less intimidating setting. “Singing can be really scary and stressful when other people are listening,” explains Mariachi Director Santiago Romero, “so it’s been a great opportunity for me to work one-on-one with students, in a setting where they’re not worried about the sounds they’re making and who is going to hear them. We haven’t skipped a beat since in-person classes have ended.”
With the slowing of their families’ daily lives, young musicians at SFYSA have been encouraged to focus on their music-writing skills. In elementary strings, students as young as 6 were reading and counting rhythms during class time, and for homework, they were assigned to make up their own rhythms. Director Haley Lovelace explains that, one little step at a time, students were writing their own compositions. “We'd never had time for this in class, so it's a special treat,” she says.
Romero notes,“The best songs have been written during the most trying times in human history.” In jazz classes, students got their creative juices flowing while working on “Odin's Groove,” a piece written by senior Odin Frostad, a member of SFYSA for five years who graduated this spring. Other students in the ensemble wrote their own parts and solos to accompany the tune.
Students in the jazz and orchestra ensembles alike recorded individual tracks and brought them together for combined virtual experiences. For their end-of-season project, all 65 musicians of SFYSA’s most advanced orchestra, the youth symphony orchestra, recorded themselves playing a piece that staff and conductors compiled into a video that allowed all the parts to come together audio-visually.
Across the board, new and unexpected benefits of virtual connection are proving essential in a time when students face so much uncertainty and fear. Intermezzo String Orchestra, led by conductor Jeremy Bleich, adopted an online music education program called SmartMusic to rehearse together and practice individually. Youth Symphony Orchestra’s conductor William Waag notes that students began exploring, at their request, what it is to be a conductor — from a philosophical approach of the conductor's role, to how to interact with the ensemble using gestures to shape the sound they want to achieve. Conversations erupted during online jazz sessions about the ramifications for music post pandemic, and how this global situation might alter the societal function of music.
Aside from keeping some sense of normalcy in maintaining students’ discipline and dedication to music, virtual music classes provide an important connection between young people at a time where feelings of fear and incertitude envelop the world. SFYSA virtual meetings became a chance to connect with peers through music and to process a difficult time in our history. Students could continue to see familiar faces, check in with and support one another, and take advantage of new programs for conferencing and music-making.
As Romero says, “It's things like music programs in the community that are really going to keep us connected as human beings and allow us to express whatever it may be we´re feeling — frustration, fear, etc. — during these very uncertain times.”
Youth orchestras across the country are doing their best to work with the different situations in each state and locality. Some are conducting spring auditions online, while SFYSA has canceled spring auditions to give students a break and hope to meet in the fall. Planning for the coming season includes flexible scenarios ranging from in-person rehearsals and performances to a core music curriculum and master classes online. Please visit www.sfysa.org to stay in the loop.