When the Coronavirus pandemic landed, I was hit hard. I am what I would categorise as an emerging conductor; I’m known in certain communities of the classical music world but by far not a household name. I’m in a category of age and career where Gustavo Dudamel would be the gold star, a perfect 10 in his career (maybe an 11) and I am somewhere in the middle depending on who you ask. I am also a Black conductor; this makes following a career as a director of orchestras very challenging, especially in America.
By April, I had received postponements and cancellations for all of my concerts. Even the popular Festival International de Musique Saint-Georges where I am Artistic and Music Director was postponed and my new position as Principal Guest of Teatro Lyric de Cuba (Cuba National Opera) was put on a “let’s wait and see how things evolve” schedule.
At the end of June, I received an e-mail from Fordham University about a position as Director of Orchestral Ensembles, a job for which I frankly didn’t know I was still in the running. I hadn’t been paying much attention to this particular job application: like most conductors in my category, I am mostly looking for a position with a professional orchestra. I love teaching and have a talent for it but a career in academia was not my immediate focus.
In mid-July I was advanced to the next interview round for the position. After a Zoom interview with the selection committee, I was notified by July’s end that the job was mine and in August I started working at the university. This was quick! I was now responsible for a larger orchestra (The Rose Hill Symphony) and a smaller orchestra (Lincoln Center Chamber Orchestra) across two campuses. Yes, to my surprise, I was now one of the lucky ones, landing a job during the rise of the Covid-19 pandemic, when many of my colleagues were losing theirs.
The position of Director of Orchestral Ensembles presented challenges. Most prominent among them was to devise an effective means to rehearse an orchestra safely during a dangerous viral outbreak. I had to come up with a strategy and a way to implement it quickly. I reached out to colleagues, especially those in adept in music technology, audio and video side. After much hurried research I developed a feasible plan.
I first combined the members of the two ensembles and then re-assembled them into four separate groups, highlighting the instrumental demographic of the members so that all the participants would feel more engaged. In addition to the two larger groups there was now a Concert Band, a Percussion Ensemble, a Flute Ensemble and a Clarinet Ensemble.
But most importantly, I energised and expanded a group of student representatives and began to work hand in hand with them.
I devised a hybrid teaching model that incorporated a series of Zoom meetings with all the participants, several asynchronous assignments and a plethora of synchronous online workshops and masterclasses. For students on participating on campus, we limited our time to once every second or third week. All repertoire, music scores and recordings were listed on our Google Drive page for sharing, along with video assignments. Students’ mobile phone recorded work, as assigned, could be subsequently uploaded onto the shared drive should they choose to send it to me that way.
The ratio of online sessions to live sessions was approximately 2 or 3 to 1. The live sessions were tricky because of social distancing protocols. For the lager group (50 people maximum in compliance with pandemic protocol) we re-purposed the university’s largest athletic facility, the “Field House” a building complex normally used for track and field sports. This way each musician could be 12 or more feet apart. For smaller chamber orchestra pieces, we used the school’s entertainment ballroom, which is smaller than the Field House but still quite large. Of course, face masks — and in some cases face shields — were required for maximum protection.
So, my plan unfolded this way:
Week One: I gave a specific music assignment to be completed by the student by video, using their phone to record and send their work. The student would upload the video on our orchestra Google Docs page or simply send it as an email attachment. Microsoft Teams also proved to be an invaluable tool for connecting with students, giving feedback on an individual basis and reaching out to section groups.
Week Two: Students participated in online workshops, masterclasses and sectionals with Artist Teachers via Zoom. These teachers included some of the top people in the business, such as the Concert Master of the Cleveland Opera, Co-Principal Trumpet of the Metropolitan Opera, and other exceptional colleagues.
Week Three: I reviewed everything we had done in all of the prior assignments and workshops and led live physically distanced in-person orchestra rehearsals on campus. These live large-group rehearsals with student musicians were videotaped and put on the orchestra’s group page so all students could watch and benefit.
The end game was to make a virtual “collage” video performance of the works we prepared during the semester using source material from the in-person rehearsals and individual online recordings done on students’ mobile devices.
We were delighted to able to accomplish all this. More importantly, however, we discovered a different way to work, one that we expect more organisations will use in the future. For a non-professional orchestra comprised of students, the individually videotaped assignments gave the students specific goals to accomplish. The feedback made the students hone in on overcoming their particular obstacles and setting clear goals for themselves. The workshops and sectionals taught by professionals in the field provided solutions to questions and also instrument-specific tools (i.e. fingerings, bowings) to help students accomplish their goals.
I think this strategy made the orchestra better. Problems were solved sooner rather than later and not hidden in the “orchestral sea”. The last violinist in a section became just as important as the concertmaster, but not in an intimidating or demoralising way.
Of course, virtual performance can never replace live performance. However, I recognise that, my new experience teaching a nonprofessional orchestra using strategies that incorporated innovative distance learning techniques have proved to have many advantages that I intend to incorporate on an ongoing basis.
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