Imagine a beautiful piece of music where each player starts an arbitrary number of milliseconds apart from each other. Quickly, the milliseconds devolve into multiple seconds’ worth of discordance, as each section of instruments collapses in on itself. Woe be to the ears of the poor parents that walk by only to hear such a class! Unfortunately, this is the reality for a talented youth orchestra attempting to rehearse remotely in real time.
Orchestral classes are an essential component of many string players’ studies, regardless of whether the ensemble takes place inside or outside of school. I participate in a weekend music precollege program, and the orchestra class has turned into a mere shadow of what it was before. Most students would love to continue rehearsal even during the Covid-19 lockdown. However, despite many valiant efforts of teachers and conductors, obstacles such as several-second lag and mismatched audio feeds make it difficult to hold effective rehearsals. The pandemic has largely robbed students of the full orchestral experience. Therefore, we music students are better off attending innovative supplemental courses, such as seminars from musical experts, in that time.
More on the specific program I attend—whereas it was once a full orchestra with dozens of musicians—the numbers have dwindled because of the low-quality experience we have been receiving. We once used to gather on the stage and rehearse for long hours under the guidance of the conductor, which is obviously impossible now over Zoom. Some may ask why individual musicians don’t simply record their parts and stitch them together afterwards to mimic a full orchestra. To that, I reply: much of orchestral studies’ value comes from listening to other proficient players, rehearsing together in real time, and learning to adjust to each other. No matter how effective this conventional rehearsal may be in person, it simply isn’t viable within an online model.
For now, this external orchestra has resorted to busy work in order to keep students in the program occupied. Though the conductor maintains an enthusiastic manner and a great deal of love for teaching young musicians, it’s clear that virtual orchestra has become troublesome. During the last few weeks, some of the most ludicrous activities have included: (a) counting by hand the number of times the Philadelphia Orchestra held concerts, despite the fact that these statistics were readily available, (b) doing a similar counting exercise with a different brochure under the pretense of teaching us about the diversity of music, (c) launching into an entirely irrelevant non-musical discussion about city cultures… the list goes on and on. None of these mundane activities culminated in any helpful education, and at the end of the day nothing was added to the orchestral experience.
On the other hand, virtual orchestra at Andover offers solutions and ways to make asynchronous rehearsals a much more productive and compelling experience through incorporating supplementary classes. Dr. Jacoby, Instructor in Music, called in a series of experts in the field of music, creating a speaker series for those who were interested. Rather than making us spend too much time fruitlessly playing on an asynchronous basis, we were able to learn about potential career paths. For instance, a passionate music therapist came and talked to us about her work, explaining what she did on a daily basis and what some of her career highlights are. I felt more fulfilled as a student afterwards, and secure in my knowledge that I would always have somewhere to apply my talents. These additional classes are definitely a great option for orchestras that are unable to rehearse in person.
Virtual rehearsal, as it is now, is not fit for young musicians to exercise their talents- rather, enrichment classes and talks are much more empowering. Instead of wasting time doing things that lack educational value, actively learning from other experts is an excellent option. Orchestras across the country can learn from Andover’s actions and would benefit greatly from following their model of holding compelling classes in the little time allotted to them. As we transition back to an in-person model, I hope to see remote students continue to enrich their orchestral studies through engaging programs such as Andover’s.