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Virtual harmony: Mainly Mozart takes its Youth Orchestra program online

Students in Mainly Mozart's Youth Orchestra finished their season online because of the coronavirus pandemic.
(Courtesy)

With concert halls dark and restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic forcing musicians to stay home, the 25-year-old Mainly Mozart Youth Orchestra has taken a different stage online.

“The performing arts in are in real danger now,” said Mainly Mozart marketing director Greg Parry.

Amid such worries, Mainly Mozart looked for ways to keep its Youth Orchestra alive. “We want to be positive and create opportunities,” Parry said.

Before the pandemic, the San Diego-based organization served about 250 young people ages 3-19 in six ensembles, from beginning strings to advanced orchestra. Parry said it expects to start the fall season in September with about 200.

The program is open to all levels of musical skill. Those who want to participate submit an application and an audition video for placement in an ensemble.

Shortly after the coronavirus began spreading, the Youth Orchestra moved its weekly lessons online, which Parry said exceeded expectations because of the instructors’ creativity. “The instructors are incredibly dedicated and did a lot of adjusting to keep music education for these kids alive,” Parry said.

Hernan Constantino, music director for the Youth Orchestra and a violinist for the San Diego Symphony, said taking his lessons online involved new ways of communicating, from learning about technology and the Zoom and Skype platforms to proper camera setup. “It was a challenge, but also it was fun,” Constantino said.

Along the way, Constantino said, he learned valuable lessons about teaching online, including the importance of teachers and students investing in “a decent mic and webcam,” as well as fine-tuning lessons to include teaching kids “how to frame themselves properly.”

Teaching online has unexpected benefits, Constantino said. He led his classes by breaking down musical pieces into smaller sections, which he would have kids play individually, combining the recorded versions into one larger movement in which he was able to adjust for tempo and rhythm.

Students performed a virtual concert in June as part of the Mainly Mozart Youth Orchestra.
(Courtesy)

Though there is “no substitute for in-person” lessons, Constantino said that by breaking the music into pieces, students were able to “attack it more.”

And in a Zoom meeting, Constantino can explain more about certain styles, he said. “In person, [I’m] occupied by putting the pieces together.”

La Jollan Francoise Keefe, whose son Aidan, 16, is in his second year with the Mainly Mozart Youth Orchestra, said she found a lot of benefits in the transition to virtual classes.

“[Constantino] was very creative in coming up with the virtual program,” she said. His method of having students record pieces separately and then synchronizing them later meant Aidan, a La Jolla High School junior who plays clarinet for Mainly Mozart’s advanced orchestra ensemble, has to be “self-disciplined.”

“You have to pay a lot more attention to your tuning and rhythm,” she said. “It’s so obvious when you’re out of tune.”

Keefe said Aidan did multiple takes when recording his music. “It forces them to really perfect their piece,” she said.

Constantino said the number of students who improved exceeded his expectations, given the virtual format. “After trial and error, we learned to do things better,” he said.

For example, he said, he discovered he needed to educate his students on the importance of “presenting themselves online.”

Parry called this Constantino’s attempt “to install a sense of occasion. They need to be dressed properly, have their hair combed … it’s a code of conduct.”

The past season ended in June with students performing a virtual concert, which is available to view at mmyo.org.

Mainly Mozart is taking applications and virtual auditions for placement in the fall ensembles. “It’s a particularly important time for us,” Parry said. “We’re up and running, regardless” of the pandemic.

The organization intends to continue the Youth Orchestra program online for next season, though it has outlined various plans depending on what state guidelines allow for group gatherings. “We’re being agile and adapting to whatever the virus throws at us,” Parry said.

“It must be so difficult for young people right now, not being able to get together,” he said. “We’re committed to providing these opportunities, to … making it work.”

The registration fee is $60. Tuition amounts by ensemble are:

• $630 for Suzuki method strings (entry-level) and beginning strings

• $660 for intermediate strings, concert band and intermediate orchestra

• $690 for advanced orchestra

“Everyone, from any background, is welcome,” Parry said. “We’re flexible and will make it work for any kid who wants to participate.”

Keefe and her son are awaiting the next season. “It’s a fantastic program,” Keefe said. “We’re very happy with it.”

For more information, visit mmyo.org, email jshanks@mainlymozart.org or call (805) 305-0818. ◆