How the Beckman High Orchestra found the joy of playing together during COVID
It’s been quite a year.
On March 7, 2020, the Beckman Orchestra had just finished performing at Segerstrom Hall and we were looking forward to our district and state festivals. Then, on Friday the 13th, our whole world closed.
Since then, it is Odysseus’s return trip to Ithaca. Teachers had to find new ways to teach, play, play and interact. It wasn’t always perfect (far from it!) And our criteria for success was simply to survive.
My school district, Tustin Unified, has been proactive in opening the school in the fall for in-person classes. The district started planning for the 2020-2021 school year last March and has put things in place to have a safe opening as soon as possible.
We started the school year in August, entirely remotely. In September, Beckman high transition to a hybrid model – 30% of students were required to attend class in person on Mondays and Thursdays (group 1), 30% were required to attend class in person on Tuesdays and Fridays (group 2), and 40% were required to attend house completely. time. As a teacher, I taught students in person and online simultaneously.
Extreme precautions were taken. Everyone at school was six feet apart. No one could share material, no paper documents, masks all day. All students had their temperature taken every day, traveled in one direction around the school, and each classroom had to be disinfected between class sessions.
Under these protocols, I could have a maximum of 31 in my classroom at any one time. I usually have over 70 children in my orchestra. Also, brass and wind instruments could not play indoors.
Of course, COVID wasn’t the only hurdle of the year. On October 26, in the middle of teaching, all of our cell phones rang at the same time. The Silverado fire was approaching campus. School was immediately canceled and many of us had to evacuate our homes. This was of course followed by the Bond Fire, still in Silverado Canyon, on December 3rd.
A light bulb moment
After a month of blended learning, I noticed that we never had nearly 31 kids in my class, even though 77 kids were enrolled in my best orchestra.
It occurred to me that sports teams get together and practice after school hours. If they could do it, why can’t we?
I told my students that I would volunteer on Monday nights and hold rehearsals with the string players just so they could experience some normalcy this year. There would be no consequence or benefit to their rank whether they came or not; it was really voluntary.
About 20-25 kids started coming at the end of October and we all enjoyed coming back together to play.
In December, I decided to plan a concert. It took place in our Performing Arts Center, which is a larger space than our rehearsal room, and followed the same guidelines and safety protocols as our classroom model. Since we could not have any audience, we broadcast live on Facebook.
To our surprise, we had almost 3,000 views on Facebook and YouTube. Game changer! Our performing arts center only has 536 of them (clearly, now we’re going to be broadcasting live!). Even though we enjoyed playing it again, we all agreed that it was difficult without the interaction of a live audience.
As our Monday nights wore on, the students and I found that we had more fun. We all couldn’t wait to come to school on Monday night to play together and just be together. By making this effort an entirely volunteer effort – with no festivals, no competitions, no timeline – we were just having a good time, and it really became something special.
After the success of our first concert, we have planned four more concerts for the second semester. I met the children to ask them, “How can we continue to live next year?” No one could answer this question completely, but we did come up with some ideas. For starters, they liked the wide variety of music we were playing and they liked the fact that everyone in the band was “all-in”.
Find purpose and inspiration
Our second concert, “The Superhero Concert”, took place in February and was dedicated to our band Beckman HS and the alumni of the orchestra who are now healthcare workers, nurses and doctors. For this concert, we added percussion since they could also join us in masks (the group was still not allowed to play with us inside). We played music from superhero themed movies while showing clips from the movies above us, and again streamed live on Facebook.
The next gig in March was a major undertaking. For this concert, we invited Daniel Alfred Wachs from Chapman University, who is an outstanding pianist, to come and join us for Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12. Working with Wachs has been absolutely inspiring for our students. He has repeatedly noticed how grateful he is to perform again after a year of lockdown.
Christian Kim, our lead cellist, asked me during one of the Monday night rehearsals if we were playing the whole concerto. I told him that normally high schools only perform the first movement of a concerto, so no. He questioned that and asked if we could do it all; everyone in the band agreed that they wanted to do something special this year.
After 17 years of orchestral teaching at Beckman High, I had never performed a full concerto. It is ironic that in the year that we are grappling with so many obstacles, we have found a way to play a full concerto.
Also note, because the sports competitions were open again in the gymnasium with spectators, our neighborhood also allowed us to have spectators at this third concert. We were allowed to fill 25% of the Performing Arts Center (134 places out of 536), but only 45 people attended. Even so, it was really exciting for these kids as well as the audience to put on a live show again.
Our third concert took place in April. Continuing the program ideas generated by the students, we presented “The Music of Japanese Animation: The Music of Anime, Studio Ghibli and Video Games”. There was a lot of enthusiasm with this program; much of the music had to be specially arranged for our string and percussion group.
It was a superb program which was made possible by my fellow music teacher Joseph Perkins (Orchard Hills Middle School) who wrote many arrangements.
Our last concert, delivered last Tuesday, was a program we had planned to play at Carnegie Hall – a music program entirely by female songwriters. We performed much of the music from this program as well as one of our students, Yuriko Mikasa, on Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12.
Do the impossible
The courses this year have been interesting to say the least. I definitely didn’t sign up to be a music teacher to talk to a computer screen with two-thirds of the people not visible on the screen. Yet given that I have 33 years of teaching experience, I saw this year as a challenge to find a way to be able to provide meaningful teaching while keeping suffering in mind. from everyone.
I have consciously made the effort to honor and appreciate everyone’s decision to stay home. I ended up moving from group / ensemble rehearsal instruction to learning individual skills. I had to write A LOT of new material this year while adapting to new program management platforms and learning Google Meet, Zoom, and other apps.
I have been fortunate and appreciated to be in a district that has supported us with both safety gear and professional development this year. The result has been many teaching strategies that will be incorporated into the regular course offering in the future.
It has been a heartbreaking year: our band has been denied the opportunity to perform at Segerstrom Hall and Carnegie Hall, as well as to take part in all the other performances that make our orchestral experience special. Ultimately, I wanted to make sure that I, as well as the students, found ways to enjoy the trip this year even though it was a very different path than we had planned.
With all the “abnormal” conditions we had to face and overcome, I also said to my Monday night group, “There are a lot of normal things that I never want to go back to!” There is no doubt that one day I will consider this year’s concerts to be some of the most special of my career. I really appreciate the group of students I worked with this year, their persistence and their resilience. I hope they learned as much in class as I learned from them and this experience.
These students are really special: they worked hard and inspired me. They were recharging my batteries whenever I got frustrated with the pandemic.
Ultimately, when things got really tough, I thought about that scene in “Apollo 13” when the engineers on the ground had to work together to get the astronauts home safely using random items: “OK, listen! The people above have handed this one to us and we have to move on. We’ve got to find a way to make it fit in the hole of this … by not using anything other than that.
Every day this year we have been called upon to do the impossible with glue, tape, disinfectant, masks and Zoom. Most importantly, we couldn’t fail our students.
We always find a way to make music at Beckman and fight that. Continuation to Ithaca.
Jim kollias is a guest writer for Voice of OC. He teaches orchestra at Arnold O. Beckman High School in Irvine.