Philadelphia Youth Orchestra keeps music alive with digital experiences

The Philadelphia Youth Orchestra in rehearsal (Photo via The Philadelphia Tribune)

By Chanel Hill

PHILADELPHIA — While the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra (PYO) had to cancel their large musical ensemble rehearsals, instruction, and concerts to comply with social distancing due to the coronavirus, the program has created online and web-based music instruction, performance opportunities, and programs to keep students engaged remotely.

“We have six program divisions: Philadelphia Youth Orchestra, Philadelphia Young Artists Orchestra, Philadelphia Young Musicians Orchestra, Philadelphia Region Youth String Music (PRYSM) Strings Group, Bravo Brass, and our Tune UP Philly program,” said Louis Scaglione, President and Music Director of PYO. “For all of these programs, we had to take what we traditionally do in the classroom or rehearsal room and bring that online in some way to keep the students engaged through this shelter-in-place period.

Since going to web-based music instruction, PYO has launched digital lessons with small groups and faculty, developed online master classes and tutorials with members of PYO, and created online performances using the most up-to-date digital programs to blend together individual student recordings into one group performance.

“What we’ve done with the orchestra and ensembles is that we’re going to begin doing sectional lessons,” Scaglione said. “This will take small groups from the larger group and have instruction with the director, conductor, or coach. Those sessions have begun already with our PRYSM Strings.

“We will also be implementing sectional master classes for some of our other program divisions as well. The online group lessons will focus on a specific repertoire that each of the groups would have been working on in regular rehearsals.

“Our faculty continues to provide mentorship in ways not typically found in the rehearsal room or classroom as we continue to build upon the student and teacher relationships developed during the school year,” he added. “We are determined to create these experiences while we practice social distancing and remain on recess.”

PRYSM director Gloria DePasquale was the first to start rehearsals with her students on Zoom. She is offering group online video lessons for separate instrumental sections for violins, violas, cello, and bass.

“Before everything happened we were working on the Mozart Eine Kleine Nachtmusik Romance Music and we’re going to keep things moving with that piece,” DePasquale said.

“In each rehearsal we’re focusing on a certain section of it. We have a professional string quartet that has to be isolated together and they are making a video of what the piece should sound like.

“That was sent out to the students, so that they could practice with the video and use that as a metric to see if they were able to stay up to speed. Because of the lag in sound it’s not possible for the students to play together; which is why we sent the video so that they actually have the practice of playing together with something else at home.

DePasquale meets with students online Friday evenings. She works with one professional faculty member for the violin session and another faculty member for the viola sessions.

“Each week I receive practice videos from my students,” DePasquale said. “Right now, there’s a lot of live playing for them, explaining what they need to be focused on when they play it, and then asking people to play it individually. Individually, the students have different issues, so then I’m able to give them very targeted one-on-one instruction about how they can improve what they’re doing.

“I’ve also given each one of the sections a challenge. The first and second violins will learn the Bach Double Violin Concerto (first movement), the cellos will do the same with the Vivaldi Double Cello Concerto (first movement), the violas will do the Telemann Double Viola Concerto (first movement).

“During sessions, they can see each other, but they’re muted until they’re called upon to play. The students can also talk to us between sessions,” she added. “The feedback from the students and parents have been positive. The parents are delighted that the students are able to continue with their lessons on their instruments.”

Every year, PYO holds annual concerts in mid-May to early June. However, Scaglione said the program may have to improvise this year due to the pandemic.

“I’m hoping we can rehearse and present sections of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony with the full PYO orchestra, our most advanced group,” Scaglione said. “If we can get ourselves very tech savvy, we might also include the final movement of the work and add the chorus and vocal soloists. This would be very unique for PYO.

“Ideally, we would like to perform Beethoven’s 9th Symphony in live performance over the summer, as we had originally scheduled to perform the work on June 7th at our 80th annual festival concert in Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center,” he added. “However, if we are unable to perform the work live at some point over the summer, we would attempt to perform it digitally.”

Chanel Hill is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared