Pandemic Ed: Dancing remotely and well

Dancers will dance, together in the studio or, these days, together on Zoom

As dance studios start to look towards re-opening—clad in masks and doused in hand sanitizer—ArtsWatch takes a moment to look at what’s been happening at home for the past four months. That involved dancers and instructors re-arranging their bedrooms, kitchens, and living rooms to create makeshift dance spaces at home. And specifically for dance teachers, it also has meant adapting a new technology for an old form: dance classes on Zoom.

While the rest of us may have been using the video chatting app for tedious work meetings (with your camera off to shield your coworkers from the fact that you’ve been in pajamas since March), dancers (perhaps also in pajamas) have found a different use for the software: joining meetings a few times a week to wiggle and move around in their homes making that 8-count work from their alternative spaces. 

I entered the reporting for this story skeptical of dance via Zoom. I was certain that in interviewing kids, teachers, and adult students about their thoughts on Zoom class for this article, I’d be putting a nail in the coffin of online dance. After taking a few classes via Zoom myself, I’d hit about every piece of furniture in my room, knocked over a cactus plant, and reckoned with the fact that I could only hear every 6th beat of the music—not to mention half of the instructor’s words. To put it in a nutshell, I wasn’t satisfied. Thinking everyone felt the same, I was expecting this article to end up being an ode to the beloved practice of dancing together in studios and how much the community is struggling without it.

THE ART OF LEARNING: An Occasional Series

Well, I was wrong. Thanks to a dose of creativity, there’s been a lot of progress made in training via Zoom. Those coffin nails are back in their boxes and the dancers are moving about the world just fine.


Play it Forward: restoring music education

This month's Virtual Supper Club event supports pianist Michael Allen Harrison's program to bring music lessons to Oregon students

When Michael Allen Harrison was growing up in 1960s Portland, arts education enriched his life. “All the public schools had band programs, strings programs, choir, theater, painting, sculpture,” he remembers. “There were piano teachers in every neighborhood. We had everything at our fingertips to figure out what we were good at, what inspired us.”

What inspired Harrison was playing piano and composing music. He used the skills and qualities he gained from his arts education to become one of the most successful pianists in so-called New Age music, found his own record label, record more than 60 albums, score musicals, films, ballets, theater productions and orchestral compositions, and much more. He was recently inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame.

Michael Allen Harrison

But as his own star rose, Harrison watched with disappointment and then alarm as his home state systematically dismantled the public school arts education system that had so enriched his life and helped him create the music that delighted so many listeners. 

Harrison decided to do something about it. He resolved to help restore access to music education to Oregonians who couldn’t afford it. Two decades ago, he created the Snowman Foundation program to support music education in Oregon and eventually Seattle, then the Ten Grands fundraising concert to bring pianos to students whose families couldn’t afford them. And three years ago, his Play it Forward program embarked on the culminating phase of his original vision. 

But like so many other worthy educational and musical efforts this year, Play it Forward has had to shift gears — though the engine is still running strong and moving forward. And this week, Oregon arts lovers can help.

Defunding the Arts

Harrison became a music educator not long after becoming a music student at age six, when he started taking piano lessons. When he became a young teen, he wanted a car, and his paper route wasn’t going to earn him enough to buy one. So he started giving lessons to Northeast Portland neighborhood kids as a teenager, and he’s been teaching ever since. 

Music lessons helped him achieve more than transportation. “You learn so much about life from learning music,” he says. “You gain confidence when you’re asked to do things you’re uncomfortable with, you learn discipline preparing for recitals. Even when I got into high schools, when I was trying out for musicals and singing in choir, going through auditions, performing on stage, learning how to dance. All these activities in the arts created a confidence in me that I could take to any other discipline.”

THE ART OF LEARNING: An Occasional Series

That’s why it was so important to him that other kids have the same opportunities. But those started to shrink thirty years ago, when voters endorsed a disastrous property tax limitation that failed to provide alternative funding for the social benefits those taxes paid for. “It started with Measure 5,” Harrison says. “It wasn’t the main cause, but it was the starting point for the downward spiral. Educational sources were forced to cut budgets and one of those things was the arts.”

Harrison saw a lot of the damage first hand, as he’s been doing artist residencies in schools over that span. “Arts are the most important thing in education, because they support all the other disciplines,” he says. “Everybody in the educational system knows it. There are so many studies, tests, data, that all show how the arts enhance other disciplines. And yet the action has been to cut the arts. It’s been breaking my heart for 30 years.”

Building the Snowman

Nearly a decade of seeing the catastrophic effects of tax cuts and misplaced priorities on the lives of Oregon students persuaded Harrison to found his Snowman Foundation in 1999, using fundraising concerts like his long-running Ten Grands at Portland5 and Christmas at the Old Church series to finance the purchase of new instruments and endow scholarships. To date, it’s raised about $3.5 million for music education and reached more than 100,000 students.

“Then all of a sudden people started donating their instruments to us,” Harrison recalls. “There’s thousands of wonderful used pianos, even Steinways, sitting in people’s living rooms: ‘This belonged to my Aunt Nellie.’ They become furniture not being used. The idea came from the community: we can stretch our dollars a lot further if we’re getting an instrument for free.” The foundation sends an assessor to figure out whether an instrument was salvageable, then picks up usable instruments and deliver them to students who needed them. And as word spread, “we began getting these nice gently used instruments from people’s living rooms — oboes, violins, drum sets, saxophones, keyboards.”

But a crucial element was still missing. “It was always my dream to give every child who needed one an instrument and a teacher,” Harrison explains. “So as we grew, we were finally able to start an after-school program in which everyone gets a free piano and every child gets a teacher.” The Snowman Foundation paved the way for Play It Forward, an independent program that over the last three years has provided lessons to 150 students, delivered nearly 4,000 hours of music instruction, and gifted 450 instruments to students, community centers, schools and churches, according to its spokesperson. This year, the program employs 10 teachers, including college students and young musicians who’ve just graduated from college and have teaching experience, “so we’re able to support young teachers, kids and families.”

Life Lessons

One of them is Diane Tran, a Portland Community College-Rock Creek student who signed up in 2019 and is teaching students in this summer’s workshops. “Learning music can help you in so many ways,” she says. “There’s always a way to apply everything you learn here in the real world. Reading sheet music trains observation and motor skills. I tend to see problem students who are having trouble keeping focus become more receptive and willing to change themselves. I also see them starting to open up a lot more. They’re more receptive to a bit of growth.”

Diane Tran gives a Zoom lesson with Maria Herrera

Harrison, who’s teaching four students himself this summer, has seen that extra-musical growth throughout his many decades of learning and teaching piano.

“The act of practice and learning how to practice properly is giving you great learning skills,” he explains. Even after their school years, students continue to benefit from music lessons. “If you’re in a board meeting, team meeting, situations where you need to speak up, or you’re going for a job interview,” he says, “the more experience you have of sharing who you are, the more confidence you have and more success you have later in life. It helps you develop as a human. I’ve witnessed it in others and witnessed it in myself.”

Students aren’t the only ones learning from piano lessons. “As a pianist I’ve learned there’s a lot I can learn from my students,” Tran says. “What they often teach me is how they want to have fun. I don’t have memories of having fun when I was taking lessons. I want to give them what I couldn’t get.” 

If they like playing a piece that’s in the standard syllabus, she’ll continue with that, but if not, she’ll find something they do like, often starting reluctant learners out playing the music they want to hear, even something like the Pokemon theme. And she’s sensitive to how they’re feeling about what they’re playing. “If they’re having a negative emotional feeling about what they’re playing, I have to address that,” she says..” ‘How does this negative mood affect you? How can we change that?’ Play it Forward is very open about how we teach.”

Tran’s responsive attitude mirrors Harrison’s approach. He says, “I’m always asking them, ‘How does this feel to you? In your body? What’s happening? What are you feeling in the moment? Are you frustrated?’ I try to help kids to be nice to themselves.”

Julianne Johnson and Michael Allen Harrison

Play it Forward has developed along with its students and teachers, becoming mentors as well as teachers. In the wake of this summer’s national reckoning with racial injustice, Portland singer and frequent Harrison collaborator Julianne Johnson came to speak to PiF’s teachers and board about her experience and share her family’s history and her insights about white privilege.

Harrison says that since his wife, Marietta, took over management, “it’s grown 400 percent. She’s really turned it into a shining light of a program. We’ve learned so much about some of the kids we’re serving. Some kids are sharing intimate things happening in their family, so we’re training teachers how to handle that and how to refer certain information to the right people.”

That mentorship can happen only when teachers go beyond teaching the notes. “One of the biggest motivational tools on the planet is when you as a teacher can show a student you believe in them and are interested in who they are,” Harrison insists. “That makes the whole difference. Human contact is so important.”

Shifting Gears

Human contact, unfortunately, is exactly what’s severely limited in this pandemic summer. But that’s not stopping Play it Forward. In the spring, the Harrisons immediately began planning how the program could adjust to the new reality. “She’s a tenacious facilitator,” Michael said of Marietta. “She makes it all happen. When Covid hit, we shifted our entire program to being online.”  

This summer, rehearsals and recitals happen over Zoom. For their upcoming performance of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” at PiF’s virtual summer fundraiser, “all the kids are learning their parts, practicing over Zoom on multiple screens,” Harrison says. “Everybody performs for each other, and we also have kids assess each other, what they could work on.”

Play it Forward Zoom recital

Like other organizations and piano teachers forced to adapt, Play it Forward is finding lasting value in what was originally intended as a temporary accommodation to the virus crisis. In previous years, students interacted primarily with their own teachers. “One of the things Zoom is doing is building a closer community” among the students, Harrison explains, “because we’re able to put kids closer together on the Zoom screen. So even when we’re all back to being able to hug each other, we’re going to integrate the online stuff. We plan to keep doing Zoom meetings so the kids can see each other and check in and have everybody play for each other, maybe even offer master classes online.”

Virtual Supper Club

The program might have adeptly adjusted to new circumstances, but teachers still had to be paid, as did its other expenses. Harrison finances most of his educational work through concerts — but the pandemic has squelched those for now. Even the banquet rooms of hotels often used for fundraising functions were off limits. How could Play it Forward bring its music to supporters? 

Marietta Harrison remembered the ‘60s supper clubs that the title character in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel TV series performed her standup act in. They’d considered using the theme for PiF’s fall gala, which, like every other fall performance, was now in doubt. Why not, she suggested, turn this summer’s fundraiser into a virtual supper club?

On July 25, Play it Forward will bring the music and dinner to supporters’ homes. Participants can order a full dinner complete with paired wine prepared by Pearl Catering and Script Cellars for no-contact delivery. Then, they can tune into the main event online: a livestream show featuring local musicians and youth performers, along with an opportunity to bid on a curated offering of auction items. Harrison and Johnson will perform, and Harrison’s friend and fellow songwriter, New Age pianist, radio show host and PBS fave Jim Brickman is recording a special video for the occasion. Harrison hopes that around 30 of the 44 summer workshop students will also prepare videos, including the “Ode to Joy.” 

Rebuilding Trust

Play it Forward’s creative persistence in the face of this year’s unprecedented challenges reaffirms Harrison’s lifelong belief that learning and playing music builds confidence, discipline, and creativity throughout life, and beyond music. Harrison himself has also been adapting to current circumstances, offering a daily video performance of some of his favorite pieces, and creating a series of Wednesday Night Experiences to be enjoyed virtually at home — “an evening for relaxation, meditation, prayer, peace of mind or just whatever you want it to be. An opportunity for an intimate personal experience. An hour and a half of straight music. “It’s different every time” Michael explains “because the day is different, the group of people in the room changes, my personal thoughts and mood changes, it just flows according to the feelings in the room.”

From Harrison’s Anti-Anxiety playlist

 Along with his own substantial contributions through such efforts, Harrison is continuing to advocate restoring the much greater support possible through public investment in arts education. 

 “I grew up with the kind of support I envision,” he remembers. “All those activities create so many great memories — the kids you were with, the trips you went on, everybody comes to the shows, the sports events with music, the spring musical. We all get together.  It’s the arts that lift us up to higher heights. The more you take the arts out, the more you hurt the community.”

Still, he acknowledges that rebuilding arts education is going to require building trust among voters and lawmakers.

“There’s a lack of trust in the people who lead our educational system,” he says. “How do we find a way to trust the leadership and the organizations that are making these decisions when they come to us and say we need more money to fund these important programs? Will that money be spent on what we voted on? How can we help educational organizations deliver a much better message, so people will trust what they’re doing?”

“I think the Play it Forward program is one of those things that leads by example. So I’m hoping that as we grow, maybe this program will expand to every school in the state. Through that example people will see and trust that arts education is something we have to have in our community and in our educational system.”

Harrison wants to play a personal role in rebuilding support for arts education.  

“I’m happy to get on my soapbox. I would love to participate in any group bringing forth legislation, be a pied piper and a voice. Oregon has led the way in so many things that later filter through the rest of the country. We can be that leader again.”

Limited tickets are available now for the Play It Forward Supper Club event at www.pifmusic.org. Individual tickets start at $125, with group packages and children’s meals also available. Guests purchase a ticket, reserve their meal and bottle of wine, and prepare for a fun evening. The event is expected to sell out, so early reservations are encouraged. Deadline to sign up is July 19.

The 20th anniversary Ten Grands concert originally scheduled for April 11 at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall is now planned for November 15 at  Keller Auditorium, but of course everything is subject to changing pandemic restrictions.

Want to read more cultural news in Oregon? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!

Passing the Torch

Cascadia Composers' In Good Hands program expands students' musical horizons and brings Oregon music to the next generations

The typical piano recital goes something like this: assigned standard works by teachers, students dutifully perform some bite-sized Bach, a morsel of Mozart, a sampling of Schumann, maybe a token 20th century work created a century or more before they were born. Parents proudly applaud. Then the students go home and listen to the music they really like, the music of their time, until it’s time to practice Ye Olde Masters again. After a few years, many student recitalists find other outlets for their musical interests.

What if it didn’t have to be that way? What if students could play music from their own time and place? And instead of merely “reciting” standard rep that’s been played zillions of times by as many students — what if they could also engage creatively with the music they’re playing?

THE ART OF LEARNING: An Occasional Series

That was the vision Cascadia Composers founder David Bernstein suggested to Portland Piano International founder Harold Gray in 2009. Before moving to Oregon, Bernstein had been involved in a program in Cleveland, where he was a music professor, that connected area composers to piano students. A concert of music by Northwest composers, performed by Portland-area piano students, would make a splendid addition to a summer festival almost entirely dominated by music from centuries ago and oceans away, Gray and Bernstein thought.

The 2018 In Good Hands performers

This Saturday afternoon, July 11, Cascadia presents its 10th annual In Good Hands recital, featuring student performers from both the Portland and Eugene metro areas will play new music written by eleven Cascadia Composers members. Anyone interested in the future of Oregon music can tune in via Zoom or at the archived video on the Cascadia website. It’s a milestone for a program that not only provides unique educational benefits for its student participants, but also bolsters contemporary Oregon classical music’s future.

Matching Music to Students

Many if not most classic European composers (Ravel, Prokofiev, Schumann, Bartok etc.) enjoyed, and/or paid the bills by teaching and writing music for students. Many Cascadia Composers are piano teachers too, including Dan Brugh, the 2009 Oregon Music Teachers Association Composer of the Year, whom Bernstein and Gray tapped to lead what Gray dubbed In Good Hands. Brugh quickly realized that managing a score call and recital program, and coordinating among Cascadia, OMTA, and PPI, demanded hyper organized help. 

He found it in Cascadia president Jan Mittelstaedt, and the two have traded off the lead role and shared most of the managerial duties ever since. Other members of the organization have helped out in different ways, from getting programs printed to obtaining the roses that participating composers charmingly present to the students who play their pieces at the recital — a symbolic passing on of the legacy of keeping Oregon music flowering through succeeding generations. 

Cascadia supplies a database of compositions suitable for student performers at various skill levels, supplied by member composers in response to an annual call for scores. OMTA publicizes the program to its member teachers, and those interested peruse the available scores (including recordings and program notes) for those they think suitable to their students’ interests and educational needs. Once a student and teacher agree on a piece, they get to meet with the composer to discuss its background, technical issues, adjustments if necessary, and so on. 

Dan Brugh congratulates an In Good Hands performer.

The pieces are as varied in style as the composers and students, with some students occasionally even embracing works written in the 20th century 12-tone modernist style. But in general, composers look to grab students with “catchy, rhythmic pieces that engage them initially and not too difficult technically or notationally,” says Eugene composer Paul Safar, who has several students participating in this year’s program.

Another longtime participant, Portland’s Dianne Davies, recalled a meeting at which participating teacher “Irene Huang said students like ‘melody, melody, melody.’ If it doesn’t have a melody, kids don’t want to play it. They also like consistent and driving rhythm. It has to have one of those two, and it’s best if it has both.”

Veteran teachers like Davies and Mittelstaedt tailor pieces to students’ interests and educational needs. “When I compose for students, I think about what they do well,” Mittelstaedt explains, “for example, if they like fast pieces, if they can do a five finger pattern fast, if they can move around the keyboard. It’s a different kind of composing when you’re writing for students.”

Going Virtual 

The recitals initially took place at the World Forestry Center during PPI’s annual summer festival. They differ from standard recitals because they’d involve a dozen on more students from various teachers instead of just one. Moreover, the programs consisted entirely of contemporary music rather than pedagogical classics, with a much greater variety of styles, ranging from neo-romantic to jazzy and many others.  

But after three years, Gray retired, putting IGH on hold, its future in doubt. After skipping a year, Brugh determined that In Good Hands must survive, solely as a Cascadia Composers initiative. Since then, Mittelstaedt says, the series has occasionally looked beyond the usual single-pianist format to include Tomas Svoboda’s Canon for Unlimited Voices featuring 14 (!) pianists, another Svoboda composition for organ, works for toy pianos (courtesy of Cascadia’s Jennifer Wright), solo flute, voice, and even combos (flute, violin and piano, flute and cello). The annual recitals moved from Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall to The Old Church Concert Hall to Portland Piano Company and for the last two summers, back to PSU.

Portland Piano International’s Harold Gray

Until this year, that is. With the pandemic scuttling so many performances, In Good Hands faced its toughest challenge since separating from PPI: how to continue performances when crowds of the size that thronged previous concerts weren’t permitted?

Once again, Dan Brugh said, “I will not let it die. It’s too important for young people and the composers. I will do anything I have to to make sure it continues. It could have ended [in 2014 after PPI pulled out]. It could have ended this year. I said, ‘we can do video.’” 

So, like many others in this plagued spring and summer, In Good Hands is going online. Students will record their own performances and Cascadia will stream it live and then archive the video. And with physical distance no longer posing a barrier, this year’s virtual performance will also be the first time students from Eugene will be participating. 

“With this pandemic [response], we’re teaching students how to embrace technology and videos,” Brugh says. “It’s important that students realize that they should have a YouTube station. It’s pushing us all into this new level of artistry. I hope we continue this live streaming even if we come back to live performances, maybe some combo of pre-recorded performances and some live, with students doing their own recordings.”

Expanding Horizons 

Teaching students about video making and streaming will be only the latest aspect of In Good Hands’s contribution to Oregon musical education. Compared to performing classics of past centuries, playing new music “opens up their ears to new sounds, new techniques, new things to learn,” says Safar. “Every composer’s got a different voice. It’s so important not be boxed into any particular genre, especially antiquated ones. When I was younger, [playing new music] helped me  not be afraid of it, to take it on its own terms. Learning new music can’t help but expand them musically, whether they end up becoming professional musicians or not.”  

Composer, teacher and pianist Paul Safar

Not only does participating in IGH keep students practicing music over the summer when many stop taking regular lessons, the program also provides a unique motivation for study that standard recitals can’t. Portland teacher Irene Huang, who has 13 students participating this year, normally plays through the classics when introducing them to her students and helps them understand various ways they’ve been interpreted. But Huang, whose own musical education was dominated standard classical repertoire, she can’t do that with new, unfamiliar music. 

“I hand the music to the students and tell them, ‘This is fresh out of the oven. I’m not playing it for you because I’ve never played it. You’ll be in charge — take it home bring it back to me and let me know what have you learned,’” Huang explains. “So they get to be the teacher. It’s more a motivation to them to be in charge instead of ‘this is what my teacher assigned me and I need to follow what she said.’ And when I tell them ‘you’ll be premiering this piece, and it’s never been played before in public and you’ll be the first one — that sends them to the moon!”

Because of that sense of ownership, Huang says, performing in In Good Hands especially encourages reticent performers. “Most of my students are Asian,” she laughs, “and some can be shy and timid, so sometimes it’s hard to get them up there to perform. Through In Good Hands, many of my students become not as passive. They’re very happy and excited to show everyone what they’ve learned.”

Finding Their Voices

Students’ personal stake in the music also comes from their personal connection to the composers. Working with composers on their interpretations gives students an opportunity to divine what the composers intended in a way that’s impossible to do with long-dead composers. “If composer and students are working together and the composer explains their motivation and inspiration in writing the piece, or gives suggestions on how want it played, it helps them a lot,” Mittelstaedt says. For example, one of this year’s performers, a student of Safar’s, is playing her “Dusk,” and she was explaining how she imagined the different sections sounded. “This area is like velvet,” she told him. “Imagine you’re touching velvet — that’s how you’d play it.” 

Composer, teacher and pianist Jan Mittelstaedt

In a piece called “Childhood Memories,” a student didn’t understand why the middle section was dark and spooky. “It’s about the things you’re afraid of, like the monster in the closet,” composer Dianne Davies told her. One piece of hers played by one of Huang’s students is based on a story about a jaguar chasing its prey, and Davies allows students to inform their performances of the ending based on whether they think the jaguar caught its victim or not.

“I’m honored to be part of In the Good Hands concert,” wrote Huang’s 11-year-old student Thalia Wong. “When I play piano, I try to imagine what the composers try to express in their music. This time, I get to personally connect with the composers! I love that they can give me feedback for my performance. This helps me to understand the music more, and makes it more special. It’s also exciting to be the first to perform this brand new piece of music.”

Davies, Brugh and Safar also acknowledge how educational it can be for students to bring their own interpretations to a work, even if different from their own original intentions. “It was really touching to hear a student play a piece of mine called “Lonesome Waltz,” Davies recalls. “She didn’t play it exactly how I envisioned it, but it was incredible to hear someone play a piece I’d written with such deep emotional attachment that she made something I’d brought into existence mean something to her, too.”  

Brugh had a similar experience, when a teacher suggested a student play his piece without using the pedal that adds reverberation. Brugh heard it and said “bathe it in pedal! But the teacher said ‘I told her not to do that!’ That’s the beauty of In Good Hands. The teacher, composer and student come together and they learn from each other.”

Ultimately, it’s up to the student to decide how to interpret the music, as long they keep the spirit of the music, Brugh says. “To learn the expression of a new piece, to make it their own benefits the students musically. You’re not just learning it by rote, but you really learn about yourself and what music means to you. You’re teaching a student to find their own voice.”

This year, some composers are even able to give students rehearsal feedback because the students can send them videos of their practices. One student this year even said participating in the process has made him more interested in doing his own composition. “I recently learned the piece entitled “Snowbound” by Jan Mittelstaedt for part of my syllabus Level 6 exam,” wrote student Tyler Raven. “I enjoyed learning and performing it. It was awesome to then be able to meet Jan. I was able to play the piece for her and we talked about what the piece was about, what inspired her to write it, and discussed different parts of it. This program was a great way for me to learn about a composer and has inspired me to continue to write my own music.” 

Enriching Oregon Music

Composers benefit too.  “As a composer you realize the value of writing a piece that’s not hard,” Brugh explains. “We all write these extraordinarily complex pieces with big concepts but this year I wrote a piece called “Martian Camper” and it’s fun and it’s still music. You don’t always have to reinvent the world. In simplifying, sometimes you get closer to your inner voice.” 

Davies has gained valuable perspective from IGH. “It’s made me more aware of different subject matters to write about,” she says. “My first pieces were about me — my childhood memories. The other pieces have been about topics that students would be interested in,” like disappearing wildlife threatened by humans’ encroachment on their habitats. “I’m finishing my second set of Rainforest Animals,” inspired by endangered species like jaguar, Toucan Macaw, three toed sloth, golden poison dart frog. “Kids care more than adults — they’re worried about their world. So in thinking about what students want to play, my perspective has changed. It’s expanded beyond myself.” 

Composer, teacher and pianist Dianne Davies

Even teachers benefit from IGH. “Seeing my students wanting to learn something new out of their teacher’s comfort zone helps me get out of my comfort zone to play more contemporary music,” Huang says. “My tastes and appreciation of contemporary music has changed through these years. I’m starting to enjoy Oregon music more. The different rhythmic and tone colors have been getting into my ear and head more. I feel like I’m getting a little bit younger through exposure to new music.”

As IGH teachers, students, and audience members gain exposure to contemporary Oregon music, they, in turn, provide the next generations of Oregon music performers and listeners. “The hope is that it will carry over” beyond the recital performance,” Mittelstaedt says. “We’re also training future listeners. The more experiences with Oregon music they have like this, the more they’ll understand it.”

Safar, who’s had music played in almost every IGH recital, has seen the legacy growing as In Good Hands begins its second decade of seeding Oregon music. “Early on, one student played a piece of mine,” he recalls. “His hands were so little he couldn’t even reach the octaves. Maybe four or five years later, he played a piano duet of mine with another student — and he was all grown up, no longer a 10 year old, still playing my music.” 


You can Zoom into this year’s virtual In Good Hands performance at 3 pm Saturday, July 11. After the event, see videos of the performances at Cascadia Composers website. Teachers, parents, and students interested in the program should contact Jan Mittelstaedt at janrmitt@gmail.com.

Want to read more music news in Oregon? Support Oregon ArtsWatch

A virtual take on a total art form

Kids in Newport’s Online Summer Drama Club will learn everything from props to acting to accountability – culminating in a play – via computer

Two years ago, Jennifer Hamilton began providing after-school theater classes to kids at the Newport Performing Arts Center. She even persuaded the bus company to create a new stop for the pint-sized performers. She also started School’s Out, Theatre’s In for days when schools are not in session, and this year had planned a two-week summer camp. That, of course, had to be canceled because of COVID-19.

THE ART OF LEARNING: An Occasional Series

Jennifer Hamilton says teaching theater to children “creates cooperation, support, just like a team sport.”

Instead, Hamilton is hosting the Oregon Coast Council for the Arts’ Online Summer Drama Club. Beginning July 6, students entering third through eighth grade will meet twice weekly for eight weeks in virtual classes, culminating Aug. 28 with a day of performances. Registration is still open, with a fee of $80.

Hamilton has a BA in theater from Sterling College in Kansas and a master’s in theater from the University of Kansas. She serves on the board for the American Association of Community Theatre and has been instrumental in developing and running the group’s national Youth Theatre conferences. We talked with her about what both she and kids get out of theater and how a virtual theater class is going to work.

What inspired you to go into children’s theater?

Hamilton:  I’d gone to college and studied theater and speech. Eight or nine years later, I decided to go back to grad school. Halfway through, a job opened up for the education director at the Topeka Civic Theatre & Academy, which has a children’s theater department. I thought, these jobs are far and few between; I need to take this. I fell in love. It’s such a reward to see kids put on a show, having a blast at camp. When I started, the camp had 30 kids. When I left 12 years later, we had over 300 students enrolling.


Virtual and vital: Strike up the band

Caught short by the pandemic, the Metropolitan Youth Orchestra takes to technology and shows that shutdown doesn't have to mean shut up

On that dark day in March when Oregon began to shut down, Metropolitan Youth Symphony’s leaders knew they had to move fast. “As soon as we knew we were going into lockdown, we tried as quickly as possible to transition to what’s next,” recalls music director Raúl Gómez. The Portland organization had to cancel not only its four upcoming spring concerts, but also its weekly Saturday rehearsals and its classes, affecting more than 500 students in 14 orchestra, band, string and jazz ensembles, including the 90-member Symphony Orchestra, and in beginning strings and theory classes. MYS leaders knew nothing could fully replace the lost programming, but they were determined not to leave a musical void in their teenage students’ lives.

“We had to find a way to keep the students engaged,” Gómez says, “to keep making music in some way.” 

Raúl Gómez conducts MYS way back in the days when they could all play together on stage.

But how? Governor Kate Brown’s emergency announcement prohibited gatherings required to put on a concert or a group rehearsal in the band rooms at its regular Northeast Portland and Hillsboro high schools. Nevertheless, MYS found a way to rethink — if not entirely replace — its major programs, including its crown jewel season closing concert. ArtsWatch readers, and everyone else, can see the result on their own screens this Saturday.

Virtual Hangouts

The closing concert represents only the most publicly visible of MYS’s many offerings. Still, other changes were quickly adoptable. Like other educational institutions, MYS could move its educational efforts online without much change in content, including the weekly Saturday sessions and tuition-free Beginning Strings Program, says MYS executive director Diana Scoggins, albeit with all the drawbacks that come with the inability to offer hands-on instruction. 

And they immediately scrambled to switch their upcoming annual fundraising gala, just two weeks away, to an online platform. The staff worked remotely, with only Scoggins occasionally coming into the office. So far, the organization hasn’t had to lay off anyone.

“Because our year was already in place, we adapted,” Scoggins says. “The challenge was getting the tech arranged and communicating to let people know.” Unlike many other arts organizations that depend on ticket sales for funding, “we’re tuition-based, so we had the freedom to tackle the transition as best we could. We just kept going.”

MYS Executive Director Diana Scoggins

But those stopgaps still left an absence for many MYS musicians, who, Gómez knew, relied on the organization for more than just music lessons and performances. They were already missing much of the interaction and community provided by their regular schools as well as MYS.

“To not be able to make music together has made us very aware of the value of being a community that comes together once a week to do something together,” Gómez explains. “For any musician, the social aspect of it we all miss — to be there with others to do something  you love — is the biggest drawback.”

 How could MYS help keep them engaged in music? To maintain a sense of structure in students’ lives, Gómez didn’t want to let even the first canceled Saturday rehearsal period go unfilled. “Here’s this free time we suddenly have, and how do you take advantage of the time?” Gómez asked himself.

THE ART OF LEARNING: An Occasional Series

He decided to set up a livestreamed program for the students, featuring recordings of all the pieces intended for the now-canceled concert program, as he’d seen a few other organizations do. One problem: “I didn’t know how to do it,” he says. Being a bit of a tech geek himself, Gómez plunged into research, eventually settling on a platform normally used for multiplayer online gaming. They notified the orchestra members, he set up the recordings, and off they went.

“It was super fun,” Gómez remembers of that first, test-run stream. “The kids were asking questions and typing in lots of comments. They were really engaged and interactive, so after we got through that first session, I talked with Diana and [MYS operations director] Chris [Whittemore] and said, why didn’t we try doing a daily live stream, where I talk with some cool people and see what happens?” 

Go for it, they said. “I went to Best Buy and bought a computer powerful enough to edit and stream video, and the very next day, we had a session with Sarah Tiedemann from Third Angle,” Gómez remembers. “By Monday everything was pretty much in place.” 

Since then, MYS Virtual Hangouts has been running from Tuesday-Friday at 4 p.m. on the MYS YouTube Channel, with Gómez hosting from his home studio. Guests in the more than 40 sessions have included Oregon Symphony principal cellist Nancy Ives and fellow cellist and OSO artist-in-residence Johannes Moser, prize-winning composers Caroline Shaw and Gabriela Lena Frank, composer/ teacher/ FearNoMusic artistic director and one-time Portland Youth Philharmonic violist Kenji Bunch, answering student questions, sharing life stories, musical advice and even world premiere collaborations with local musicians. 

 “For us as an educational institution, it’s been such a gold mine,” Gómez says. “It’s been so encouraging for the kids, such a community builder, with a vast array of families involved.” Parents like it, too. “I’ve seen fantastic feedback from parents,” Scoggins reports, citing emails expressing “deep appreciation for  how we’ve been able to continue the educational process, to keep the sense of community going when kids don’t have school.”

Virtual Concert

As valuable as those efforts proved to both students and parents, something was still missing. Scrapping the closing May concert especially hurt, as it represented the culmination of a year’s worth of hard work for nearly 100 students. For the graduating seniors, it annually provided a sense of closure, their final chance to make music with their friends. What could replace it?

On May 19-21, Eugene Springfield Youth Orchestras, facing a similar challenge, streamed a kind of sequential recital, featuring its members playing solo pieces. (See all three streams here.) But Gómez wanted an actual orchestral concert. Not in person, of course. But how to create a virtual performance with 14 ensembles and 90 musicians playing separately?

Now equipped with video and audio editing skills and equipment, Gómez thought he could make it happen. The students would each record their own part for every piece at home, send it to Gómez — and then he’d painstakingly weave each audio track, supplied by as many different digital devices as there were members of the orchestra, into a completed tapestry: a complete orchestral piece. 

Or rather, pieces. Because MYS’s closing concert celebrating the end of spring term featured a work by each of the organization’s 14 ensembles, including jazz, strings, and orchestras. To make the May 30 livestream deadline, every player would need to send her or his recorded part to Gómez by May 15. First, he (remotely) met with each of the conductors to select a piece for their respective ensembles to play in the closing virtual concert. 

But how would they play together without a conductor to keep everyone in tempo? The answer: click tracks, a metronomic beat played in headphones that studio musicians often use when recording. Gómez and the conductors recorded appropriate click tracks for each part on each piece and emailed them to the students. Over the next month, the students practiced their individual parts with those beats clicking in their ears. They’d record themselves playing and send the recordings to their conductors, who coached the students online via Zoom sessions.

“For students to have to challenge themselves to record these tracks was a big learning opportunity,” Gómez said. The students needed two devices each: one to play the click track, another to record them playing their part and send it to the conductors. 

Image from an MYS Virtual Hangout

Surprisingly, access to the needed technology didn’t pose a barrier to even the most impoverished students. “Everybody has a phone and the kids often have better technology than their parents,” Gómez says. They did have to help some people with the upload process, and a helpful MYS parent made an instructional video showing students and parents how to record video of themselves playing their parts.

But technology itself wasn’t the major obstacle. Keeping their playing in sync to the click tracks proved to be “a real challenge for many of our students,” Gómez acknowledges. In effect, they’re like a metronome, and “the metronome doesn’t lie. I tell them, it’s your best friend and your worst enemy. It tells the truth — and sometimes the truth hurts. It was a challenge, especially for the younger kids.” But ultimately it pushed them to firm up their playing, possibly even more than they would have in the past, without so much time to practice alone with their click tracks. “And by the end, on the 15th we had all these videos in,” Gómez says. 

Then Gómez’s real work began: with help from Whittemore, he embarked on a two-week binge of compiling, editing (including employing noise reduction and other techniques), mixing and balancing dozens of tracks recorded from very different audio sources, and amalgamating them into cohesive band, ensemble and orchestral pieces. And then also constructing videos showing the students performing them, using panning, zooms, transitions, multiple square images….  

MYS music director Raúl Gómez. Photo: Richard Kolbell.

“I am currently a full-time audio and video editor and part time interviewer,” he laughs. “I have two large computer monitors in front of me and I’m looking at a whole bunch of video and audio tracks. Just making one of these is a challenge. But fourteen! It’s pretty labor-intensive but I’m really enjoying doing this. It was hard work for all of us, but it’s going to pay off on May 30th; we’re all going to get to enjoy the videos with kids and families and everybody else watching around the world.” 

Live from his home studio, Gómez will host the livestream on MYS’s YouTube and Facebook pages. Each MYS conductor will introduce their group’s virtual performance made from the students’ home recordings, including music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Miles Davis, Tchaikovsky and much more. 

Silver Linings

MYS has made a virtue of necessity, actively adapting to the pandemic challenge to derive surprising benefits from what could have been a disappointing end to spring term. 

• The Virtual Concert will make the students’ performances much more accessible to distant or homebound family members than they ever could be live. 

• For the students, playing to click tracks has sharpened their musical chops, and learning how to make videos will benefit many in future if they need to record audition videos, for example, for school or job applications.

• Gómez and his fellow MYS conductors have learned valuable video and audio editing and remote teaching techniques.

• The weekly rehearsals and hangouts have also helped students sustain their community of fellow young musicians. 

• The Virtual Hangouts have given students and parents a creative way to fill the enforced home-together time and helped sustain their community of music makers. And they’ve afforded Gómez much more time “to do things during normal rehearsals we don’t have time to do,” he explains. “I always wish I had more time to talk about the music we’re playing and to spend time learning about the composers or world events around a piece of music, but normally with our deadlines and concerts we don’t have that luxury. We have been doing that through blog posts and our newsletter, but using YouTube or Zoom, now we have the time to play students three different recordings of the same section of a piece, and discuss why those choices were made. It’s a chance to address our music making from different perspectives. That whole element was an enriching experience for me and each conductor. I learned a lot from them.”

• The hangouts have also inspired Gómez to think differently about teaching. “Honestly I enjoy it so much,” he says. “On a personal level that has given me a lot of inspiration and motivation to keep finding ways to connect and try and innovate and continue to keep the students engaged.”

Lasting Impact

It’s hard for MYS or any other arts organization to predict how things will change after the crisis finally subsides. They’re planning for different scenarios for the fall, and about to make a decision on whether to go forward with their Portland Summer Ensembles music camp. Some things will definitely change; for example, students who want to participate in MYS will audition by video. (See instructions on the website.) 

But Scoggins hopes to put what they’ve learned this spring to good use going forward. “On the upside, some tremendous energy is gained by moving online so we’ll want to look at how to use online events or sessions or classes to deepen the experience,” she says. “In terms of access, there’s a lot we’re learning having to do this and we’ll definitely look at incorporating that in the future, and to use the online capacity make it even more of a substantial program, to reach more kids, to spend more time on learning.”

Raúl Gómez conducts Metropolitan Youth Symphony. Photo: Richard Kolbell.

Gómez suspects the imaginative attitude the crisis has forced on MYS and other organizations will pay dividends after it abates. “We’re forced to be creative and learn a bunch of new skills. My hope is that going into next season, we can apply some of the lessons we’ve learned over the last couple of months in our regular programming,” he says, “to find ways to enrich our students’ experience next season through these new vehicles.”

 That goes for more than MYS. “Since we were all forced to go into this parallel universe, this has forced all of us in the Portland performing arts community to really be creative and think outside the box in the ways we present our art and the ways we educate our young musicians,” Gómez says. “We all need to stay positive and remain optimistic about the short term and mid term future of what we’re doing. I realize that’s an extremely hard thing to do, especially for artists who’ve lost income and are experiencing very real concerns about their financial stability and livelihood. But it’s important for all of us as a community and as professional artists to think about how can we strengthen our profession and re-evaluate our business models. How can organizations plan for a future where this could happen again? How do we create structures and programs that reach our audiences and generate income for all of us going forward? 

“I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I think as we try to remain positive and optimistic, we also need to take a hard look at the future and shape how we’re going to continue to exist in this twilight zone we’re living in right now. It will have a lasting impact on what we do — and it should.”


Metropolitan Youth Symphony’s Virtual Concert Finale streams Saturday at 7 pm on MYS’s YouTube and Facebook pages.


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A little ArtSpark in Eugene

As schools stay shut down, arts teachers in Lane County shift their studio classes online and take the art to kids across 16 districts

As Covid-19 shuttered schools across Oregon, limiting access to in-person learning of core curriculum and electives alike, arts organizations like Lane Arts Council pivoted on a dime, reinventing program delivery models to meet the changing needs of students in Lane County.  

ArtSpark Online has been created so that every student across Lane County can have free, flexible access through open-access video tutorials teaching a variety of art forms,” says the county arts council’s arts education program manager, Eric Braman. “We have reached out to every school district in hopes of encouraging teachers, parents, and students to stay creative with the tools around them – whether that is turning dandelions into dye or an old sock into a new puppet! Each video provides clear instructions, guiding students to engage directly with the ‘making’ of art, exploring both visual and performance art.”

THE ART OF LEARNING: An Occasional Series

Lessons vary in length, depending on the art-making process, Braman explains.

“Our goal was to create 15-20 minute videos that guide students through approximately 45 minutes of viewing/art making,” Braman says. “We wanted to avoid “lecture-style” arts instruction, and instead always have the video directing students toward the ‘making’.”

The videos provide clear direction for students to follow and regularly instructs them to pause the video and go do.

“In the observational drawing videos, this translated to the artist showing the students how to begin a sketch, then instructing them to pause the video and take some time sketching on their own. In puppetry, the lessons were much shorter, but the unlimited potential between the crafting of the puppet and the performing of the puppet are unlimited! Our hope is that each video will encourage approximately 45 minutes of active engagement with an art form,” Braman says.

Alex Ever, demonstrating on Vimeo how to make natural dyes. Photo courtesy Lane Arts Council

Lane Arts’ teaching artists are learning new ways of doing things, too. Before quarantine measures, artist Alex Ever primarily taught students about natural dyes.


Lincoln City Cultural Center mines COVID-19 silver lining

Creative Quarantine provides activity kits for kids and online entertainment for adults

Even in these strange days, people are finding the silver lining. At the Lincoln City Cultural Center, that’s been a chance to connect with innumerable people who previously may not have known the center existed. It’s also been a reminder of what creative and innovative people are in our midst.

Last month, Executive Director Niki Price temporarily closed the center due to COVID-19. It wasn’t easy. There were layoffs, reduced hours, and the cancellation of one of the year’s biggest kids’ events, the Festival of Illusion.

Sisters Juniper (left) and Hazel Jones made Ben Soeby Fishboxes, https://artstudiotourlccc.com/artists/ben-soeby/ part of the April 9 Creative Quarantine packet, using popsicle sticks, pens, markers, paint and glue. Photo courtesy: Lincoln City Cultural Center
Sisters Juniper (left) and Hazel Jones made Ben Soeby Fishboxes, part of the April 9 Creative Quarantine packet, using popsicle sticks, pens, markers, paint and glue. Photo courtesy: Lincoln City Cultural Center

“Everybody went home and rested for a few days,” Price said. “And then I began to think, we have all these supplies and all these ideas. Surely, we can find a way to get them out there in a safe way.”

So she called the center’s visual arts director, Krista Eddy, who knew exactly what Price was thinking.

And that’s how Creative Quarantine was born.