metropolitan youth symphony

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.”

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

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MusicWatch Weekly: Welcome to Digital Heaven

Hermit like a champ with Oregon’s virtualocal superstars

These days we’re toggling between two extremes: on the one hand, digitally mediated mass socialization via zoom, youtube, social media, and all the rest of the burgeoning digital (after)life; on the other hand, some truly next-level hermit action in the form of baking, yoga, quilting, meditation, prayer, journaling, self-reflection, self-recording, and the simple joy of sitting and catching up on all those books you’ve been meaning to read since, like, the eighties.

Of course, most of us are splitting the difference one way or another–for instance, we know dozens of musicians who are spending their quarantine listening to and sharing their favorite albums, a perfect example of how a fundamentally isolated endeavor can be transmuted into an eminently social experience. Same goes, mutatis mutandis, for book clubs and TV show binge-watching parties (let me know if I can spoil Battlestar Galactica for you).

We’ll be talking in some depth about this nascent digital afterlife starting next week, when we’ll discuss: 45th Parallel Universe’s new friend Kevin; defunct Portland cyberpunk indie trio Menomena; recent and timely Matrixy entertainment like Devs, Westworld, and Upload; and media guru Douglas Rushkoff’s “Ten Commands for a Digital Age.” That’s all in the first of several new series we schemers at ArtsWatch have planned for your next few months of quarantined music reading. Stay tuned.

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MusicWatch Weekly: The Apocalypse will be livestreamed

As world ends in slow motion, musicians struggle in solidarity

First of all, how are you? Eating enough? Staying inside and entertained? Called your friends and/or family lately? Good.

Let’s start by collectively admitting that we’re Not Doing Alright. It’s been a busy two weeks since last we spoke, dear reader: schools closed, concerts canceled, tours derailed, musicians laid off, stay-home orders issued, force majeure clauses invoked. We’ve been comparing notes with our fellow Gen X-ers and other overthirties, folks who experienced 9/11 and its aftermath as adults, and we’ve all reached the same conclusion–this is weirder by far.

Nobody knows what the hell is going to happen next, and as we scramble to make sense of it all we find ourselves grasping for new definitions of “musical activity” in general and “music journalism” in particular. We’d like to quote words from Oregon ArtsWatch Executive Editor Barry Johnson’s Mission Statement, which have recently comforted us:

The arts remind us that we are in this together. That we aren’t alone in our particular thoughts and feelings. That things can be made right and whole, if just for a moment. They remind us that the individual can do great things, and so can individuals acting together. And somehow, they resolve the great tension of American life, that between the rightful autonomy of the individual and the responsibilities that come with belonging to a group. We can’t imagine a good outcome to our dire problems—as a community, a nation, a planet—without the complex lessons the arts teach us.

We believe that the processes of discovery, explanation and discussion of journalism have an important role to play in all of this. An “informed citizenry” extends to cultural matters, and that is the mission of Oregon ArtsWatch—to help those of us in this particular culture share support and create arts and culture that respond to our needs.

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Sketching ‘Volcano!’ at the museum

ArtsWatch Weekly: Big crowds & small artists take in the Portland Art Museum's big boom, March's new art & dance, a fresh film fest

ON SATURDAY I DROPPED BY THE PORTLAND ART MUSEUM to spend a little quality time with Volcano!, the sprawling exhibit designed to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the eruption of Mt. St. Helens. (The mountaintop blasted sky-high on May 18, 1980; the museum’s show closes on May 17, a day before the anniversary.) On a rainy afternoon the place was packed with curious or nostalgic visitors. Some came to revisit their experiences of one of the most memorable days in modern Pacific Northwest history. Some came eager to learn a little more about a cataclysmic event they didn’t live through themselves but knew was a Really Big Deal. And most seemed engaged: The crowd wasn’t just walking through quickly with a glance here and a glance there – people were studying the paintings and photographs, sometimes doubling back to take a closer look at something they’d already seen. One way or another, this show seemed a part of their lives.

Lucinda Parker, “The Seething Saint,” 2019, acrylic on canvas, in the exhibition “Volcano!” at the Portland Art Museum. Courtesy Lucinda Parker and Russo Lee Gallery

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Living Traditions, Part One: American symphonica

Keeping the American orchestra alive with Portland Youth Philharmonic, Metropolitan Youth Symphony, and Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra

A couple years back, during the Bernstein Centennial, Portland Youth Philharmonic conductor David Hattner said something that stuck with us: “if American orchestras don’t play music by American composers, no one will.” He meant it, too; that concert, with a deeply moving performance of Bernstein’s Jeremiah Symphony as its centerpiece, was one of only two really worthwhile Bernstein concerts that season (the other was PSU Chamber Choir’s Chichester Psalms). Jeremiah soloist Laura Beckel Thoreson, plus superb performances of Jacob Avshalomov’s The Taking of T’ung Kuan and Ernst Bloch’s Schelomo (with dazzling solo cello from Kira Wang), only sweetened the deal.

We’ve noticed that PYP, Metropolitan Youth Symphony, and Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra all do their fair share to keep the American Symphonic Tradition alive in Portland. In fact, from an aesthetic point of view they often do better than bigger institutions like the Oregon Symphony. (The same holds true, mutatis mutandis, for the contrasting American composer relations of the conservative but modern-friendly Portland Opera and the living-composer-obsessed Opera Theater Oregon–which is, to be fair, co-directed by a living, local, American composer).

This month, all three orchestras have concerts that enrich and enliven the American Symphonic Tradition: PYP and MYS this weekend, PCSO the following. We’ve been to most of these three orchestras’ recent concerts, and each one was a perfectly flawed contribution to the tradition’s vitality. That is, they were enjoyable as symphonic concerts and laudable as concerts of music by American composers, but each made (lucky for this music critic) a few critical mistakes.

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Raúl Gómez: Living in a world of optimism

The Metropolitan Youth Symphony director talks full STEAM ahead about the vital positive links among science, education, and the arts

[Editor’s note: Gómez, music director of the Metropolitan Youth Symphony, delivered a version of this essay as a speech to Intel employees in November 2019. It has been updated, and edited for length. See also Vision 2020: Raúl Gómez, Brett Campbell’s interview with Gómez in ArtsWatch’s Vision 2020 series.]

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By RAÚL GÓMEZ

I live in a world filled with optimism. The reason is that I work with young people in the arts. Every Saturday, more than 500 students come to Metropolitan Youth Symphony rehearsals in Portland and Hillsboro. I get to conduct two out of fifteen ensembles at MYS. One of these ensembles is our most advanced full orchestra: MYS Symphony Orchestra. These are highly gifted young musicians, playing near or at professional levels, many of whom have made their ways up the ranks at MYS,  from our youngest entry-level orchestra to our top group, which recently came back from touring Italy and Austria.

These young musicians fill me with optimism every Saturday, because they walk in the door, they say “hi” to their friends from different schools, chat a little bit, then they sit down, we tune, and then, for three hours, they’re laser-focused on slaying some of the most challenging and rewarding orchestral repertoire there is. This include masterworks like Beethoven Symphony No. 7 or Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, and brand-new music by their peers: local, young composers from Oregon. 



THE ART OF LEARNING: an occasional series



My world is filled with optimism because after rehearsal, these kids go back home, hopefully rest and get some sleep, and then proceed to make it through their weeks at home, school, and their communities with the same focus, leadership, team spirit, and excellence that they exhibit in the orchestra. I go back home –exhausted and depleted of physical energy after rehearsing two ensembles for six hours – but on such a high. Five hundred-plus kids in Portland and Hillsboro just spent hours, under the leadership of an amazing team of conductors and coaches, doing what neuroscientists are calling “the brain equivalent of a full-body workout.” 

MUSIC & BRAIN DEVELOPMENT

As somebody who is a professional musician and as somebody who works in music education, I am very aware of the many benefits that music brings to anybody who engages in some kind of music-making on a regular basis. Music performance, music education, and the arts in general are good for the brain, and they are a booster for creativity and discipline. 

There are many studies, articles, scientific and scholarly publications about the correlation between music education and academic achievement. Students who participate in music score substantially higher on many standardized tests of math, reading, and writing, and in other measures of academic achievement and skill development.  

In the last few decades, neuroscientists have made great breakthroughs in understanding what music does to the human brain. A video publication by Dr. Anita Collins, a music educator in Australia, addresses this beautifully.

She explains that neuroscientists are able to monitor how our brains work with instruments like Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging and Positron Emission Tomography scanners. They monitor the brains of people who are doing activities like reading or solving math problems, and different areas of the brain are activated. However, when they monitor people listening to music (not even playing, just listening) multiple areas of the brain light up at once. The scientists compare it to fireworks.

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Vision 2020: Raúl Gómez

Engaging the big issues: In a troubled world, the Metropolitan Youth Symphony leader says, schools need to teach the empathy of the arts

“One of my priorities has always been to promote and empower young musicians, to give voice to living composers,” Raúl Gómez-Rojas told ArtsWatch in 2018. Now in his fourth season as music director of Portland’s Metropolitan Youth Symphony, Gómez has firmly placed MYS in the forefront of classical music’s development by connecting tomorrow’s classical musicians with today’s music — including music composed by MYS members themselves. Last year, MYS partnered with Portland new music ensemble FearNoMusic’s Young Composers Project in a commissioning program, The Authentic Voice, which gives local, student composers an opportunity to write for and hear their work publicly performed by full symphony orchestra, while giving ensemble musicians a chance to play never performed music by their peers. This year, the program includes three symphonic commissions, each receiving a world premiere at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, eight YCP student arrangements of film scores for full orchestra, and other opportunities for readings and performances of works by younger composers with other MYS ensembles.


VISION 2020: TWENTY VIEWS ON OREGON ARTS


At MYS, the Costa Rican native  works with conductors, coaches, staff, families and more than 500 students in 15 orchestra, band and jazz ensembles. Last year, the League of American Orchestra’s 2018 Bruno Walter National Conductor Preview chose Gomez as one of six conductors honored for their “experience, talent, leadership, and commitment to a career in service to American orchestras.”

Raúl Gómez conducting the Metropolitan Youth Symphony. Photo: R. Kobell

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