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.


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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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