People are in quarantine, schools are closed, but high school musicians are finding ways to stay creative.
“It’s been a little weird,” said Casey Asaro, a junior at Shenendehowa High School, who plays trumpet in the school’s wind ensemble, and two jazz bands.
“But I’ve been using the time to explore new pathways . . . even to compose. I’m also doing more practicing.”
Asaro also dabbles in piano, guitar, alto saxophone and flute.
Nahjiim Engram, a freshman at Schenectady High School, who plays drum in the band, likes to stick to a routine.
“I’m trying to find a good balance between school and life,” he said. “So I practice at the usual times I would have during school. I have a drum set at home. Before I only played on some of the drums, but now with the extra time I can do the entire set.”
Trombonist Samantha Ivey, a senior at Shenendehowa, and violinist Lauren Kersch, a senior at Ballston Spa High School, both miss their ensembles.
“I played in wind ensemble and jazz ensemble,” Ivey said, “and band was the first class of the day. It’s been sad. It’s hard to get used to. But it’s given me more time to play different songs that I like and do my own renditions . . . that and to practice more.”
Kersch, too, had orchestra as her first class of the day.
“I was always smiling and laughing,” she said. “It’s hard to not be, playing with friends. We were to have our concert this month and we’d gotten to sound really good. So it’s definitely sad that we can’t play for our parents.”
But three weekly virtual sessions with teachers who “chit-chat” with her about scoping out new pieces or how she’s doing have inspired her to keep practicing on her own, Kersch said.
And that’s the bottom line.
“The primary concerns are to keep kids as engaged as possible and for them to take ownership of their learning,” said Frank Rosselli, Shenendehowa’s academic administrator for Fine Arts. “We’ve been doing virtual instruction over Google Meets or Google Hangouts in small groups or with individual teachers.”
Rosselli oversees sixteen ensembles in the district’s high school that involve up to 400 kids and despite the current situation he estimates about ninety percent of those instrumentalists are still participating.
“That’s pretty good all considered,” he said.
Kathleen Beck Nickerson, the Fine Arts supervisor at Schenectady High School, has 150 kids between the band and orchestra, but estimates only about 50 percent of the musicians are involved in the virtual lessons.
“Each teacher is doing something,” she said. “The important thing is maintaining engagement. They’re always trying new things to accommodate the kids. I have fifteen teachers. They’re amazing and the community and district are so supportive. I’m so proud.”
Chelsea Reeves, who teaches/conducts three of the orchestras at Ballston Spa High School, which involve 260 kids, said these were challenging times.
“We like to keep the routines and have virtual Google Meets but they’re optional,” she said. “We’re trying not to be a burden but we want to keep them playing and let them be positive and to keep practicing. A lot are doing the work. They show me what they’re doing and many submit a recording or video.”
An interesting side note that she discovered is that many of her students are working fulltime at the local new Hannaford Supermarket or at McDonald’s, she said.
Reeves, who also occasionally subs on violin in the Schenectady Symphony Orchestra, would have conducted the May orchestra concerts.
“It was sad and we were bummed not doing the concert,” she said. “We’d already been doing the detail work and really enjoyed when it was sounding beautiful. What we all miss is that being in an ensemble is like being on a team. We’ve missed that the most.”
A hit to recruitment
The school closures have affected another aspect of each district’s music programs: recruitment of new instrumentalists. This usually takes place at the elementary or grade school level when children are introduced to all the instruments in assembly programs or during general music classes. At Schenectady, this is done during the fall, so getting new kids onto an instrument had already been completed with rosters filled out as to who would be taking group lessons for which group, Nickerson said.
But at Ballston Spa and Shenendehowa, that recruitment would have taken place this spring.
“We do a show and tell to fourth and fifth graders to see who would be interested and music teachers follow up,” Rosselli said. “Everyone wants to play sax or drums. It’s the double reeds like bassoon, oboe or French horn that are the least popular. This virus has thrown a monkey wrench into that recruitment.”
Reeves agreed. “Kids get to try out an instrument and see if it fits them,” she said. “They don’t know the difference between a clarinet from a saxophone or a violin from a viola.”
Typically, if one hundred kids sign up, there will be about a three percent dropout rate annually. By high school, however, the percentage rate rises to almost 20 percent with about 80 kids still playing their instruments, Rosselli said.
“Some continue to play in college and some never touch the instrument again,” he said.
Ivey and Kersch are two of those players who started in the early years and both intend to play in college — not as music majors, but in a school band or club, they said. Asaro, however, wants to go into music education.
“Absolutely,” he said. “My teacher is thrilled.”