NJYS rallies its community to come together despite social distancing using video conferencing platform Zoom.
With less than two weeks to switch gears from producing a day-long concert event to an afternoon of performances on the video conferencing platform Zoom, NJYS managed to rally its community to come together despite social distancing.
The news broke on March 4: the first New Jersey resident to test positive for COVID-19 had been identified and was not long after admitted to Hackensack University Medical Center.
The New Jersey Youth Symphony (NJYS) faced an unprecedented dilemma: although public schools and businesses were still operating as usual, tentative discussions around potentially cancelling the 35th Annual Playathon at New Jersey’s largest outlet mall began to circulate. Scheduled for Sunday, March 29, The Mills at Jersey Gardens in Elizabeth has hosted the Playathon for nearly two decades, drawing crowds in the thousands to the afternoon of free concerts, and no one wanted to cancel this long-awaited event.
As the New Jersey Youth Symphony’s largest fundraising event, the Playathon supports performing arts education and raises money for scholarships and tuition assistance for one of New Jersey’s largest youth orchestra programs. The day of music-making brings together students from Wharton Institute for the Performing Arts’ New Jersey Youth Symphony, Paterson Music Project, and Performing Arts School to perform crowd-favorite selections from movies, Broadway and beyond, including The Sound of Music, Pirates of the Caribbean, Star Wars, and Harry Potter.
A truly unique moment each year, the Playathon is the only event that brings together all NJYS students to perform as one orchestra. The one-of-a-kind ensemble, featuring over 500 students in grades 3-12, historically takes the stage in Center Court after smaller pop-up stages around the mall feature performances by students from the three programs of the Wharton Institute for the Performing Arts.
All of that seemed in jeopardy with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. The annual fundraiser raises nearly $100,000 for the organization, and because tuition only covers 70% of the cost to operate the program, simply cancelling the event could prove catastrophic for the students and the organization. As more and more educational activities moved online, the idea to hold a virtual Playathon quickly came to fruition. With less than two weeks to switch gears from producing a day-long concert event at the mall to an afternoon of performances on the video conferencing platform Zoom, NJYS managed to rally its community to come together despite social distancing.
“The overwhelmingly positive response to our virtual Playathon is a testament to the unstoppable yearning we have for a community as human beings in this time of self-isolation,” said Helen H. Cha-Pyo, Artistic Director and Principal Conductor. “We have to find creative ways to engage with each other in times of crisis, and music is a perfect conduit through which joy and hope are shared.”
The virtual Playathon, featuring student performers playing music they would have performed together as an orchestra, raffles, trivia contests, interviews with the NJYS conductors, a live auction to win the conductor’s baton and the chance to conduct the New Jersey Youth Symphony next season, and special performances by the NJYS Jazz faculty, proved to be an unmitigated success. With the help of WNYC’s Weekend Edition Host David Furst as event emcee and utilizing a text-to-donate service, the virtual Playathon alone brought in over $11,000 towards the fundraising goal, the highest amount ever raised on the day of the event, and reached over 2,500 people via live stream on Facebook. Because of this, the Playathon initiative has now raised just over 70k and is only 30k away from its 100k goal to be achieved by the end of June.
“In these challenging times of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been extremely blessed by the commitment of our communities,” said Peter H. Gistelinck, Executive Director of the Wharton Institute for the Performing Arts. “To see the selflessness, empathy and compassion of our supporters has really been overwhelming and extremely touching.”
Not limited to just NJYS students, siblings and parents joined in the virtual Playathon performances, exhibiting how music really is a universal language with the ability to cross all barriers and connect people even during the most challenging of times. A matching gift from the Wharton Institute for the Performing Arts Board of Trustees allowed for an even greater fundraising impact, making it also possible to donate 20% of gifts received during the virtual Playathon to Oasis – A Haven for Women and Children, a partner organization in Paterson, NJ. Funding will support increased demand for essential services from vulnerable populations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the entire nation braces for an additional month of social distancing, the New Jersey Youth Symphony looks to the future and prepares for the next season, with the help of online tools and through the generous support of everyone who recognizes that music may very well be one of those universal truths that fosters connections and propels us forward. To support music education at the New Jersey Youth Symphony and the 2020 Playathon, continue to give by texting MUSIC to 74121 or donating online.
The New Jersey Youth Symphony (NJYS), founded in 1979, is a tiered orchestral program offering ensemble education for students in grades 3-12 across New Jersey. NJYS has grown from one orchestra of 65 students to over 500 students in 15 different orchestras and ensembles, including the internationally recognized Youth Symphony. NJYS ensembles have performed in venues including the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Carnegie Hall, and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. NJYS has received numerous prestigious awards for its adventurous programming from the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) and has had six European tours, including participation in the Summa Cum Laude International Youth Festival and Competition (Vienna), winning First Prizes in July 2014 and 2017.
Now in its 41st season, NJYS continues to achieve musical excellence through intensive instruction and high-level performance. Under the guidance of a talented artistic team of conductors, coaches, and teaching artists, students are immersed in challenging repertoire, learning the art of ensemble playing, and exploring their potential in a supportive and inclusive environment. NJYS remains committed to programming works by diverse composers and will feature 20th century African-American and women composers such as Duke Ellington, George Walker, Yvonne Desportes, Emma Lou Diemer, Julia Perry, and Florence Price this season.
The New Jersey Youth Symphony is a program of the Wharton Institute for the Performing Arts. Wharton is New Jersey’s largest non-profit performing arts education organization serving over 1,500 students of all ages and abilities through a range of classes and ensembles. In addition to the New Jersey Youth Symphony, programs include the Paterson Music Project, an El Sistema-inspired program that uses music as a vehicle for social change by empowering and inspiring children through the community experience of ensemble learning and playing in its hometown of Paterson. Beginning with early childhood music classes for toddlers, the Performing Arts School offers 500 private lessons and group classes each week, ensuring there is something for everyone of all ages and abilities.
Making Music & Drama During Social Distancing by Timothy Maureen Cole, Director of Musical Theater Arts
I’m writing this post from my makeshift home office, and I’m sure many of you are reading it from your own. Things have changed so drastically in the past month for all of us. It had never occurred to me that I would be doing all of my teaching (group and private lessons) online from my living room! Then poof—here I am doing it along with many of my colleagues at the Performing Arts School.
The transition to private music lessons was not so jarring. I have been teaching online lessons off and on for several years. The terrific thing about doing it in 2020 is that technology is so much more reliable, and we have more options to reach students, than ever before. As soon as Wharton Arts made the decision to close all facilities on March 13, I knew I was all in on teaching my students remotely. Many of my private students haven’t missed one lesson since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, and I’m so grateful to be able to give them that 30 to 60 minutes a week on our usual day and time during a very difficult transition.
I am very pro-remote learning. That’s not to say that it is exactly the same as in-person lessons. My voice students are used to having live accompaniment (provided by me) in their lessons, which is not so easy to accomplish during online lessons. In times of stress, it’s easy to look at the downside, but I’m really urging my students to look at the many positives of online lessons.
Using this time to focus on technique: It’s easy when you have live accompaniment to just want to run through songs. By singing more a cappella, students really have to be sure of their own part, and it’s easier to work section by section.
Be the leader in your own songs: Take the time to really learn your music from beginning to end (rhythm, notes, tempo, phrasing). As a teacher, I want to help my students as much as possible, but that often means that I lead them to what I think they should do. Remote learning gives students the opportunity to make decisions on their own, creating better musicianship.
Ear training: Having accompaniment or another voice in duet in lessons helps students find the tonality of a piece. That’s what accompaniment is for. But the challenge of more a cappella singing means that students must really hear their next pitch or transition in their heads without any help from the teacher. Many students are challenged by this issue, and now is the perfect time to focus on improving.
Find new repertoire: So often we’re trying to get to the next goal post or performance. Having events to look forward to is important, but it’s also helpful to expand your repertoire. The more songs you’ve worked on, the more options you have to choose from for a performance or audition. Many of my students have complained about being bored at home. Now is the perfect time to listen to new music and genres. See what you like!
Tackling group classes for the musical theater and drama department was a slightly more daunting task. Most of our offerings revolve around the idea of an end production or performance. While online group classes are not unheard of, most classes are traditionally held in person. But I am so pleased to say that all of our faculty members took the online learning process in stride!
As of this week, all musical theater and drama classes are being held on Zoom, and I’m happy to report that they are getting on very well! Through Zoom, our faculty can work with an entire group at once, split them up into smaller partners or groups for practice or study, or have two teachers working with smaller groups at once. In some ways it allows us to give students more opportunities for one-on-one attention and coaching. At the Performing Arts School, we pride ourselves on having a low teacher-to-student ratio in the classroom and making sure that every student is an integral part of the class and ultimate performance. Zoom classes are allowing us to continue that in 10 of our spring offerings!
Before the closures in March, the Performing Arts School had some musical theater classes with scheduled performances that had to be postponed. Our instructors were adamant that their students deserve the chance to show off what they have worked so hard to prepare, and I couldn’t agree more. Faculty, students, and parents of the winter sections of Broadway Babies and Dance, Sing & Act have rallied together to come up with online performances for their classes, and I can’t wait to see how they turn out! While we are all hoping to get back into the physical classroom as soon as possible, it’s heartening to know that we are capable of making art and music from anywhere.
With so many activities being canceled, students are longing for something to do (other than school work). I am happy to say that our 10-week musical theater classes will be continuing online, and are starting very soon. If you or someone you know is interested in participating, please call 908-790-0700 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Broadway Babies (4-6yrs): Saturdays from 9:30-10:30am beginning on 4/4/20
Dance, Sing & Act (7-10yrs): Wednesdays from 4:00-5:30pm beginning on 4/15/20
Learning Your Role (10+yrs): Wednesdays from 5:30-7:00pm beginning of 4/15/20
As a performing artist and educator, I will always tell you that the arts are important to the well-being, growth, and development of any student. Now more than ever I really believe that is true. In anxious and stressful times, music and theater provide relief and comfort. Young people need to be able to express themselves. It’s so important for them to have classes and lessons to look forward to, and the faces of their supportive instructors to see, if only virtually for the time being.
Stay safe and take care during this trying time.
Timothy Maureen Cole holds a Master of Music degree in Voice Performance and Pedagogy from Westminster Choir College and a Bachelor of Music degree in Voice Performance from Ithaca College, and has been teaching voice, music theater, and piano since 2007. She holds certification in Early Childhood Music Education from Kindermusik International, and is a member of the National Association of Teachers of Singing. In addition to private and group instruction, Cole has collegiate teaching experience at Horry Georgetown Technical College and James Madison University. Read more here…