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.