You’d never guess that the 90 students and 27 faculty members at the All City Orchestra Summer Academy haven’t been in the same room. The impact of the two-week program, conducted over Zoom, is that deep.
“On the first day, we were talking about imagining colors in the music, and creating stories and characters,” said 17-year-old flutist Ariadna Rosas, who lives in South Philadelphia and is back for a second year. “I didn’t think a lot about that before. But I’m starting to put that into my practice.”
The academy’s digitally convened middle school and high school musicians studied and practiced during the last two weeks of July alongside Philadelphia School District music teachers and players from the highest reaches of the Philadelphia Orchestra. “This was no gentle nudge into the 21st century,” said orchestra bassist Joe Conyers. “This was a full-out push over the edge.”
The program’s grand finale — a student performance of the “Farandole” movement from Bizet’s L’Arlesienne Suite that goes live at 11 a.m. Aug. 11 on the Mann Center Facebook page — will have all its parts recorded individually from the young musicians’ homes and then synced together under the prerecorded video direction of Philadelphia Orchestra music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
Improving performance skills wasn’t the only goal here. Students were also learning how to compose their own music as a way to express their own voice. “This is an opportunity for them to tell their story in a different way,” said Naomi Gonzalez, vice president of education and community engagement at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts, where the academy began last year.
The academy is designed to help students grow not just musically but also socially and emotionally, she said, “whether they’re creating something or learning about the creative process.”
Now in its second summer, the All City Orchestra Summer Academy (ACOSA) reflects the way major performing arts institutions are pursuing more educational endeavors than ever. The project’s free-of-charge enrollment, for students ages 12 to 18, rose from 65 last year to 90 this year — out of some 120 first-come, first-served applicants. Many students come from families with an income level that qualifies them for free or reduced lunch.
The project’s circle of collaborators has also expanded. Along with original core partners from the Philadelphia Orchestra, Conyers’ Project 440 music program, and the School District of Philadelphia, it now includes the Network for New Music, WRTI radio, and others — which is possible partly because there’s no jockeying for physical space at Mann Center facilities.
Faculty includes 13 school district teachers and 14 Philadelphia Orchestra players, some of whom — like Conyers and percussionist Don Liuzzi — have ongoing commitments to young people’s musical education. Conyers calls ACOSA “a bit more introductory” in comparison to some of other youth programs in town, including the broad-reaching Project 440 he cofounded in his native Savannah, Ga., and directs in expanded form in Philadelphia. But the goals are much the same.
Like Gonzalez, he believes “music is a tool for students to learn about the world.” But he and others at ACOSA also talk about cultivating the mind-body connection that comes with music. To that end, the summer’s academy included daily online yoga classes. (The most frequent post-yoga comment in the Zoom chat box: “I’m hungry!”)
Click tracks and career paths
Not everything is philosophically based. Individual parts for the virtual performance of the complex “Farandole” movement from Bizet’s L’Arlesienne Suite No. 2 have been recorded using a “click track” that maintains exact rhythm. This — along with sound engineering classes from WRTI — is a useful-to-know technique widely used in the music industry.
“Workforce development is a big one for us,” said Gonzalez. “If the kids see something, they can be something. If they don’t know a career exists, they don’t know that it’s a path.”
Faculty, students, and staff all agreed they would rather be doing this work in person. But all over the world, musicians who might normally be hopping between summer festivals now have time on their hands and are conducting master classes. The possibilities offered by the Zoom platform were one thing that convinced Mann president and CEO Catherine M. Cahill to go forward emphatically with this summer’s ACOSA.
Then came the challenge of making the project work virtually. Once accepted, students received a “camp bag” — materials they would need such as earbuds, notebooks for music composition, and even music stands — to work from home.
Gonzalez took cues from her own middle-school-age daughter to avoid screen burnout. “Days are short,” she said as the program began. “Kids have something new every day. No day is equal to the other. That maintains engagement.”
The secrets given away during master classes felt warm and not at all esoteric. Philadelphia Orchestra’s first associate concertmaster Juliette Kang compared phrasing on a violin to natural speaking — with pauses, breaths, and inflections. Even if quarter notes are one of music’s most basic building blocks, they shouldn’t be taken for granted. “A quarter note is made up of four 16th notes,” she said. “It has a whole world inside of it.”
Assistant principal cellist Yumi Kendall was more playful. Musicians need ongoing encouragement, and she introduced her at-home stuffed animal collection as her “cheering squad” and encouraged students to develop their own.
Some students who participated are still exploring their musical options. Leilani Padilla, 15, from Roxborough, plays piano, considers cello her primary instrument but participated this year as a bassoonist, which she has been playing for less than a year.
Flutist Rosas is already formulating plans to return as an adult to her native Mexico (a small community outside Mexico City) to start the kind of music programs she didn’t have there when she was younger.
Even before the lockdown, Conyers said he’d been constantly surprised by the stunning technical advances made by students just from their having observed performances found on YouTube. So the possibilities opened up by this electronic version of ACOSA are what he calls “a real opportunity to reimagine who we are and we function and who we serve. We might look back on this as one of the best things that has happened to our industry.”
And if not …
“It’s a crazy time,” Gonzalez said, “and if we can create this two-week bubble when you can set all of this aside, and have an enriching experience, then we’re doing what we needed to do.”