“Bringing people joy is what music is really supposed to do, and so allowing that to happen for the community and for our students was big for me,” said Andrea von Oeyen, ORHS Orchestra teacher.
The ORHS Strings Orchestra held their first in-person concert of the year on Wednesday, November 17th. 11 students gathered on the stage of the high school auditorium in a socially distanced fashion to perform solos and duets they had been working on individually for their parents.
Due to COVID-19, this was not a traditional concert. Although there are about 57 students involved in the orchestra, 12 of them signed up to participate in the concert, and 11 performed. Most students played a solo they had been working on at home, and some shared a duet. At the end of the concert, the group played one song all together.
Some students prepared new pieces for the concert, while others elected to play songs they had played in the past. “Normally they would be practicing all these pieces as a group for a very long time so this was very different. They had to go to a piece and work on it independently […] There’s no build up. There’s no practicing and practicing, then having a performance,” said Melissa Janetos, parent of an orchestra student and a member of the Oyster River Strings Association. Trinity Chase (‘21) agreed with Janteos, and said, “a huge part of being a performer is working on a piece for a while and then playing it for others and sharing what you’ve worked so hard on.”
Students had about three weeks of in class preparation for their solos/duets, however some did not need that much time if they were playing a piece they were already familiar with. Students had shared their pieces over Microsoft Teams with von Oeyen before the concert, although it was largely on the students to be prepared for this. For their final group piece, the students played the Ashokan Farewell, by Jay Ungar, all together. von Oeyen chose this song because it was composed as a way to say “until we meet again,” something very fitting for these uncertain times.
Students enjoyed getting to play together again. Mary Jeong (‘23) said, “being a part of an orchestra is a whole other element of playing a string instrument, aside from solo performances. When you play with other people, you’re not just playing by yourself anymore, but as part of a whole. It was really nice to hear all the different parts from Ashokan Farewell come to life during this concert.”
Although a fairly straightforward piece, it was put together on a 15 minute rehearsal. The students prepped it ahead of time, practiced it just before the concert in-person, and then performed.
As for how the performance felt for the students, Mary Jeong (‘23) said, “performing basically felt like performing at any other concert pre-COVID. It was definitely different to see more than half of the audience missing, but other than that, it was a very similar setting to playing in a chamber orchestra.”
Although it didn’t feel much different for students like Jeong, in order to have the concert, multiple safety measures had to be put in place. To start, parents were the only ones allowed to come in-person for the concert. They were required to fill out an RSVP form if they wanted to attend, which would then get them on the list to come in. Everyone was required to wear a mask, and all attendees and performers had their temperature taken and were asked a series of screening questions before entering. The auditorium seats were blocked off to ensure six feet between audience members for social distancing. Additionally, von Oeyen had to measure out spacing for the stage to give performers a six foot bubble around them. The concert was also live streamed for those who were not able to attend in-person.
Although things would be different with COVID-19, von Oeyen was still passionate about making this concert happen. She said, “community is one of those things that I really feel strongly about surrounding music. I also feel like music is a comfort to many people […] I felt that if we could do this safely, because we’re not breathing like the band is or the choir is, and don’t require extra PPE to be playing our string instruments, that the opportunity would be there to share music with our community and to also allow our students to have a little bit of normalcy in that area.”
Before school started this year, von Oeyen knew that there wouldn’t be much in person practicing and to make up for that she had the idea of putting on an outdoor concert closer to the start of the school year. However, weather prevented them from holding the concert. Instead, von Oeyen came up with the idea for the indoor concert for an assessment the orchestra was doing. For a few weeks, every student chose a technical aspect of their playing to work on. This live concert was the final assessment of this technique for those who opted to attend, and she stood backstage and graded the students on their technique as they played.
Even though it was an assessment, students enjoyed getting to play with one another again. “I think the concert went super well and that we had a really fun night where we got to play together after a while of only being able to play at home,” said Chase.
Janetos agreed and said, “being able to play your instrument, even if it is a small audience, in a room that sounds acoustically better, and having your peers there, is just so much better.”
Along with reasons Janetos and Chase mentioned, holding this concert was important to von Oeyen because of the challenges the orchestra has endured during remote learning. “I feel there are some classes that can translate remotely a little bit better than music can. We kind of have to totally pivot what we do, and the essence of the community aspect of being in an ensemble is not really able to be there in a virtual meeting,” said von Oeyen.
Because of this change in learning style, von Oeyen shared that students had to put in a lot of work to have this be a success. “Since we don’t play almost every day together, you really have to self motivate and put the time in to practice and work on the music yourself. You also have to be able to recognize where you need to improve because there is not a teacher right there to see what you are at,” said Chase.
While no one knows what will be happening in the coming months, von Oeyen hopes for something like this to happen again, and said, “obviously, we’re always thinking about things like what are numbers in our area and is it safe to do so, but I am really interested in the spring, when it gets warmer, to do outdoor things […] I think it would be really wonderful.”