Back when we weren't really sure whether the coronavirus would be as big a deal as it ultimately became, the Santa Fe Youth Symphony Association had already started discussing potential ways to pivot. Concerned by what she perceived to be a scary lack of information, Executive Director Andrea Cassutt sprung into action, engaging her board and staff in conversations about what the future might hold and adopting online platforms at a time when the rest of us assumed the whole mess would blow over in a couple weeks.
"I don't know if it's because I care so much about people—or because I'm a mom—but I felt like the information was inconsistent and there wasn't a clear federal directive," Cassutt tells SFR. "I took it on myself to get reading, and what I was seeing from epidemiologists was…it's coming, there's no way to avoid this, it's going to create change."
By the time Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham handed down her first statewide public health order, Cassutt says the Youth Symphony had already worked out rough contingency plans.
"Because we'd already had the conversations, I felt ready," she explains. "It was spring break, and I think that gave us a spaciousness—we were already on the same page, the staff really showed up very quickly; we got ready to continue all our rehearsals online, and when the kids came back, we were ready to go. We felt it was important to keep the structure we had."
In those early days of the pandemic, staff was able to meet with students online to help plot out best practices. William Reece Wagg, director of orchestras and conductor of the Youth Symphony Orchestra, even managed to meet with each student one-on-one to identify concerns and help shape how best to tackle online-only rehearsals, lessons and so forth. In the end, Cassutt says, the organization was ultimately able to hold onto almost all of its students, finishing out its 2019/20 season with roughly 300 kids still onboard—those are better numbers in some cases than schools are seeing right now.
Of course, it wasn't without growing pains.
"People get into [teaching music] because they're passionate, and staff really wanted to show up for their kids," Cassutt says. "How to be suddenly teaching when everybody couldn't play to the other? When we don't have a platform for everyone to play with each other? They had to shift how they were interacting."
This meant more of the aforementioned one-on-one lessons (which reportedly helped some kids flourish), no small number of Zoom sessions between players and a lot of sending recorded tracks back-and-forth. Some students had to up their online games, some had to learn new software to effectively record; staff from the symphony were there to help.
"It was kind of like, 'Woah, this works, and this doesn't and so-and-so has problems getting online,'" Cassutt tells SFR. "We moved into pretty intensive troubleshooting…we're usually off for the summer, but now we know how to manage trouble spots, what platforms are available, how to work effectively on those platforms."
And it's working.
According to 17-year-old violinist Alyvia Hogan, who has been a part of SFYS for 10 years, the phase to online classes was not only immediate, it came with new opportunities for her and other young players. Hogan is off to Indiana's DePauw University and its music program in August, and she counts her years with the symphony as vital to her decision to attend that institution. In addition to classical pieces you'd expect students to learn, Hogan also learned to play and perform mariachi, and the broader applications of violin, say, like with fiddle skills, come in handy as well, she says, when she plays with her church's bluegrass band.
As for the immediate changes at SFYS, Hogan says it stings a little that upcoming performances have been canceled during her last year in Santa Fe, but changes amid the pandemic were impressive.
"I feel like they handled it extremely well—especially with how quickly it all happened," she says. "They knew and told us it wouldn't be the same, they made that very clear, but they were also able to coordinate things we wouldn't have done otherwise."
Hogan cites a special one-off workshop with an out-of-state conductor, as well as regular 30-minute vocal coaching sessions that were new and particularly helpful.
"I had a lot of one-on-one, especially in mariachi," she says. "It was a good experience."
Those experiences will surely find their way into the upcoming Gathering Voices virtual concert series. As Hogan says, the three days of online concerts are certainly a new direction from the organization's usual annual gala; rather than cramming all the students in one room together with an audience, pieces were recorded separately and edited together by SFYS staff into cohesive performances. For a symphony, this is no small feat.
"There's working with the kids to make sure they understand, there's creating the track so they're listening to something when they're playing or singing," Cassut says. "There are a lot of steps."
Those steps ultimately create three days of music this weekend: Friday is orchestra; Saturday is jazz and mariachi; and Sunday is chamber music. The basic setup may change moving forward (Cassutt mentions smaller groups, watch parties and other ideas still in development), and with preparations for the next season kicking off next month, the Santa Fe Youth Symphony looks to be as strong as ever.
"I feel like we're taking the best of what we've learned online and keeping it," Cassutt says. "We don't know what's going to happen through the year, but if we're in a situation where [COVID-19] spikes or the schools close, we want to be consistent. Whether that's online classes or a masterclass series with professional musicians…our entire programming is offered on a sliding scale. We have an underlying philosophy that we don't turn down a student if they're interested and committed."
That includes helping kids source instruments to play, by the way.
As for Alyvia Hogan and her thoughts on new kids joining the program?
"If you're passionate about music, Santa Fe Youth Symphony opens so many opportunities," she says. "Use those resources as much as you can."
Gathering Voices Online Concert Series:
Friday, July 17-Sunday, July 19. Free.