The South Hills Junior Orchestra is virtually ready.
“If Upper St. Clair calls us and says, you can come back in October or November or December or January, we will be able to come back and probably put on a concert in a couple of weeks,” artistic director Paul Fox said.
That probably didn’t seem possible in mid-March, when he and his wife, Donna, the orchestra’s executive director, learned COVID-19 had forced the closure of Upper St. Clair High School and their longtime rehearsal space along with it.
But as has been the case in countless situations during the pandemic, technology has come to the rescue.
The Foxes, who founded the orchestra in 1983, decided to invest in MusicFirst Classroom, a learning management system that allows them to continue to provide instruction remotely. And for now, they’ve rebranded as SHJOOLA – “pronounced shah-ZOH-lah,” as Paul said – adding On(L)ine Academy to the original acronym.
Going virtual in April led to a successful summer session, and the Foxes are looking to build on the experience for the fall semester, with its scheduled Sept. 12 start.
Of course, the online version has its limitations compared with the ability to work with aspiring musicians in person.
“It’s kind of frustrating. At times, you sit there and you want to reach into that screen, and just a quick move of that left hand and, bam, there’s success,” Paul said. “But we’re making it work, Plan B.”
MusicFirst Classroom offers a variety of software applications by which students can learn on their own – asynchronously, as educators everywhere have come to know – with the likes of the feedback-equipped PracticeFirst.
“It comes back and shows them what they did, what they played, where they were wrong, red notes for wrong,” Paul said.
On the other side of the spectrum are “Saturday Synchronous” small-group virtual rehearsals, conducted through a videoconferencing platform.
Donna, a retired Peters Township School District strings teacher, instructs students on those types of instruments. Paul, who is retired from Upper St. Clair, takes care of the brass, woodwinds, percussion and anything else anyone wants to play.
There are some limitations, of course.
“When you put 24 musicians in a room and then let them all put their mics on at the same time, you have bedlam,” Paul said. “You can’t do that.”
And so the students’ devices generally are muted, with the exception of the occasional musician who has the confidence to play a solo for his or her fellow students.
The musicians have the opportunity to solo in much smaller settings during what the Foxes have dubbed “Duet-a-thon,” which involves the pairing of students on, say, trombone and violin.
“They each get a duet that they can play that’s arranged for their instruments, the same piece,” Paul said. “It may be as simple as ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ or ‘Ashokan Farewell.’ One person has to go, ‘one, two, ready, go.’ That person’s called the leader.”
He or she then performs the piece while the follower, who is muted, plays along. Then the musicians switch roles.
“I just go hopping into room after room to see how everyone’s doing, give a few suggestions,” Paul said.
Another SHJOOLA offering is repertoire classes, in which students perform for small groups on a virtual basis: “a room full of ‘Brady Bunch’ squares, and parents, too,” as Paul put it.
“That works with the technology,” he said. “One person plays. Everybody’s an audience.”
The sessions are recorded and posted on YouTube, for both posterity and learning purposes.
Participant Augusto Butkewitsch, a student in Franklin Regional School District who regularly traveled to Upper St. Clair for rehearsals prior to the pandemic, has adapted well to the new format.
“The SHJOOLA repertoire class was fun and educational. Rewatching the video from the website gives me insight on what I can improve on,” he said.
“Thank you for this great opportunity,” he added as a message to the Foxes, “to keep engaged with music every week.”
Paul and Donna have emphasized the personalized approach that online instruction permits.
“I have had some kids who were afraid to even say anything in a big orchestra rehearsal. And now we find out, you really weren’t reading notes. Let’s help you on that,” Paul said. “There is an advantage to slow everything down a little bit and get out the magnifying glass and find out what kinds of things we can do to help.”
Since its inception nearly four decades ago, the nonprofit South Hills Junior Orchestra has provided a playing experience for musicians of all ages, particularly students age 8 through high school. The organization’s mission is to support local school band and orchestra programs by fostering the development of members’ skills along with knowledge, understanding and appreciation of music.
Participants of any experience level, including none, are welcome to give it a try.
“That’s fine. We’re not going to audition you,” Paul said. “You just come in and start playing, and then we’ll see what you need to do keep up and how we can help. We’ve always done that.”