Last month, we celebrated our third class of graduating ESYO seniors since the global COVID-19 pandemic upended rehearsals and paused live performances during ESYO's 40th Birthday season. Looking back to 2020, it is clear how far we have come since the pandemic began, yet the full-scale impact of COVID-19 on music education remains somewhat of a mystery. The necessity of the moment required music teachers and young musicians to adapt to a landscape that changed daily. Live concerts, which are a pinnacle moment for young musicians, were paused or moved online. Music teachers moonlighted as video producers stitching together and mixing individual videos into virtual spring concerts while ESYO pioneered an immersive 360-degree orchestra layout. Having worked together, musicians and teachers alike took a dissonant chord and turned it into a creative masterpiece. So what have we learned so far? We have learned that the next generation of musicians is perhaps the most resilient in recent history.
Jay-Era joined ESYO CHIME in middle school. In high school, she auditioned for ESYO Wind Orchestra before joining ESYO Repertory Orchestra and Youth Jazz Orchestra her senior year. Like many in the Class of 2022, more than half of her high school experiences were interrupted by COVID. "It's been hard. Going from playing with my friends each day to playing in my basement alone for a year was tough," she said. "COVID took away a lot of things that other people experience that I didn't get a chance to, like NYSSMA and Area All-State," she continued. When she returned to in-person rehearsals at ESYO during the 2020-2021 season, Jay-Era felt grateful to be back where she loves to be, making music with friends.
High School students weren't the only young musicians impacted by COVID-19. PPE and social distancing made it hard to teach first-time musicians, so most elementary school ensembles paused during the pandemic. “The performing aspect of music education took a major hit,” said Julie Taylor. Taylor, who conducts ESYO’s Concertino Woodwind Choir and teaches middle school band, estimates that her school students lost more than 50% of music learning during remote and hybrid instruction. Last year, her middle school band program experienced a drop of more than 30% in enrollment. To many music teachers, this does not come as a surprise. During the 2020-2021 school year, there were no performances for 5th through 9th grade in most school districts statewide. “With music, you really need the community,” said Taylor. “It gives something for students to work towards. It helps them feel successful and comfortable. You can’t have one without the other,” she continued.
Taylor recognizes that music education may not be a priority during a public health emergency but urges parents, the community, and school music allies to recognize the loss that occurred during the pandemic. “It's the first step,” she said. “If we do not recognize the loss, then the future success of school music programs and public education is uncertain.” But she is hopeful that her program will bounce back as more and more parents write their school administration and let them know how excited they are for the full return of their school's music program.
Private teachers also had to find ways to connect with their students and deliver one-on-one instruction. ESYO Board Member and Albany Symphony Associate Principal violinist, Liz Silver recalled the struggle of transitioning to virtual lessons. “The technology just wasn’t there. In the beginning, the sound was brutal,” she said. She remembers one student commenting that her violin sounded awful. Silver and her students had to overcome other challenges like slow internet connections and outages, audio delays, and daily technical difficulties. But one barrier stood out above the rest. “ It was really tough to start new musicians online. You weren’t there to help position hands or play fun games that helped support their learning,” said Silver. However, Silver acknowledged the pandemic's positive outcomes despite the struggles. “Kids seemed to value lessons more,” she said. "They had to take a more active role in their lesson, which meant they had to self-evaluate at every step and learn to think more about their tone. It made them grow as their own little teacher,” said Silver. But, perhaps the silver lining of the whole experience was how each lesson kept her students connected to their instruments and helped them through the pandemic. "Playing my violin keeps me sane" was a common refrain echoed by many young musicians.
For ESYO Senior and Symphony Orchestra pianist and violinist Ingrid, her experience through the pandemic was more complicated and nuanced. While the pandemic impeded her growth in one area, it gave her the freedom to explore playing her instrument in a new and different way. Ingrid knew early on that continuing her growth as a musician would be hard, but that didn't stop Ingrid from striving to achieve her goal of playing first violin in Symphony Orchestra. She continued her violin lessons online with her teacher and worked hard to prepare for her final ESYO audition, despite all the technical issues she experienced. However, online piano lessons weren't as easy. "I didn't have piano lessons through most of the pandemic, which you'd think would be a bad thing," said Ingrid. "But, it helped me to grow in terms of independence as a musician. It is important to make the jump from practicing for a lesson to practicing because music is fun, and you want to sound good," she continued. Freedom to follow her passions led Ingrid to explore composing and performing different music styles, including jazz and popular styles. That same freedom enticed her to figure out her own piano fingerings, select appropriate repertoire, and self-evaluate her performance. Though, Ingrid recognizes the importance of having a teacher to coach and support your growth. "Overall, it is good to have someone give you feedback, so it's not just you in a room trying to be your own teacher," she continued.
Resilience is our ability to adapt and overcome the dissonant challenges that are hurled at us each and every day. It is our ability to transcend adversity by transposing impossible situations into creative energy. It is our ability to improvise through the uncertainty of life by listening closely to those around us and sounding together. Without a doubt, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted music education. Through the chaotic and unpredictable noise, young musicians, conductors, and teachers relied on their musicianship, creativity, and passion to sound a way forward. COVID-19 has become an endemic challenge that we must live with, and we are ready to make music that uplifts and inspires. We need to encourage and support developing musicians now and in the future by getting musical instruments back into the hands of young people while enjoying the music they make onstage.