In a time of social distancing, restrictions on group gatherings and potential school closures, a group of young musicians, their parents and their teachers have adapted and kept on learning and playing.
This week, the Homer Youth String Orchestra Club released a video showing them performing outdoors on a sunny spring day. The work is backed by numerous tracks edited together from videos each musician recorded individually. “Playing Together Apart” is available on the Vimeo website at https://vimeo.com/446927484.
The youth orchestra is part of OPUS, school based programs to teach stringed instruments to children in Preludes at Paul Banks Elementary School and the Fireweed Academy Frescoes. The programs use the Suzuki teaching method, a format that emphasizes daily practice around a repertoire of familiar songs like “The Twinkle Theme” — the tune for “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and “The ABC Song.”
Violin instructor Daniel Perry had the idea for “Playing Together Apart” after seeing a similar stitched-together video from the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra performing “The Alaska Flag Song.” In a multi-screen collage, each musician is seen playing. Many other orchestras and ensembles created similar videos during the pandemic.
“I thought, ‘Oh, that’s cool,’” Perry said. “… I thought HYSOC could do something that speaks more to the moment, not just playing this song, but showing what it’s all about.”
Perry also wanted to bring the young musicians together, something they hadn’t been able to do since schools shut down and families quarantined at the start of the pandemic in early March.
During the quarantine, the musicians had recorded “tag” videos of themselves playing that they would send to other orchestra friends. They would then play in response to that video. The kids would do things like play in silly hats, play barefoot in the snow and play to ducks.
“The parents made the rule they had to play decent music, not just goofing around,” said Ginnie Oliver, mother of OPUS violinst Daniel Christ. “That helped to keep them inspired a bit.”
But the kids still wanted that social contact.
“How could I get the kids together?” Perry said. “Do it outside. It was a real fast move. I wanted to get the kids before they headed out to boat yards and fish camp.”
So on May 15, about a dozen musicians gathered together on the lawn of Oliver and Aaron Christ, her husband and Daniel’s father. Christ set out rocks 6-feet apart in a big circle to mark where the musicians stood.
“Daniel Perry came and led them in a bunch of songs,” Oliver said. “They were good about wearing masks, of course. They were outside on a beautiful sunny day. They were at least playing together. That was more inspiring than the tag.”
Christ took photos of the musicians from a deck and photographer Scott Dickerson of Stills + Motion recorded aerial drone footage. Bjørn Olson edited the video with Kurt Riemann of Surreal Studios doing audio engineering. The youth orchestra got grant support from the Awesome Foundation to fund video production and also pay for music lessons for families economically impacted by the pandemic.
Perry had been rafting in the Grand Canyon in February when the pandemic started to move toward the United States.
“I came back to this weird COVID land where everything was on Zoom,” he said, referring to the videoconference web platform that soared in popularity as everyone from telecommuting workers to families connected online. “It just does not work with young kids. You can’t play at the same time. You can’t speak at the same time. … Imagine how that is with a 6-year-old playing violin.”
To bring the young musicians together and perform in a multi-screen video, Perry used what’s known in recording circles as a “click track.” Using the Garage Band music editing program, Perry recorded a basic metronome track where the beats are distinct clicks — hence the name. Perry then played and recorded the various violin parts, but found that was not clear enough and played them on piano. The musicians could hear the click track for the tempo and the piano parts for a tune. Some of the young musicians hadn’t even learned to play with a metronome.
“This is something professionals have difficulty with,” Perry said. “… It’s shockingly more complicated than it would first appear. I have a lot more respect when I see these videos.”
During the pandemic, Perry has also been visiting students at their homes and giving lessons. Oliver said Perry taught Daniel on the deck of their home, socially distant and both wearing masks.
“They stay outside on the deck. He (Daniel) has been doing that maybe once a week or every other week,” she said. “That’s been really inspiring, too.”
Some of the OPUS musicians also have gotten together — again, in masks and socially distant — and performed for tourists on the Spit as the Bayside Buskers.
“They’ll make $60 an hour,” Oliver said. “They get some ice cream. They’re happy.”
For Perry, the music instruction also has helped supplement income lost when his summer job at Kachemak Bay Wilderness Lodge got cut. He’s been doing some lodge sitting but not much else. Riding his bike around to classes with the students brought him some joy, though.
“It was great,” Perry said. “I had the best spring. It was awesome. … It was this mixed blessing for me and my students.”
Innovations like the video have kept the OPUS musicians, their teachers and their families going through the uncertainty of the pandemic.
“We’re just finding other ways to survive. We’ll see,” Perry said. “As far as the spiritual, community side of it, I was able to find something that worked for me and my students.”
Going into the winter, Perry has created a studio in a sunroom at friend Kyra Wagner’s home. It has two small separate rooms for him and his student, with lots of air circulating in. Classes will be a half hour apart, and parents will disinfect the room between lessons.
OPUS also is looking at winter options like larger practice spaces, perhaps at the SPARC, Oliver said.
“There are some amazing women and dedicated people on that (OPUS) board,” she said. “They’re really trying to step up in the pandemic. It’s a tough commitment (for the kids). That’s why we’re trying to be as creative as possible and keep it going.”
Perry has attended the OPUS board meetings through Zoom and mentioned one meeting.
“I went, ‘We have a good thing going. We have to be courageous. … We’re a social organization. We have to be creative. … We can do whatever we can dream up, as long as it’s safe. We can do it.”