March 7, 2021

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Cleveland Orchestra clings to music education goals through pandemic

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CLEVELAND, Ohio – When it comes to music education, there’s no such thing as a year off. Not in Cleveland.

Convinced that the need for music now is greater than ever, the Cleveland Orchestra is finding new ways to comply with pandemic restrictions and meet Cleveland’s children safely where they are, at home.

“The things that we’re committed to, those things haven’t changed,” said Joan Katz Napoli, the orchestra’s senior director of education and community programs. “Our fundamental purpose is intact.

“Students and adults alike really need music. It’s not just something nice to have.”

As it did on most realms of the performing arts, the pandemic wreaked havoc on the orchestra’s education efforts, hobbling social programs and halting everything from children’s and family concerts to in-person study groups and school appearances.

It also pushed the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra into the virtual sphere, obliging the region’s premiere group of talented young musicians to gather and conduct what business it can online, instead of in-person at Severance Hall.

There’s no end in sight, either. Not immediately, anyway. The Cleveland Orchestra is mulling a limited audience, and the strings have begun playing together in person, but such a return is not yet on the horizon for the COYO or the education department.

Happily, the status quo is far from terrible. Indeed, it’s getting better all the time as technology improves and the orchestra, students, and families in the community adopt it.

The “Lullaby Project,” for instance, a program for new or expectant mothers, has been operating capably online, and “Mindful Music Moments,” a relaxation program developed before the pandemic, has grown in utility and popularity. Many adults also have migrated from the orchestra’s traditional music study groups to an online equivalent.

“People are looking for quality resources,” said Katz Napoli.

Courtney Gazda, associate manager of learning programs, said she’s taken particular interest in students at Cleveland’s Mound Elementary School. There, inspired by the response from families, she’s gone the extra mile to deliver instruments and supplies and keep students in touch with their music teachers online through changes of address and phone number.

She also has kept up a relationship with the district’s younger children, holding an online preparatory seminar for students in kindergarten and first grade through the Fairfax Recreation Center that broke all her personal records for event attendance.

For families, especially, the orchestra’s educational offerings during the pandemic have been “a kind of a light,” Gazda said. “People are forever so grateful that we’re doing everything we can. Having music in their lives is the whole world to them.”

Much new content has been developed in direct response to the pandemic. In some cases, such as the orchestra’s Adella concert-streaming app, the orchestra simply fast-tracked projects long under consideration. In others, it fabricated whole new ideas to fill the quarantine void.

One such idea, “Choose Your Instrument,” is a video series featuring orchestra members offering advice and personal stories about their lives in music. Sarah Lamb, community engagement manager, said the series targets aspiring youngsters and bridges the gap between imagination and reality.

Prevented from making In-person appearances, the orchestra also has developed online substitutes for its Rainbow and Family concerts, two of its most popular educational lineups.

A virtual “Music Explorers” series now offers families and teachers short videos on fundamental musical concepts, and later this month, the group plans to release “What is an Orchestra?,” a carefully produced series with assistant conductor Vinay Parameswaran. The orchestra also is putting together an online presentation about musical story-telling, in lieu of a traditional spring family concert.

“Our goal was to make something that’s genuinely engaging for kids,” Katz Napoli said. “It’s not just point and shoot the Severance Hall stage.”

COYO, too, has pivoted nimbly to the virtual realm. Unable to gather with students in person or to perform live since last March, the group’s coaches and director Parameswaran have instead used digital tools to address musical topics that typically fall through the cracks.

After bidding farewell online to graduating seniors last season, the orchestra this year split into groups, each with its own repertoire and focus: an all-string ensemble, a group with some strings as well as percussion and harp, and woodwind and brass sections. Separately, they’re working not only on their parts in scores they still hope to perform as a whole but also on standard orchestral excerpts, audition skills, and music appreciation.

The whole orchestra, meanwhile, has met online for social events as well as seminars on Beethoven and contemporary music led by the likes of conductor Nicholas McGegan and composer Gabriela Lena Frank. Later the group also will view seminars with composer-conductor John Adams and Cleveland Orchestra music director Franz Welser-Most.

“Obviously, it’s not the same, but the musicians are still imparting all their great knowledge and insights,” said Parameswaran. “They’re getting to go through things they wouldn’t normally go through, and deal with topics that don’t normally come up.”

Ania Lewis, a senior cellist in COYO, said she’s enjoying the revamped year, despite its challenges. The seminar with Frank was a particular treat, she said, and her online sessions with COYO’s cello coach have prepared her for college auditions.

Whether or not the concert Lewis played with COYO in March was her last remains to be seen. In any case, the European Tour she joined in 2019 and the many other concerts she’s played at Severance Hall over the years already constitute a priceless record.

“If that was my final concert with COYO, I’ll be disappointed, but the experiences I’ve had this far have been amazing,” Lewis said. “I’ll remember those more.”

The impact of the pandemic on music education by the Cleveland Orchestra is incalculable. All that has been lost amid canceled concerts, school appearances, in-person lessons, and other live gatherings will never be known.

But it has not been a lost year. Far from it. In addition to preserving everything it could during the pandemic, the orchestra also created tools and fostered experiences that might not have materialized otherwise and that are likely to remain useful long after musical life has returned to normal.

“These are the little beauties the pandemic has revealed to us,” said Parameswaran of COYO’s efforts. “It has opened our eyes to great things we can continue doing.”

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