Tuning in from afar
Woodburn High School's concert band and choir performed winter concerts this school year that are accessible to anyone in the world with an Internet connection.
But the way those concerts were realized required colossal creativity and an unprecedented approach of mixing individual performances via virtual platforms.
Educators have encountered tremendous challenges over the past year, at once developing and adapting to a comprehensive distance learning curriculum. Maneuvering through the distance learning environment is an especially tricky endeavor when a class entails unison, such as music classes that hit their term's crescendo with a collective performance.
WHS music teacher Nadia Maksimov said the task seemed daunting from the get-go.
"At the beginning of year someone asked me, 'How do you teach band virtually?' I said, 'I have no clue,'" Maksimov said. "I just started trying things out and seeing what works. I knew I wanted the students to perform and get something out there. And they did; they got to show what they worked on.
"We have some talented kids in Woodburn. I'm really proud of all of them," she added. "At times, watching video, I would get teary eyed to see their growth and what they have had to do to get there."
Maksimov had her work cut out for her as well.
Earlier this school year Woodburn's drama teacher, Caleb Thurston, discovered he had to adjust from being a stage director to more of a film editor to ensure theater students could deliver a fall performance via film. Similarly, Maksimov found she had to shift gears from instructing through conducting in an open classroom to more online tutorial and sound mixing.
As noted beneath the respective videos on YouTube, where these performances live: "Students recorded themselves at home playing their part in these performances. They then emailed their videos to WHS Band Director, Nadia Maksimov, and she synced their performances to create the concerts you are watching."
Maksimov summed it up: "It's been quite the adventure."
Both music classes largely consisted of underclassmen. Maksimov said she sought to find something that would challenge the students, such as learning two or three parts of a song.
At first it seemed confusing to some students.
"They had to learn the parts; learn one part and now learn part two. 'Why?' They would ask. I said, 'Because I'm going to put it together,'" Maksimov said.
Sophomore Taylor Hudson, who sang "That's Christmas to Me" for her winter concert solo piece, explained in the video: "The individual performances will have students singing choral music to which they learned all parts. What you will hear and see in each of the songs is one singer singing all of the parts. They have been overlaid to create duets and trios."
The software app "Musescore" helped, especially in the arrangements and providing background music for the singers. Band, however, posed significant challenges.
"First, helping the kids learn the piece. Kids are used to being in class playing, and I hear it and give them feedback," Maksimov said.
The next step was to create the recording of each student's part. One benefit of this approach was that students appeared to work harder to get their part down pat.
"They are more aware of the mistakes they are making and trying to correct them to get them comfortable making the video," Maksimov said.
An ultimate challenge is putting 27 video pieces together to form the entire arrangement, a big challenge, especially when it involved tempo changes and getting everything — every measure — to line up.
"Usually you come together in auditorium and, boom, it's done," Maksimov said. "Here everyone gives me their individual work … it is a whole different side of performing that we were not used to. It did make me a better editor of video and sound."
Making music is a unifying, collectively shared experience. That collective nature is obviously compromised in distance learning.
"I've had kids tell me one of the things they miss the most is performing together," Maksinov said. "They ask, 'Can't we just go somewhere like the football field?' We can't, and that's one of the things I miss the most, too."
But adaptation to one's environment is a key part of life, and a crucial part of the student musicians' learning this year. Many Woodburn students shared their thoughts about comprehensive distance learning in music.
Senior band member Adriana Loera took part in the concert as well as providing a flute solo, "Menuet from L'Arlesienne Suite No. 2."
"We've all had to become extra creative when participating in music, (and) at times it has been difficult or uncomfortable. But these are things we have pushed through in order to create art together as best as we can," Loera said.
Loera added it's impossible to know how well a piece is coming together while doing it virtually. But once it did, it was inspiring.
"Watching a virtual concert can feel very motivating; the fact that we can still create music together — yet apart — is something that's really encouraging," she said. "So, yeah, the switch to virtual band hasn't been easy. But if it's done one thing, it has emphasized the dedication of our band program — and I just think that's neat."
Freshman Enrique Vasquez described the virtual band experience as stressful, but ultimately worth it. He recorded a flute solo, "Allegro from Recorder Sonata," and his part in the collective piece "The Trout" by Franz Schubert.
Vasquez said a first blush, he thought it would a simple task. Not so.
"It took me many, many tries to get the recording done, this being because there was always something that didn't go right, whether it was noise in the background or I misplayed a note, something always came out wrong," Vasquez said. "I knew that I needed to get it done so I recorded and recorded until I was satisfied with the results.
"When I finished, I was so very excited to see myself in the virtual concert that when I did, it made the struggles of recording the video worth it."
Sophomore Romeo Espinoza echoed that.
"Overall, making the concert was pretty fun, but demanded more work than I would have thought," Espinoza said. "It's really cool that we can play something at home, but somehow also manage to put it all together along with other's parts to make something bigger. In normal band, you normally get to see how your (part) fits in with other's when you all play together. But it's hard to really get the feel of the music on your own."
Vasquez's solo was "Concerto No. 3, Mvt. - Allegro," played on a French horn.
"On the plus side, we could make as many recordings as we needed until we got a good one. Plus, no dirty looks from others if you screw up and have to start over."
Sophomore Gabriel Pelayo said getting through the virtual band tasks was an unusual, yet rewarding, process.
"It was definitely not what I expected in regards to the process, but it was interesting nonetheless," Pelayo said. "We were all asked to submit our recordings by Dec. 18, where they would be used in the final recording. Once I submitted my recording of 'The Trout' on the last day it was due, I felt the same sense of satisfaction I did when I finished my first concert as a freshman."
The virtual process was freshman Anayeli Solis-Gomez's first concert.
"I thought that our concert was great and everyone did a good job," Solis-Gomez said. "It was new and kind of stressful, but it was also fun to be able to create a concert for everyone. I know that making all of our pieces fit together was hard for our teacher and I know we all appreciated it a lot."
Solis Gomez also delivered a flute solo of "Petite Gavotte."
"This band class was also a new experience for everyone. At first I was wondering if I could ever improve my skills but Ms. Maksimov is great and knowing that you leave the class learning something new is amazing to me," Solis-Gomez said.
Freshman Janet Gonzalez Aguirre said distance learning complicates singing as well.
"It was more complicated for me because I've never sang a song like that before. It was like a new language to me but after all I had the song stuck in my head for like three weeks after the concert," Gonzalez Aguirre said. "It was a very great experience; it was fun learning and also hearing my teacher's comments to see what I can get better on or practice more.
"It was a little stressful having to record many times because you could have messed up in a part and you have to record everything again and maybe something was in the background that you don't want people to see," she added. "I recorded myself like 30 times because I didn't like how I looked or I messed up. Overall the concert was amazing, I love how everything combined together perfectly. I'm glad I was a part of it."
Gonzalez Aguirre's classmate, Marianna Rebullosa, said the Zoom distance learning experience was her first choir experience, but having other musical background helped.
"Since I did band throughout middle school, I already knew most notes and rhythms," Rebullosa said. "There were times when we got paired up in breakout rooms and worked with each other on scales. When Ms. Maksimov gave us 'Pie Jesu' (Baby Jesus in Latin), the song we sang together, we worked on pronunciation and rhythm."
Rebullosa sang three parts of "The Rivers are Running Again," which Maksimov blended for the winter concert.
"I also got the opportunity to do a solo song. I was scared, but I got to attend at office hours (and) get help from Ms. Maksimov individually. She helped me improve my voice and understand how to sing the harmony and melody. Recording myself was a challenge. I kept messing up, and once I finally finished it I was relieved. I then checked the time and saw that it took me an hour and a half to finish. I laughed it off and went to sleep."
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