This post is written by Claire Allen, Director of Patriot Violins.
Last Summer, when it came time to design the curriculum for Patriot Violins for the 2020-2021 school year, no vaccine was in sight. We still didn’t know how the virus spread – all we knew was that we were sad, lonely, exhausted, and scared to do the one thing we wanted to do the most – make music together.
The mission of Patriot Violins is to bring together committed young violinists with a shared love of music and community and to bring that music to as many parts of our community as we can. In the 2019-2020 inaugural season, the Patriot Violins performed at Academy recitals, University events such as Arts By George, the Mason Arts Research Conference, and, most memorably, a Mason Men’s Basketball Game where they performed the National Anthem standing center court, and then performed pop songs side by side with the Green Machine.
How, then, to follow up that experience with something wholly online, during a pandemic? There were some of our students who weren’t willing to consider any additional online activities and declined to audition for our second season altogether. Others were hesitant, and afraid that the experience wouldn’t be worth it, but decided to try it anyway. As any teacher out there knows, engaging and connecting with teen musicians can be a challenge under the best of circumstances, which this was far from.
Ultimately, I realized that one of the most important parts of my role as a teacher is to give my students a taste of what the larger musical world is like, and that is where I sought inspiration. I saw masked chamber groups from orchestras playing for health care workers and giving neighborhood concerts in their driveways. I saw collaborations from all over the world creating virtual chamber music on apps like A Cappella, or split-screen videos where one performer played multiple parts. I saw musicians raising awareness for important issues like voting registration, racial justice, homelessness, hunger, education, and health care. Musicians were playing outside glass windows for residents of retirement communities and nursing homes, who were isolated during the pandemic. And, I saw musicians of the highest caliber offering online masterclasses, workshops, and demonstrations. Geography was no longer a limit, and that really excited me.
And so, I put together a curriculum. For the fall semester, we focused on building violin technique using Simon Fischer’s excellent book, Warming Up. We invited Laurie Niles, creator and editor of Violinist.com to teach a workshop on writing about music and the creation of online communities in the music world. I created a project called “The 21st Century Violinist Project,” where students picked one performing violinist to follow via website and social media to observe how *they* were handling the pandemic. Students researched these violinists, listened to their albums, and in some cases, were able to observe live concerts and masterclasses with them. Each class, students would share what they’d learned with their classmates, with the idea of getting inspiration to spark the second half of our year. And finally, we had a video editor join us via Zoom to teach the class how to make split-screen duet videos. The assignment was for each student to learn both parts of a duet and to edit themselves together.
This turned out to be an intriguing project – the students observed so much about their own playing as they recorded themselves and then tried to play together! One student noticed that they were very hard to follow and needed to use more body motions to cue. Another student noticed that they tended to change tempos quite frequently and had to become much steadier to make the duet work. As a teacher, I observed a lot of musical growth in each of the students as a result of having to study their own playing so intently.
Going into the spring semester, with vaccines on the horizon and the hope of better weather, I asked the students to vote on a selection of pieces to learn and perform – to really think about the type of music they wanted to play and audiences wanted to hear, to think about who the composers were writing these pieces, and in what format they would deliver the performances. After considering the students’ input, I selected six pieces, all by American composers who lived during the 20th and 21st centuries, and called the program “American Voices.” Below is the program:
- “…what story down there awaits its end” by Reena Esmail (b. 1983)
- “Tango Ad Astra” by Julia Klumpkey (1870 – 1961)
- “Emily’s Reel” by Mark O’Connor (b. 1961)
- “Adoration” by Florence Price (1887-1953)
- “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) and John Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954)
- “The Entertainer” by Scott Joplin (1868-1917)
We lined up several physically distanced in-person performances and crossed our fingers for favorable weather conditions. Students created videos of themselves playing each of the pieces so their classmates could play “with” them and prepare as best as possible for in-person performances with no in-person rehearsals! We also were fortunate enough to have Rebecca Henry from the Peabody Preparatory and Dr. Cora Cooper from Kansas State University give Zoom masterclasses for the students as part of their preparation.
All in all, the students performed four times – in one of their driveways for a distanced crowd of neighbors, for an intimate audience in the lobby of the Center for the Arts, in the Veteran’s Amphitheater as part of Fairfax City’s Spotlight on the Arts festival, and outdoors at Sunrise Senior Living in Vienna, where the aunt of a student’s parent resides. The students also created online content as part of a social media takeover where they shared clips of their playing, practicing, and talked about the pieces they were performing. You can access these via the #PatriotViolinsIGTakeover.
Within all of this, we prioritized connection, support, and showing up authentically in our online meetings. Every class started with a check-in, giving the students an opportunity to share how things were going, to express how they felt about life at that point, and opportunities to reflect on how we were still connected, even while apart. It’s this that sets Patriot Violins apart from other ensemble opportunities – the interpersonal connections are prioritized and nurtured alongside their violin playing. These connections have continued out of both the Zoom and virtual classrooms via text group chats, birthday parties, and more. I could not be more proud as a teacher to see how these students have shown up for each other as human beings and fellow musicians this year. One of the most rewarding moments for me was seeing them absolutely light up the first time they saw each other in-person after so long apart.
One parent shared, “Patriot Violins is so much more than a violin experience for these kids. My daughter learned about video editing, music history, how to support and encourage other musicians, and on and on. She not only improved her playing and performance skills through this group but also increased her confidence and gained friends along the way. I can’t imagine a better group for my daughter to have weathered the pandemic with online (and in-person this Spring) than Claire Allen and these kids. Kuddos to the entire Mason Community Arts Academy for this all-around amazing program!”
Another wrote, “I have loved watching musical friendships form during Patriot Violins. Claire has a great way of guiding positive interaction among the students. She assigns projects that not only grow the kids musically but also provide purposeful interaction with others in the group. Their project meetings outside of class often turn to other shared interests once the work is done and lasts for hours. Great group for teens!”
For the very last session of the year, we received permission to hold our class in-person at the Academy, masked and distanced. We played duets together, and each student had four minutes to share what had been the most meaningful to them throughout the year. As a group, we then affirmed each other – going around the room and sharing what we admired about each student, what inspired us, and how we’d seen them grow. There were several damp eyes in the room (my own included!) as students shared how much they loved each other’s sound, how much they enjoyed being around each other, and how much they meant to each other. These affirmations were a powerful experience for them and, I hope, gave them a boost as we continue into the next phase of pandemic music-making.
What will Patriot Violins look like for the 2021-2022 school year? That’s still being decided, but the core values that held us together through the pandemic will remain the same: commitment to high-level music-making, a willingness to self-reflect and share about personal growth, and dedication to sharing music within our community and outside of it.
Audition information for the 2021-2022 Patriot Violins will be released in mid to late July and auditions will be due by August 16.