Symphonic Orchestra: A Spectacular Outlet
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Usually when the bell rings before fifth period at Stuyvesant High School, 60 to 70 teenage musicians slowly flood into classroom 129. For the next 40 minutes, the students rapidly fetch instruments from the adjacent storage space; tune strings, winds, and brass; and perfect excerpts from pieces such as a Beethoven Symphony or a Bernstein Serenade. Symphonic orchestra teacher Joseph Tamosaitis conducts the ensemble from his swiveling chair atop a short platform in the middle of the classroom, lifting the spirits of exhausted teenagers by cracking jokes.
The symphonic orchestra normally meets daily to practice in the first-floor rehearsal room. Musicians from all grades gather to play music, occasionally under the conducting hand of a student teacher. Several take the opportunity to rehearse in their chamber music groups in separate spaces. The unique course introduces students to a special kind of collaboration, encouraging them to explore different styles of music and bringing together some of the most talented musicians in the city. Despite the challenges that accompanied the start of remote classes, the Stuyvesant symphonic orchestra, one of many arts programs canceled as a result of the district-wide shutdown in March, found a way to continue playing.
When online instruction first began in the spring, Tamosaitis set up a Google Classroom platform for the orchestra as a way to relay announcements and distribute assignments. He holds Google Meets every other school day to discuss assignments with the 75 members of the symphonic orchestra and, occasionally, to educate them on music history and performance practice. Throughout the last three months of the 2019-2020 school year, the ensemble worked on two main projects: an audio-only recording of an excerpt from Beethoven Symphony no. 7 in A Major, Op. 92: “Allegretto,” and a Final Cut Pro video of an excerpt from the Brandenburg Concerto no. 3 in G major, BWV 1048: “Allegro.”
Tamosaitis acknowledged that conducting orchestra class virtually gave him a good opportunity to listen to each musician separately, something that had been difficult under normal circumstances. Teaching a music course, however, presents a tougher challenge than other classes at Stuy. Technology has yet to offer a favorable solution to the significant audio delay of video conference softwares such as Zoom and Google Meet. As of now, it is nearly impossible for any musical ensemble to rehearse over video calls, hence the recording projects that each member completes on their own.
Tamosaitis also mentioned that a disadvantage of online instruction is the lack of sight-reading opportunities for newcomers to the orchestra. “[Usually] after a semester of playing alongside older and more experienced students, ninth-graders at Stuyvesant learn very fast,” he said.
As sophomore Christina Pan, a violinist for the symphonic orchestra, pointed out, this situation is difficult to recreate through technology. “Since the main focus of an ensemble orchestra is to play together, [Tamosaitis] feels like the main component of it is missing from remote classes,” she explained.
Tamosaitis, however, has kept the class engaging despite the remote circumstances. In the spring, he frequently posted recordings and videos of the pieces that the ensemble had been working on, to boost morale. “I think the remote orchestra has honestly been one of my favorite classes because Mr. Tamo”—as he is often referenced by the students—“always manages to bring his authentic self to class, and it’s pretty endearing,” Pan expressed. The Google Meets that Tamosaitis hosts for orchestra class have often been entertaining for the high schoolers, whose attention is captivated by the recounts of his musical experiences or crash courses on musical history.
Other orchestra students find that they miss playing together and bringing the music to life in a face-to-face setting. “We sort of managed to edit all the individual recordings and create something similar to what we would hear in person. But it’s just not the same,” said junior Macy Jiang, also a violinist for the symphonic orchestra. The actual playing is all done on the students’ own time, so they lose the experience of what it’s like to rehearse in an orchestra.
“In March, we thought that remote learning would only last until June,” Tamosaitis admitted, adding that priorities are different now that the orchestra is most likely facing an entire year of remote instruction. “For me, the most important thing is keeping everybody practicing,” he said, since it is harder to check up on students’ progress. As a result, students are required to submit a video performance every other week. Tamosaitis plans to put together a video performance of the symphonic orchestra playing a movement from the first “Carmen Suite” by Georges Bizet, using editing software such as Logic Pro and Final Cut Pro to create split-screen recordings of the full orchestra.
As New York City waits for the curtains on artistic organizations to reopen, musicians continue to make the most of the online interaction they are able to have through technology and innovative solutions. Creating a video recording of 75 musicians poses several challenges, a few of which include requiring all students to play at exactly the same tempo with the right dynamics and similar phrasing. Tamosaitis, however, is no stranger to the theater: for him and his orchestra, the show must go on.