The Fine Arts Core Education (FACE) School, in Montreal, offers a bilingual, integrated arts program from Kindergarten to Secondary 5. Art education, consisting of visual arts, drama, dance, instrumental and vocal music, is mandatory for all students. The school is governed by two school boards, the Centre de Services Scolaire de Montréal (CSSDM) and the English Montreal School Board (EMSB), who come together around musical activities and education for both instrumental and vocal music.
Following the lockdown in March 2020, FACE School’s students and music teachers were devastated that the traditional end-of-year instrumental and vocal concerts could not take place. Wanting to reconnect with her string students and eager to provide motivation for them by making music together, string department teacher Theodora Stathopoulos piloted the idea of a virtual orchestra project in May 2020 that she named “A Ray of Sunshine.” It was a great success and has attracted over 1,000 youtube views since June 2020.
As pandemic restrictions continued at the beginning of the 2020-2021 academic year, instrumental music was put on hold indefinitely with minimal performance opportunities.
Ms. Stathopoulos launched the Virtual Orchestra Project anew aiming to involve more students from Grades 5 to 11. The goal was to produce two virtual concerts: one in January and another in June 2021.
FACE School’s Allegro Virtual Orchestra plays L.O. Rock by Bryan Strachan.
More than forty string students from Grades 5 to 11 responded to the call to participate in September 2020. This number doubled in January 2021 when the next virtual orchestra concert in June 2021 was announced.
Students wishing to participate were placed in a virtual orchestra at their technical level regardless of their age or grade. Following orchestra formation, students were provided with a prerecorded track of their part and were given several weeks to practice with support from a teacher or tutor when needed. When they had learned their parts, the students recorded themselves and sent the recording to FACE School teachers and artists in residence for compilation into a musical montage.
FACE School’s Vivace Virtual Orchestra plays Concerto IV Op.3 No.4, Allegro Assai by Antonio Vivaldi.
The montage of the individual recordings is a long and difficult phase of the virtual orchestra process and required additional tech support from experts. Some students were able to be involved in this part of the project, adding to their skills base.
Ms. Stathopoulos believes that the resources and efforts to create the virtual orchestras and produce a virtual concert have numerous advantages brought to the forefront during the pandemic. In addition to fostering creativity and collaboration, standard features of making music together, the virtual orchestra project supports the development of other essential global competencies among students including self-directed learning; communication; innovation and entrepreneurship; and critical thinking and problem-solving.
Ms. Stathopoulos notes that the new program now offers FACE School and its students flexibility in their music-making. They will return to live rehearsals and concerts once the distancing conditions lift, and can continue virtually or move to a hybrid teaching as conditions change.
FACE School’s Presto Virtual Orchestra plays Concerto for Three Violins by Antonio Vivaldi
For the participating students, the virtual orchestra concert is an incredible achievement. Most of them had to work with a click track – an audible metronome that musicians use to stay in sync with a multi-track recording – for the first time, and needed to spend time practicing on their own learning to play with it. Playing with a click track offers many advantages to the young instrumentalists, honing their sense of timing, tempo, and enabling them to track their learning progress.
Although a click track can never replace the richness of the in-person orchestra ensemble experience, a virtual orchestra concert is a tangible product, a souvenir of the perseverance and determination to engage in musical expression and make music with others in spite of tremendous challenges.
The virtual orchestra creates a connection to classmates and orchestra members and gives a sense of unity and collaboration. Above all, the virtual concert provides participating students with a tremendous sense of pride and satisfaction and a “concert” that they can share with friends and family anywhere in the world.