Editor’s note: The intersections of art and education are often overlooked. The Seattle Times plans to run periodic pieces by young people in Washington state about their perspectives on these subjects. This article is by Yoon Lee, a 17-year-old Korean American violist from Bellevue who is a junior at Seattle’s Lakeside School.
There is something visceral about group music, uniting to create a cohesive whole. As a violist in the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestras and the Lakeside Upper School Orchestra, this innate connection is one I have held close since my first forays into orchestral performance when I was 7 years old.
Such experiences available for youth artists suffered massive interruptions due to COVID-19.
I spoke with students and leaders from three local organizations — SYSO, the Lakeside Upper School Orchestra, and Clover Park High School Choir — about how they persevered, even evolved. They adopted new technology, acclimated to remote formats, and adapted upon returning to in-person rehearsals and performances. But not all programs weathered the pandemic equally.
The beginning of the pandemic brought shared disorientation. When Lakeside’s director of visual and performing arts, Andrew Krus, found out he would have to teach virtually in spring 2020, his response was, “Huh? How were we going to do arts on a laptop?”
People scrambled to settle on effective technology, often “having to figure everything out from scratch, as we had never been through a pandemic before,” said Izchel Chacón, SYSO’s manager of orchestras and partnerships. Clover Park choral teacher Dr. Suna Chung said she “felt lost, confused, and unprepared” when faced with the challenge of mastering six or seven software applications.
Despite the chaos, each group persisted. “We’ll figure it out” was Music Director Juan Felipe Molano’s mindset in SYSO’s decision to switch to a virtual model. “As artists,” he says, “we always need to be flexible, resilient, and adaptable.” Chung recounted how Clover Park Principal Timothy Stults told educators to “have grace, to students and to yourself.” This mindset yielded returns as students and faculty acquired technological proficiency.
Student Grace Pandra, the Lakeside orchestra’s principal violinist, notes how she “got to try some new things I never would have, like the personal projects on Soundtrap,” a digital audio workstation. Finally, Lakeside, SYSO, and Clover Park presented climactic projects that assembled students’ individually-recorded works into a single, cohesive whole.
Returning to in-person learning had its speed bumps, particularly in adapting to COVID-19 safety protocols. The Clover Park choir needed to use masks that were appropriate for singing, although they obscured students’ faces. Similarly, student Junnie Kim, a senior oboist in SYSO, said, “My worst experience would probably be learning to project through a bell cover.” The cover is a layer of nylon material stretched over an instrument’s bell to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
However, the return is being cherished as students mingle, instructors effectively teach, and musical groups perform anew. Noemi Ruiz, a Clover Park choir senior, found greater courage as she “and the only other senior try to sing loudly so others can follow along.” Lakeside and SYSO have even returned to live concerts. “It was wonderful to see everybody again” at Benaroya Hall in November, Kim said, and Lakeside’s December concert made Krus feel like he was “walking on clouds for days after that. I just felt like a musician again.”
Not all of these organizations have recovered the same way. These disparities are most tangible in enrollment numbers: Lakeside orchestra’s enrollment increased and SYSO largely maintained theirs, while Clover Park’s choir size has been almost halved from pre-pandemic times to today.
This gap is likely due to resource inequality. Lakeside School had a 2020-2021 operating budget of $35.3 million. Although the proportion for performing arts is not public, the sheer monetary pool assuredly eased changes during COVID-19. The Lakeside orchestra also benefits from a schoolwide long-standing commitment to equal access to technology. SYSO has finances and renown but lacks school-equivalent infrastructure, and was forced to digitize on the fly and relocate rehearsals due to COVID-19 restrictions.
While Lakeside’s laptop-based foundation had been operating and well-supported for years when the pandemic hit, Clover Park High School had to build theirs up. Clover Park piano students received roll-up pianos — electronic mats mimicking pianos — and all students were offered laptops and internet connections through school bus-borne Wi-Fi hot spots. This mobilization was an incredible accomplishment initiated by necessity because many students simply could not access these tools.
Despite these differences, faculty in all three groups share pride in themselves and their students, having weathered such difficult times. Krus is “amazed” by how students are “still finding a way to have fun and be human.”
“I am so proud of us, our adaptability, flexibility, and ability to overcome,” said Chung. She wishes to send “kudos to my ‘singing warriors,’” as her current students “are more committed to music than any others [I have had] because they are willing to be here, to sing harder with fewer members, with singing masks, and with so many different regulations. I appreciate them.”
“I don’t want to falsely attribute our success and enrollment in music through the pandemic to the idea that we’re somehow better at teaching music than anybody else,” says Krus, reiterating the orchestra’s good fortune to have deep financial and community support. Instead, “I want to reinforce how important music and arts education is to all students and that public school music programs need good financial and structural support to keep going, especially now. This support must come from administrators at every level of a district or school.”
Passion for public school arts is there: Chung and her “singing warriors” epitomize that. But as school arts budgets nationwide receive cut after cut, this message is more relevant than ever.
Music has been impressively integral to my life, especially through the wringer of the pandemic. Others should have the same good fortune.
This article was written on special assignment for The Seattle Times through the TeenTix Press Corps, a teen arts journalism program sponsored by TeenTix (teentix.org), a youth empowerment and arts access nonprofit organization.