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The Kids Aren’t Alright, but Music Will Help

January 25, 2021

In a Zoom call last November between Golden State Youth Orchestra (GSYO) students and Philadelphia Orchestra Concertmaster David Kim, the Q&A didn’t go as expected. One student opened up about his terrible performance anxiety, describing what it feels like to be onstage and how COVID-19 wasn’t helping, then asking what tools Kim could give him for how to deal with it. GSYO Executive Director Seth Ducey recalls being touched by the depth of the question. If adults have been balancing work life and home life tenuously, their kids are internalizing the losses — still there are glimmers of hope in how music is bringing kids together, marrying music education with this particular moment in time.

“I can imagine how hard it is being a kid right now,” said Ducey.

When Ducey and GSYO canceled their season early in 2020 and scrambled to online programming like others, he reached out to four sets of parent focus groups and said to them, “We don’t have all the answers. We’ve got a lot of the answers, but we want to run these ideas by you and see what you think, and if you have other ideas.” GSYO then provided students with musician talks like the one with Kim, weekly emails with interesting music to listen to and learn, a music history talk with GSYO Music Director John Eells, and interactive games.

“It was a real lesson in crisis management, loving your students and wanting to continue to educate them and give them opportunities to learn and also to forgive ourselves,” said Ducey. “We knew we would not be perfect, and in the end our community really appreciated what we were able to do.”

In 2021, GSYO will be online for the remainder of the season, hosting one master class each month, January through March, featuring San Francisco Symphony members: principal trumpeter Mark Inouye, utility clarinet and bass clarinetist Jerome Simas, and piccolo player Catherine Payne with “pay what you can” tickets through GSYO and Eventbrite. Three to four GSYO students will solo for the visiting professionals during the classes, offering the kids a chance to be evaluated, “instead of being in a sea of orchestra faces” during a regular season. “It is good to give kids opportunities that are real and tangible. We like that they take it seriously,” Ducey said. “The more we can do for them, the more they are the hope for us.”

“If they’re going to be in their rooms all day and night, they will be better young people and happier young people if they are at least playing their instruments and seeing their friends virtually,” said Ducey.

Solo but Not Alone

“More than anything, students need and crave that human interaction that we as adults can work through better than high schoolers in some ways,” said Michael Desnoyers, director of vocal music at the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts.

At RASOTA, Desnoyers said his biggest 2020 takeaway after one virtual choral performance was to shift to virtual solo singing and music study. But, the art song standards in French, Italian, and German didn’t work with distance learning, and existing English art songs were either too difficult or didn’t offer the right vocal range for high school voices. Vocalist, Chelsea Hollow, had begun working on a project called The Young Activists’ Songbook that excited Desnoyers with the prospect of developing songs for young voices: “This music can create a way to celebrate diverse composers and diverse voices because the text is relevant to the teenagers as well,” said Desnoyers.

“While standard beginner repertoire gives the opportunity for vocal development, it lacks modern themes and students are forced to reimagine the stories or even change text to perform it authentically,” said Hollow. “This amazing collaboration will result in a growing collection of new music with text created by young activists and music intended for young voices that reflects the challenges and triumphs of the world they are entering.”

The Young Activists’ Songbook is being commissioned by Concert Rebels, an organization Hollow co-founded with vocalist Maria Caycedo in Fall of 2020. Concert Rebels works with performing artists and activists to fund, commission, and curate classical recitals with a purpose to amplify marginalized voices, activate audiences, and inspire collective growth. Hollow saw the opportunity to create music the students could identify with, modernizing the tradition of the art song. The Young Activists’ Songbook will feature songs written by RASOTA students including, “Being a Student in 2020” and “The Future Holds Water in a Wicker Basket.” Of the songs going into the Songbook, Hollow said, “These are about the uncertainties of this time and the toughness of this time, so they’re pretty broad.”

“It’s amazing how much time you spend with a poem when you’re singing it for a recital. You dive so much deeper into the text than if you were just reciting it. There’s something so profound about the connection that these kids are making with each other,” said Hollow. “They’re learning these skills of empathy, of seeing each other. They’re literally reading and performing the words of another student. There’s so much healing in that.”

Musical Lyrics by Kids for Kids

The Songbook will also feature work excerpted from the epic poem, “Because This City” published by Chapter 510, an Oakland nonprofit publishing company and bookstore that works with young poets, in collaboration with the Yerba Buena Center of the Arts and Oakland Roots Soccer Club. Tavia Stewart, COO and co-founder of Chapter 510 was a 2020 YBCA fellow where the theme was “public participation.” For the creation of “Because This City,” she passed out forms with writing prompts at Oakland Roots soccer games and provided the forms to kids and teens. In the end they received over 200 submissions. The submitted lines were mixed and matched and culminated in the 30-page poem. Stewart is excited about their contribution to The Young Activists’ Songbook and said, “Art makes us feel less alone. Words especially are going to help students express both their loss and their feelings but also their hopes.”

“Seeing student’s words sung back to them, it changes everything — it’s just so powerful. I’m excited about this collaboration of youth interpreting youth,” said Stewart.

Hollow got the idea for The Young Activists’ Songbook during a call for proposals she issued in May 2020 with one composer proposing songs with poetry written by young patients in a hospital he worked at. Ultimately, the hospital denied permission. Hollow later connected with Kids and Art Foundation, an organization dedicated to healing pediatric cancer through the arts, which has also pivoted to online during the pandemic.

Rachel Handsman, arts educator and program manager at Kids and Art, said she hooked up with Hollow as part of their new quarterly social-art workshops intended to foster unity through kids working on individual pieces that come together into one big piece. Their first social art workshop starts in March, focusing on poetry that will take “bits from one child’s poem or bits from another” to become song lyrics for The Young Activists’ Songbook. The Kids and Art participants will also create artwork to accompany their patchwork poems.

“We like the idea of the kids using all of their senses, so this opportunity was a great way to start the program,” said Handsman. “Finding unity in a time that’s really isolating — it’s going to be all of them and that’s what’s so important.” 

Once Hollow receives all the lyrics for The Young Activists’ Songbook by June, they will be set to music by professional composers, picked by Hollow for their experience and understanding of high-school voices. The songs will be accessible yet offer a challenge to highlight young voices.

“We’re trying to put something together that feels fulfilling for everyone involved — for the kids who are singing it and for the kids who write the texts,” said Hollow. “I want them to feel like their work is being celebrated.”

RASOTA vocal and piano department students will perform and premiere selections from The Young Activists’ Songbook this fall. Learn more about donating to support the project.

“These kids are being connected through this work,” said Hollow.

Annelies Zijderveld is an East Bay based culture and food writer. She authored the cookbook, Steeped: Recipes Infused with Tea, and teaches cooking classes around the Bay area. Her writing can be found in Paste and Edible East Bay among others. A mezzo-soprano, she sings at her church in Oakland and fell hard for opera at a young age. Visit her website here.