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Amid The Pandemic, One Middle School Orchestra Rocks On

Violinist Chuck Bontrager participated in a virtual Q&A with Westport Middle School's orchestra groups while schools were closed for the pandemic.
Cory Zilisch
Violinist Chuck Bontrager participated in a virtual Q&A with Westport Middle School's orchestra groups while schools were closed for the pandemic.

As teachers have moved their instruction online during the coronavirus pandemic, music classes have become challenging. Many school bands, orchestras and choirs have had to get creative about how to keep playing music together. At Westport Middle School in Jefferson County, an orchestra director has figured out a way to help his students put together a full performance.

Finding The Inner Musician

Being out of school has been tough for students in Westport Middle School’s orchestra groups. The first student assignment from director Cory Zilisch during remote instruction was to send him some kind of message letting him at least know they were alive.

"One kid said, I’m alive but I’m dead inside because we don’t have school," Zilisch said.

Being out of school and away from his students has been hard on Zilisch, too.

"I just miss being around them. They’re goofy, they make me laugh," Zilisch said.

To connect, Zilisch stages a one-hour "live session" each weekday when any orchestra student can get on Google hangout with him and the group. They also have virtual visits from professional musicians, they share music they’ve found or composed. And they play tiny concerts each other.

"Those hour live sessions -- they’re fantastic," Zilisch said. "I always feel a lot better and refreshed after I see them."

On a recent "Tiny Concert Thursday,"  seventh grade cellist Jeremiah Sarver worked up the courage to play a Bach tune he had been working on for the group. With the final note, Sarver smiled with what looked like relief.

"My heart is beating so fast right now," he laughed.

Instead of applause, students filled the chat box with words of appreciation for each other's performances.

Students have a chance to perform for each other on Thursdays and Fridays, when Zilisch encourages them to practice their improvisation skills. On Mondays, Zilisch invites professional musicians to talk to the group and answer students' questions.

"I want kids to be spending this time exploring new ideas in music," Zilisch said. "Either finding new music that’s out there on the Internet, or experimenting with their instrument and composing or something like that, and kind of find that musician that’s living inside them."

Playing Together While Apart

Being in an orchestra isn’t just about playing solos for one another. It’s about playing together – something that’s nearly impossible to do with social distancing. But Zilisch found a work-around. First, he picked a piece of music: an orchestra version of the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby," arranged by electric violinist Mark Wood.

"It’s kind of got a hip hop feel to it," Zilisch said. "It’s not your typical Beatles arrangement."

Zilisch's students are used to playing rock music in orchestra. One of his groups is the “Rock N’ Warhawks” Electric Orchestra program, which introduces students to electric string instruments.

Zilisch had each student record their own part individually on video, and send it in. Then he worked with professional sound engineers to compile the music into a virtual full orchestra performance. He even enlisted some famous musicians to feature as soloists, including Mark Wood, Joe Deninzon, Martha Mooke, Robb Janov, Greg Byers, David Wallace, Tracy Silverman and Razzvio.

"It’s been interesting to see all the videos come in," Zilisch said. "Some kids are like nailing it, and some are kind of close."

Zilisch said he did edit students' tracks if they were really off.

Sophie Popham is a seventh grade violin and viola player. She said performing virtually is really different than playing in person.

"There’s an energy," Popham explained. "Like if you’re playing in an ensemble with people, you can hear all the parts all together."

When she played her piece for the virtual performance, she used what’s called a click-track to keep tempo and cue her entrances.

"It works too, but it’s just like not the same vibe," she said. She misses seeing her orchestra friends in person, and playing with them on the same stage.

But Sophie said she did enjoy participating in the virtual performance.

Like many teachers, Zilisch is devastated that he won’t get to see his students in person until next school year. The virtual performances give him and his students a chance to make music together even while they’re apart.

Jess Clark is LPMs Education and Learning Reporter. Email Jess at jclark@lpm.org.