Pushing for Change Even During a Pandemic – Accelerando at the Nashville Symphony

Mike Lawson • ChoralFeaturesOctober 2021 • October 9, 2021

Nashville Symphony musicians, assisted by music students from Belmont University, coach young
string students as part of a strings residency program at Rosebank Elementary School in Nashville.

SBO catches up with Kimberly Kraft McLemore, vice president of education and community engagement for the Nashville Symphony, to catch up on their Accelerando program, learn how it fared during the COVID shutdowns, and how they are still pushing forward with their goal of making their symphony reflect the demographic makeup of the community it serves. 

When did you come into the role?

I started this role back in 2019, just before the pandemic. I didn’t even finish my first season as the director at the time of education and community engagement before we had to stop for COVID in March of 2020. So, this will be my second year, and I have since been promoted to vice president. Prior to taking the director’s position over the department, I managed the Accelerando initiative, which is our diversity pathway program for students grades 5 through 12. I’ve been at the symphony now for almost five years.

Let’s start with the overall impact of COVID on the Nashville Symphony, and as a domino effect, the education programs and what adjustments the Symphony had to make.

I think it is safe to say that COVID heavily impacted our entire organization, including the education and community engagement programming. In March of 2020, we essentially had a complete halt, and canceled programming through the remainder of that season. In July of 2020, we actually furloughed most of our staff and all of our musicians, which is pretty common knowledge at this point. And we’re really excited to say that we’ve reached an agreement and negotiated a new contract with our musicians. I’m thrilled that everyone is starting back up in September. For education programming and for community engagement programming, what we do in a normal year is so outward-facing. It is our musicians and our staff working with school children, in the schools, it’s performing out in the community, it’s engaging with community partners and local artists, none of which could happen during the pandemic in the ways that we had normally been going about that.

Xayvion Davidson, a bassoonist in the Nashville Symphony’s Accelerando program, performs at a recital. Accelerando is an intensive music education program designed to prepare gifted young students of diverse
ethnic backgrounds for pursuing music at the collegiate and professional levels.

During the pandemic, we did what most organizations had to do and pivot a bit. And we actually continued programs like Accelerando virtually, which is wonderful, and I’m happy to talk about that at length if that’s helpful. But we were also doing things like having our fiddle violin program now in a virtual platform, and format. And we still partnered with the Country Music Hall of Fame. And our artists that play for that program got on Zoom and led students through a virtual tour of the Schermerhorn, and Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, and then played the program for them, which essentially takes them through the history of both fiddle and violin music and how they are similar and different, and discover that the mystery is there’s no difference between a fiddle and a violin. Just the way you play them. So, that’s a fun program for, really, students younger, K through 2, K through 3 maybe. But that program continued virtually.

We also started offering a lot of virtual content, like a lot of other organizations. Not necessarily full-length concerts from our orchestra, because they were furloughed, but we did have ensemble performances that were recorded prior to the furlough. And we had a lot of digital resources for folks, whether it was a virtual tour of our hall, with a scavenger hunt, whether it was past lesson plans. We had a really cool thing fall in our lap in the late summer 2020, which was that the purple martins visited downtown. Thousands of purple martins, which is a protected species of bird, were migrating back to Brazil during August of 2020. They decided to land on the trees that were on 1 Symphony Place, in front of the Schermerhorn. 

Young players of the Curb Youth Orchestra perform side-by-side with members of the Nashville Symphony, under the direction of Giancarlo Guerrero.

We partnered with Tennessee Wildlife Federation, but I also got a call from a professor from University of Rochester, who teaches a music and conservation program in the Pantanal, in Brazil, every winter. And he said, “You know, these are the birds that we’re studying when they finish migrating to Brazil every year, and they’re stopping in Nashville. We should do an exchange and talk about this program.” And I was like, “You know, who would have thought during a pandemic we could do an exchange with students from Brazil about purple martins that landed at the Schermerhorn.” So, you know, we actually had some really creative, innovative programming happening during the pandemic. And in addition to that, our students were also able to connect with other pathway programs during our masterclass series. We curated 14 master classes throughout the pandemic year, and our students were playing alongside students from Chicago, and Philadelphia, and Atlanta, even up in Cleveland, and LA, and they were playing for world-class musicians that normally we wouldn’t have the funding to fly to Nashville, outside of our orchestral musicians. They were working with musicians from the Chicago Symphony, and from Arizona Symphony, and the Metropolitan Opera orchestra. 

For our readers who are not familiar with Accelerando, or perhaps didn’t see our previous articles on it, refresh us on the program and its goals.

Sure. Accelerando is a diversity pathway initiative that engages students grades 5 through 12, that know they want to pursue music at the collegiate level. And it is our goal through Accelerando that eventually the face of American orchestras changes, and is more diverse racially. Accelerando is for students that come from underrepresented ethnicities in American orchestras. And essentially, all students that are not Caucasian or Northeast Asian are eligible for this program, because those two demographics are overrepresented in American orchestras. So…

So, the idea is to make your orchestra look like the community?

Exactly. And it’s our goal through Accelerando that this program will not only impact other orchestras in America, but the Nashville Symphony specifically. We would love to see our orchestra look like the city of Nashville, look like Middle Tennessee, racially, and I’m hoping we get there soon.

How many years has Accelerando been in place?

This is actually our seventh year, and we are mainly funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, out of New York. And this program essentially is a full scholarship program, with students receiving weekly lessons with a National Symphony musician, classical concert attendances at the hall, in a normal year. They also take music theory at Blair School of Music, they’re in youth orchestras throughout Nashville. And then we also do things that are a little bit more in a broader umbrella, like summer festival attendances. We’re sending students to Interlochen, we’re sending students to Boston University Tanglewood Institute, we’re sending students to Curtis Summer festival, we’re sending them over to New York for their National Youth Orchestra Program, and Accelerando pays for those experiences.

We also cover college and career prep. So, whether that means walking a student and their parents through a college application for music, or navigating an audition, really even covering things like public speaking, how do you speak about what you do to a donor, to a roomful of people that don’t know what you do? How do you enter a field that looks a very certain way, when you do not look like them right now? And how do you navigate your success through college and a professional career in orchestra? Because that’s a beast in itself, is navigating that audition circuit and getting a job in a professional orchestra. So, it’s my goal that these students, when they leave this program, are ready for college, and they are ready to kind of enter that pre-professional space as a musician.

The program continued during the pandemic, I guess, you had to bring in some Symphony players ad hoc to fulfill the needs of the continued training, even though they weren’t under normal contract, so it must have been a very trying period.

It was, and, you know, we were really thankful that our musicians were willing to kind of create a side agreement for Accelerando to continue. Our faculty actually continued teaching throughout the year, virtually. And then, we partnered with Choral Arts Link to help facilitate payments to our musicians, because that was part of the contractual issues with the union and going through the organization. So, we’re really thankful for our community partnership with Choral Arts Link. 

So, well, let’s talk about the effects COVID had on engaging the programs, and now the plans for the future, especially in light of the variant that’s popping up. So, how’s that looking right now? 

Emily Martinez-Pérez is an Accelerando program alumni.

Yes. And I actually planned a little bit of a buffer, and I’m so glad I did at this point. I wasn’t planning on our sectionals, or ensembles, in the schools, starting up until after fall break. So, I feel like I have until October to really plan my pivot. And we actually have shifted a lot of our programming, even the Symphony, with, like, our family series concerts are now happening all after Christmas, all after December. So, they’ll be in the spring. And we actually have only one young people’s concert in the fall, and we’re planning to stream it. We were already making plans to record that performance. So, I feel like this fall gives us a little bit of a buffer to make plans and adjust as needed. But I will say we are planning to offer all of our programming this fall, this spring. When this fall, I don’t know, whether it’ll be in October, or maybe even a little later, but we are planning to get back into schools.

I will say one new thing to come out of the pandemic is an expanded partnership with Metro Nashville Public Schools, specifically their strings program. It’s not an unknown thing that our string programs in Nashville are not the most supportive programs at times, and we want to do anything we can to help that. And so I’ve been really working closely with Department of Visual and Performing Arts to see how we can help. And there were three elementary schools in Metro Nashville Public Schools that started a string program during a pandemic, bless them. And so, we are going to do an in-school residency program for three months in the fall and three months in the spring, to work alongside the strings teacher, and work with kindergarten through 4th-grade students on playing a string instrument, and get them started early on loving their instrument, loving music, loving the opportunity to play with others. And we’re actually partnering with Belmont University, and they are having some of their university students matched with our Symphony musicians to then teach these after-school residency program.

In your role with the Symphony, as you look at pivoting if need be, do you have any plans to try to identify usable tech that could be used to keep these lessons going virtually, should that become necessary?

Yes, is the short answer. I will say that we learned a lot this year, like most people, when it comes to technology. Prior to the pandemic…I should, like, preface everything I’m about to say with this next statement. Prior to the pandemic, we had a partnership with Accelerando and the New World Symphony in Miami. And they offer coaching sessions for free to our Accelerando students. And then it kind of culminated in a town hall masterclass with Michael Tilson Thomas. And these fellows… And we actually brought in Vanderbilt University Blair School of Music into this partnership, because they had the connection that was needed for this program to exist. And it was called Internet2. And it works through a low-latency program. And this was prior to the pandemic, before anybody was really exploring these kind of household versions of this. And it was fascinating to me, because even though it was low-latency, it wasn’t exactly zero latency. It was about a 10-second delay. But even at that time, we were like, “This is amazing, like, this is awesome, like, let’s do it.” And then the pandemic happened, and everything shifted to Zoom. And our faculty, like a lot of music educators, I would argue, weren’t ready for that technology piece.

Our students were actually the ones often working with our faculty members on how to successfully navigate the technology. We ended up buying some really high-quality microphones for our students to use at home. We explored the things that, like, lowered the latency issues. 

I will say something that was a challenge was even playing, without a latency issue, even playing over Zoom, the quality is just not the same with acoustic instruments that it would be in person. And something that we used to navigate that was just our students recording themselves with those high-quality microphones and then sending that recording to their teacher in advance of their lesson. While, of course, it would be better to do that in person, they could then use their lesson to work through that recording and talk about… Because these students are working at a really high level. They’re working with really small nuances of phrasing, and dynamics, and interpretation of a piece. They’re not just figuring out notes and rhythms anymore. They’re really playing…I mean, they’re at the top of their classes in terms of ability.

It was a real challenge to hear that slight dynamic change or that phrasing difference. I think the recordings helped. And our students and faculty could navigate that space again if they had to, but we’re also working on options that would allow an in-person experience in a safer way, now that we know more about the pandemic and the virus. We’re working on, like, what can we do with our spaces at the Schermerhorn to provide an in-person lesson that’s socially distanced. I will say most of our students and faculty are vaccinated, and while that doesn’t, obviously, now we know doesn’t reduce the risk fully, if they’re masked, and socially distanced, and/or vaccinated in a larger room, with wonderful air circulation, we can limit the exposure and the risk. And so, we are going to do that, kind of, moving into the fall, in hopes that the pandemic doesn’t get so bad that we need to switch fully virtual.

Our students recording themselves in lessons, recording their playing, which they weren’t always great about doing before the pandemic, and we always tried to get them to do, but it then allowed them to go and review all of what they were doing, and hear themselves playing. And they were like, “Oh my gosh, I need to record all the time.” Our students are recording themselves for their own work, not necessarily with their instructor, or for an audition, or anything like that. I think that’s something that’s been a big benefit, is our students are like, “I want to hear how I sound, how I can improve, and I don’t need someone else to tell me that. I can do it myself.”


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