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Richmond Symphony’s New School of Music

Mike Lawson • • September 2, 2020

Walter Bitner, previously the director of education and community engagement for the Nashville Symphony from 2014 to 2019, left Nashville last summer, moving to Virginia for the same position at the Richmond Symphony.

While planning to create a new community music school, the world changed all around us, and rather than deterring the organization, they pushed forward with an enhanced plan, now opening the Richmond Symphony School of Music. SBO spoke with Bitner to learn more about these exciting developments and what they mean not only for young musicians in Richmond, Virginia, but now even those from around the world.

The symphony in Nashville, with the COVID-19 pandemic, has shuttered. How are things in Richmond?

We are moving forward with plans for socially distanced performing and virtual live streaming of our performances this fall after a successful experiment this summer, doing the same thing with our summer series chamber music program for six Thursday evening recitals in a row. We both had socially distanced in-person performances that were livestreamed over the internet. 

Tell us about the Richmond Symphony School of Music initiative.

I moved here a year ago and was learning about the music education programs in the city. I found that the Richmond Symphony has been quite involved in music education in Richmond for a long time. Our Youth orchestra program, which includes five ensembles, two symphony orchestras, two string orchestras in the band, has been around since 1962 and is the premier ensemble program in the region.

And the symphony here has been very engaged for a number of years in assisting Richmond public schools and buying instruments for their programs. Through our big 10 festivals we’ve donated more than $400,000 worth of string instruments to Richmond public schools.

At this point, more than 20 of the 26 elementary schools in the city have instruments purchased by the symphony. I was asked to help build a strategy for the development of instructional programs that would help those students be successful and make their way into the symphonies, youth orchestra programs, if they were interested in that. The first thing I noticed was that there is no community music school here, a common feature of the music education ecosystem in many urban areas around the country.

[They] provide a necessary haven for young musicians and musical programs for all ages, for all kinds of people within their city. We just don’t have that kind of organization in Richmond. That seemed to me like a very clear, deep need for our community. I started speaking with people about it in the fall of 2019 – civic leaders and Dr. Ronald Crutcher, president of the University of Richmond, who’s on the symphony board, and also a cellist and deeply engaged in music and education. Then when the pandemic came and we transferred all of our youth orchestra programming to digital delivery in April, my team at the Richmond Symphony began to research the feasibility of going ahead and launching our community music school now, while there’s such great need for music education and even more difficulty for access for our students.

We learned about all the video conferencing technologies and learning management systems and digital audio workstations, and various other kinds of software programs, we engaged our musicians and our community. The board gave us the go-ahead. We ran a pilot for three weeks, starting in the end of July and at the beginning of August for three weeks. We had 90 students engaging in virtual youth orchestra online and in test classes for music theory and composition. We launched the school’s website in about three weeks ago and we’ll be opening registration for 10 of several of our fall offerings on August 31 and planned out about another half dozen or so classes before our fall semester begins on October 5.

Before the pandemic hit, was the school intended to be an in-person experience, or was it always intended to be an online program?

When I started talking to people about this idea in early November last year, I was imagining that I was at the beginning of a long process of meetings and conversations to build community support to start a capital campaign to launch a [physical] school, a process that could take several years. But the pandemic hastened our plans considerably.

This pandemic started just six or eight weeks before your group took decisive action to move forward and make this virtual. How did that happen?

It was about the third week of March for the lockdown, it was planned to last until the beginning of June at that time, where other states were giving much earlier dates to resume life as “business as normal,” or what have you. It was clear to us that the remainder of our season was not going to happen in-person. If we wanted to retain our 230-plus families engaged in our youth orchestra program, we needed to be nimble and flexible and develop digital programming as quickly as we could because that was our only means to deliver instruction.

We began delivering presentational and interactional kinds of experiences for our youth orchestra program members at all age levels during their usual planned orchestra rehearsals on Tuesday nights. These were built around very intimate, interactive presentations by Richmond Symphony musicians who are an amazing resource and the great performers, but also very engaging and personable. Our students had wonderful opportunities week after week to engage in dialogue and hear beautiful playing from our musicians and then breakout experiences with their conductors of each of their ensembles.

We right away used the Zoom platform for large scale meetings. We’ve buckled down to the research of how to deploy and deliver other kinds of educational experiences while we were simultaneously getting the experience we needed operating these kinds of experiences on a weekly basis.

The way in which your entire organization shifted is likely unprecedented among something so non-tech as a symphony. This is not a “digital world.” String players and people in the symphony aren’t necessarily the first people you think of when it comes to those who might engage technology for music production. Was there any barrier there, a learning curve for people participating? Or did you find a generational difference, older players having to be trained? How did that all work?

What we were actually seeing is that it’s not really very helpful to make assumptions because musicians are all very individual. Of course, as one might expect, some of our younger members of the orchestra are quite savvy with technology and have been quite helpful in being able to prepare things using software or help troubleshoot problems. But some of our older members have been, too.

I will say, in general, the classical music industry is technologically behind the rest of the music industry as far as being current with what’s cutting-edge and state of the art in music and sound technology. It’s been a wake-up call for us to realize that we can’t afford to not become aware of and take advantage of these kinds of technologies now. It’s time for the classical music business to step into the present.

You’ve got music, some of which is 400 or 500 years old, being performed by people with a vested interest in maintaining tradition. In my 25 years of working around music technology education, there was often a hesitancy from the classical world to modernize how they teach music and not integrate new technology in the process. Will you find yourself going off into some of the technology to make sure that the students understand the tools that are available today versus, perhaps, 200-year-old methods of teaching?

We will. It’s going to be to our advantage, actually. The staff and musicians at the symphony had to learn a lot of new things. It’s also important that we educate our students and families who are participating because means of access has become more complicated than just showing up at your classroom or rehearsal hall when it’s time to have class. It’s having a good internet connection and the right device that you need and a good microphone.

Everything from whether you’re engaging in real-time with what’s happening in the class, or preparing a recording of a digital documentation of your work. Another layer of learning has to occur, as well as the traditional kinds of things that musicians have to learn about: how to play their instrument well and how to navigate the notation system, how to improve through your practice habits. All of these things that really are an aside to what’s delivered through the technology, the passing down of our art form from human being to human being.

It’s a whole new world and probably never a better time in history to be a musician or a music student because of these advantages. However, the student from 50 years ago, or far less, who could spend more hours a week studying their instrument and notation, now has to divert some of that attention away to also learn the support systems that feed it. I think that as generations increase and these technologies become more of the norm, that will probably become less of a factor. Do you see any disadvantage to the adding learning of the tech with the instrument and performance, or do you think there’s a fair trade-off?

Well, I don’t think it’s a disadvantage necessarily. It’s just differences of application and advantage. One thing to note is that the technology has become much more intuitive in the last few decades than it was when computer and internet technology first emerged in the ‘90s, to the extent that it became prevalent consumer access to using technology for music. I think it’s much easier now, more affordable and accessible to use these technologies. But there are dangers, especially in music education with children, that we bypass important developmental stages for children to learn through their physical body before really concentrating on what is primarily intellectual content access on a computer screen.

It’s a careful balance for the educator to find the best way to help, hobbled as we are with many of our schools teaching virtually for the rest of 2020, and many students not able to have in-person music lessons or classes or rehearsals or performances. It’s still very important for a child to hold the physical instrument that makes the acoustic sound in their hands and learn how to make an instrument speak, and learn how to read and write music notation before they rely on the technology and software while their bodies are growing and developing.

The Richmond Symphony was initially building a local program. Now that it’s virtual, is it still local?

It is. And it is also global because the internet is a global market. As soon as you put a website up and go online, you have a soapbox to the entire world. We are definitely aware of that, even as we’re primarily engaging our own symphony musicians and other local musicians and community members in the development of our classes. We also have some important connections with leaders in the work for diversity equity and inclusion and classical music around the country who are friends of the Richmond Symphony.

Any of our classes, especially those that are not performance ensembles intended to resume in-person rehearsals at some point in the future, can be accessed by people no matter where they live. Some are more intended for a global audience than others. We have engaged Titus Underwood, who’s the principal oboist for the Nashville Symphony. He’s played with symphony orchestras all over the country but also taught in many prestigious programs for pre-college students at major conservatories and has been active with the Sphinx Organization Detroit for a number of years, and was a Medal of Excellence recipient from Sphinx.

Titus will be teaching a course primarily for adults and college and high school students on the history of African musicians in classical music. That’ll be an eight-class course that starts the week of October 5 and runs into December, with celebrity guests every class.

Will the program online give preference to geographically available students for particular classes and then others labeled for anybody, anywhere?

That’s a great point, which we’re actually still discussing. Our registration goes live on August 31, at which point all of our youth orchestra programs, which are being delivered digitally, registration will go live. We have some supporting electives in chamber music, music theory, and composition that are intended for students who are enrolled in youth orchestra. We do not plan to resume in-person rehearsals this semester, but it’s possible if Virginia schools go back to in-person classes in 2021, that we may resume rehearsals in the spring.

It may be difficult for a student participating in an online course in the fall to still remain in an ensemble in the spring if in-person rehearsals resume. However, all the classes except for the performance-based classes and those catered, especially to being in the performance program, will be open to people from all over the world.

We’ll have several other offerings besides the instrumental programs that will be launched initially, [such as] our voice curriculum committee is producing. They also are available for registration later in September and will begin in October. One tenured member, violinist Meredith Riley, is going to teach a course in jazz improvisation for the classical musician, and our jazz curriculum committee will be releasing a couple of classes, one in jazz history and one in jazz theory, that will be open to enrollment in September.

This seems beyond a program for local youth. That’s not what you were originally thinking of a year ago, but here we are.

That’s correct. When we started working on developing the school beyond the programs that the symphony already offered, what became clear was if it was going to become a community music school, we had to engage the community and planning it. Luckily the symphony already has a very broad footprint in the community. We were able to engage leaders from the local universities, local schools. Teachers who sing in the symphony chorus, or our patrons of the symphony, or friends of our Youth orchestra program, and have formed a number of curriculum development committees. And all of these groups are working together to build the future school that we hope will become a resource and an institution for generations.

A community music school ideally will serve a very broad mission with many kinds of music, many kinds of courses and classes and ensembles for people of all ages. We’re at the beginning and doing what we see as the next steps towards that eventual vision of a robust music school, where you can study any kind of music and any kind of instrument and people all will learn from each other.

How will this be funded overall? What’s the plan for making sure this thing has legs to grow financially?

A big part of my responsibility as the director is to find funding and make that happen. I don’t know what all the answers are right now. We’ve been given initial funding with generous donations from our patrons and donors at the symphony and the board. We already had a dedicated education staff who had been providing support to build the education programming that the symphony provided to the community before COVID-19, whose work has been redirected towards the online programming. So yes, tuition will support our programs, for sure. And we hope that some of the programs that have a more global reach will actually help support the programs that are more local.

Will tuition be a la carte based on what particular classes are chosen at a given time?

That’s right. You purchase them by class. We’re working on a pre-K option with a national provider. Most of our pre-college programs are growing directly out of our youth orchestra program or meant to attract those kinds of students. We will also be engaging in adult continuing education on a number of levels. Some levels will be audit classes. Some will be more intensive, where there is the expectation of receiving assignments and practicing and improving on how to learn an instrument or gain a specific set of skills. Many of the continuing education options are designed to reach a broader audience than we have just here in Richmond.

Are these courses offering professional development credit required of teachers?

You think of everything! We are, in fact… One of the members of our steering committee is Dr. Sandy Goldie, who is the director of music education for Virginia Commonwealth University. She’s also a dynamite string player, and the director of one of our youth orchestras. Sandy and I will be developing a class using rhythm for preparing future teachers who are in the VCU program. We’re already working to build partnerships for exactly this kind of professional development. We hope to be able to provide that kind of experience for area teachers and be able to use the community music school as a lab to further music education.

What is the initial capacity plan at this point? Where do you see capping the first number of offerings as you’re rolling out?

Our current plan is to offer about 16. It’ll be about 15 or 16 classes over a 10-week semester. That begins the week of October 5 and lasts until the middle of December, with a week off through Thanksgiving. Most of the classes are going to run that span of time. Some might run a little bit shorter, some run once a week. Many of them run once a week. Some will need more than that. In addition to the actual real-time classes through video conferencing, all of our pre-college students will be working through a learning management system called MusicFirst, which they’re subscribed to by participating in our school.

If they’re registered for at least one of our classes, they also have access to a proliferation of digital resources available through MusicFirst. Our students have access to Auralia and Musition, premier software programs for music theory and ear training. There’s O-Generator, Noteflight, Sight Reading Factory. Some of our students in composition are using Soundtrap as a digital audio workstation.

What are the financial costs for a typical class and the time commitment for the students?

It really depends on the class. In our youth orchestra program, the tuition ranges depending on the intensity of the demands of the ensemble. Our very top-level Richmond Symphony Youth Orchestra, when we’re in-person, performs three full concerts every year. This past season, our third concert cycle was canceled because of COVID-19, but the first concert cycle, they performed an entire Tchaikovsky symphony. The second concert cycle they performed Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique, side by side with the Richmond Symphony. The demand for that ensemble is considerably higher in terms of practice time, rehearsals, and sectionals than our beginning and intermediate youth orchestras or band experiences.

And so, the tuition is commensurately different. Tuition for the 10-week summer pilot, I believe, is going to be around $150. And for the younger level ensembles, it’s reduced from that. The courses themselves, the classes, the tuition cost depends largely on the number of students in the class and how many times the class meets. Most classes meet only once a week for up to an hour. Some of them have requirements to record things and submit them outside of class. But our jazz improvisation class may actually have more class meetings on that. We’re looking somewhere in the $120 to $200 a semester range right now for tuition. For the adult history class with Titus Underwood, the subscription is quite low. It’s $80 to subscribe to the entire class and we have a student price of $40.

Learn more at richmondsymphonysom.com

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