SCHENECTADY — The Empire State Youth Orchestra announced that its 13 ensembles have resumed in-person rehearsals and meet-ups for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“While the essence of ESYO remains the same, this season will be different,” said Rebecca Calos, the youth orchestra’s Executive Director. “We’ve taken all the necessary precautions to create a safe environment for joyful music-making and are continually working to adjust to life with COVID-19.” she continued. “We are grateful for the opportunity to restart ESYO and provide an essential creative outlet for our young musicians.”
Ensemble rehearsals, which began mid September, are held weekly in a safe-studio environment at Proctors in Schenectady. All ESYO concerts are to be recorded LIVE on Proctors mainstage and streamed to virtual audiences through the orchestra’s virtual concert hall.
The youth orchestra, including its flagship Symphony Orchestra and el-Sistema- inspired CHIME program, is known regionally and nationally for nourishing young musicians from communities in New York’s Capital District and Western Massachusetts.
CHIME, ESYO’s after school program, which suffered a setback after losing critical funds from a regrant partnership between the New York State Department of Education and Schenectady City Schools, is to begin online this fall and include several in-person “instrument hangs.”
Calos said safety is top of mind for ESYO faculty and staff. From inventive PPE for wind and brass instruments to smaller ensembles, socially distanced orchestra layouts, and new safety protocols, ESYO leveraged the experience of its faculty and board to create a restart plan that mitigates the risks and spread of COVID-19. Musicians, conductors, and staff are required to complete a health questionnaire before each rehearsal and must wear a CDC recommended mask.
“Finding a way to mask woodwind and brass players was not easy,” said ESYO Music Director Carlos Ágreda. “After reading, researching, and testing different ways to contain the aerosols spread by a trumpet or oboe, we decided to work with a local seamstress to create custom PPE bags for woodwind instruments and bell covers for each trumpet and trombone.”
Calos described the innovative way in which woodwind players protect fellow players in the ensemble. Musicians place their instruments in a bag and insert their hands inside the bag through two elastic hand holes. The aerosols produced by the musician are contained within the bag as much as possible.”
ESYO’s residency at Proctors also supports the return to live in-person rehearsals. In August, officials at Proctors installed MERV-13 filtration devices that properly circulate airflow while filtering aerosols from the rehearsal spaces.
“Space is essential,” said Ágreda. “We’ve reduced the size of each ensemble and divided our largest orchestras into smaller chamber ensembles of thirty young musicians. But, even with the smaller ensembles, we needed to find a space large enough to maintain 6 feet of social distancing for strings and 12 feet for winds and brass players,” he continued.
When asked about ESYO’s residency at Proctors, Proctors Collaborative CEO Phillip Morris said, “While Proctors must be closed for now for performances, our large spaces and updates and modern air handling has allowed us to work with ESYO to make safe spaces for students to still practice and rehearse music. We are happy our spaces can be used to make community and art come together.”
ESYO’s restart is not without its challenges. The premier youth orchestra attracts members from all 12 counties of New York’s Capital Region and neighboring communities in Western Massachusetts.
“We’ve had to adust our attendance policy and how we rehearse,” said Calos. “Rehearsal time is precious, and if a musician misses one rehearsal, it can set them back. That is why we created ESYO Stream,” she continued.
Developed in partnership with video producer and ESYO Board Member Robert Bengraff, ESYO Stream enables the youth orchestra to stream rehearsals to musicians at home.
To attend a rehearsal online, ESYO musicians log into their virtual rehearsal room and play along at home, and can record their progress and chat with their conductor online.