How the Aspen Music Festival after-school programs went virtual after coronavirus

Basalt Elementary School 3rd-grader Lela Wiltgen in a Zoom cello private lesson with teacher Roberto Arundale.
Courtesy photo

School buses from two school districts had been scheduled, a stack of pizza ordered, and five months of singing rehearsals had been logged before the scheduled spring concert by the Maroon Bel Canto Choir at Harris Concert Hall. But on March 10, the night before the big annual performance for young Roaring Fork Valley singers, the event was called off due to public health concerns about spreading the novel coronavirus.

It quickly became clear that the choir and the array of the Aspen Music Festival and School’s local after-school education programs wouldn’t be able to safely continue their weekly one-on-one lessons and group sessions.

“We were all in a bit of a funk,” recalled Katie Hone Wiltgen, the Music Festival’s director of education and community programming. “It was a down time as we realized these classes were not going to happen for the next few weeks and — as we now know — long beyond.”

So Wiltgen and her team got to work and built from scratch a plan to continue virtual musical instruction with 34 teachers for the more than 200 local students enrolled in AfterWorks programs. They launched Monday.

Across a patchwork of Zoom, FaceTime, YouTube and Skype, it includes one-on-one lessons and ensemble practice for young people in Afterworks’ Beginning Strings, Lead Guitar and Maroon Bel Canto Choirs programs, keeping kids on track in their progress on violin, viola, cello, classical guitar and voice.

“As soon as we found out we weren’t going to be able to be in-classroom together, we needed to figure out what these communities wanted and needed in these uncertain times,” Wiltgen said of the beginning of the project.

It was evident that parents wanted to continue the programs virtually, for the sake of continuity in kids’ routine and keeping kids’ occupied during this stay-home period, and that teachers wanted to continue teaching.

Keeping the social engagement piece of the programs alive, they found, also was vital — keeping young people connected with the teachers who’ve been mentoring them throughout the school year and with their peers.

“What we know we do really well, on a year-round basis, in the AfterWorks program is getting to know these kids really well and knowing exactly what they need in their music education studies,” Wiltgen said. “So if that’s the piece that we could continue, that’s what we wanted to focus on.”

The initiative to move AfterWorks online came organically from Wiltgen, her team and the AfterWorks teachers, not from the Music Festival brass.

“I was surprised and delighted when I heard this was happening,” Music Festival president Alan Fletcher said. “This was not some direction given to teachers to figure out an online thing. It came intrinsically from them saying ‘What can we do?’”

Beginning Strings offers instruction in violin, viola and cello for children from second-grade up. Like the in-real-life version, the virtual one includes weekly one-on-one instruction through video chat apps, daily lesson plans for students to practice on their own, along with weekly studio classes split up in groups of no more than five students with a teacher.

“We’ve heard from some parents that they’re grateful their kid is busy and that they have a follow-up plan to practice,” Wiltgen said. “And also they’re thankful to be continuing something that’s normal for these students.”

For Lead Guitar, the Music Fest is putting together a “virtual showcase” to replace the physical one they’d planned for Harris Concert Hall this spring. Students will record themselves performing selected classical guitar pieces, and teachers will combine them for a virtual concert. The program also is launching group classes for beginning and advanced students, while Nick Lenyo, the regional director of the Lead Guitar program and music director at Basalt Middle School, is providing video instruction local students can use to practice with at their own pace.

Maroon Bel Canto has its own virtual showcase in the works and virtual rehearsals starting the week of April 6.

In those first days putting the program together, Wiltgen and her team looked for templates for this kind of virtual music instruction, but nothing fit and most of it was limited to one-sided video instruction or online curricula. They knew their students wanted and needed interaction and individual feedback.

“There was no model that we saw where we could harvest it and make it our own,” Wiltgen said.

But they also were mindful of the onslaught of online programming that’s been coming at parents in the stressful days since schools and public spaces began closing three weeks ago in the Roaring Fork Valley.

“There are an abundance of resources for parents online and those resources are awesome but it’s also overwhelming how many art opportunities there are,” she said. “What we heard off the bat is that they wanted distilled information.”

So they’ve aimed to keep it simple and to keep their students’ needs at the center of their mission.

“We are in this for them,” Wiltgen said. “And it’s exciting to be able to continue this through these scary times.”

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