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How a Historic Philadelphia Music Program is Preparing Young Musicians for the Future—Virtually

WRTI Senior Arts Producer Susan Lewis moderates a panel discussion for students, which includes a virtual tour of WRTI's Performance Studio and answering questions about making audio and video recordings by Studio Engineer Tyler McClure, at right.

Philadelphia's All City Music Program has been teaching kids for over 70 years. The All City Orchestra Summer Academy—ACOSA, now in its second year—is going one step further, teaching the technology skills students need to share their music in 2020 and beyond. “The world is changing and it’s not going back to the old way anytime soon," says The Philadelphia Orchestra's principal timpanist Don Liuzzi, who led Philadelphia’s All City High School Orchestra for 10 years, and continues to work with the ensemble. This summer, he's helping kids prepare a virtual performance video conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin

Last summer, ACOSAlaunched its two-week camp at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts with 60 students from Philadelphia middle and high schools, offering in-person sectionals, workshops, rehearsals and a final concert on the stage of the Mann. 

ACOSA is co-presented by The School District of Philadelphia, The Philadelphia Orchestra, Project 440, and the Mann, where Naomi Gonzales is the VP of Education and Community Engagement. “The big goal [last summer] she says, was to address the summer slide—the loss of learned skills through the school year. Having this experience allows the students within the arts and music education to retain and even to grow.”

This summer, ACOSA is prompting even more growth in new ways. The whole academy, which runs from July 20th to July 27th, is virtual, with sessions on Zoom. 

Liuzzi is excited about the way the ACOSA program has adapted, teaching kids how to use technology to practice and record themselves playing their instruments.

We're really focusing on how to play with a click track, and how to make a visual and audio recording from their homes. This is a prototype the students need to learn about. -Don Liuzzi

Here's an interview with Don Liuzzi from July 16th as the camp was gearing up to start.  

Each student has been equipped at home with a laptop, and “Camp in a Bag,” which includes among other things, T-shirt, notebook for composing, and earbuds with a microphone—important for recording themselves on their cell phones.

The Philadelphia Orchestra connection is still strong: All City Orchestra’s music director is now Philadelphia Orchestra bass player Joseph Conyers, who followed Liuzzi’s tenure. Both men are very involved in this year’s virtual version of the summer program. “We’re being sectional coaches, doing masterclasses and sectionals like last summer,” says Liuzzi "But it’s all on Zoom. Then we actually help in making the final video with Yannick [Nézet-Séguin] conducting!”

Check out the final performance, premiering August 11th at 11 AM, on the Mann's Facebook page.

How do they make the virtual performance?

To start the process of making that video, kids are given several"'click tracks"—think of a metronome, recorded to match the tempo of the music—in this case, "Farandole" from Bizet's L'Arlesienne.

First they practice with a click track that actually includes music, either piano accompaniment or a small chamber orchestra, including Liuzzi, Conyers, and the Philadelphia School District teachers. Yannick  has also prerecorded his conducting to this music.

Then they work on playing with the click track alone, says Liuzzi, "just following Yannick and the click."

Farandole practice click track for ACOSA

The final performance is assembled by editors who put all the recordings together in a virtual concert, showing all the kids playing on one video. "They're going to be blown away when they hear and see this at the end of two weeks!" says Liuzzi.

What else are students learning? 

Beyond the music, ACOSA offers yoga with Project 440, an organization founded by Conyers to help students use their music to connect with and improve their communities. 

They learn instrument care and maintenance from Menchey Music, and hear about radio hosting and technology from WRTI personnel.

WRTI Senior Arts Producer Susan Lewis moderates a panel with WRTI Studio Engineer Tyler McClure, who gives kids a virtual tour of WRTI's Performance Studio and answers questions about making audio and video recordings. Also pictured are Sergi Nuissi, Philadelphia School District Certified Instrumental Teacher and Naomi Gonzales.  [See photo at top of post.]

WRTI Classical Music Director Heather McDougall (top row, middle) moderates a panel with Classical Host Debra Lew Harder (not pictured) and Jazz Host Bobbi Booker (top row, right), who share stories about what it's like to be behind the microphone presenting classical music and jazz on the radio.

Each afternoon features—instead of on-site rehearsals —a choice of collaborative learning sessions, with student led collaborations, and teacher led technology training.

"The amount of time for learning is three hours a day," says Gonzales. We want to make sure the children remain healthy, so they don't have too much screen time. But to pack a punch and make sure kids get as much as they can within those three hours, we are making all the classrooms extremely interactive. "

There are also special courses and workshops with professional musicians, including members of The Philadelphia Orchestra, Network for New Music, Eastman Artists, Catalyst Quartet and Spinx Virtuosi, and the Curtis Institute of Music.

And what drives these professionals at the top of their field to work with these high school musicians? 

For Don Liuzzi, it's personal.  His family moved from Boston to Philadelphia the summer before his senior year of high school.  "The All City Orchestra was my musical home. It was such a rich, final year of high school. I wouldn't give away that year for anything. It was what launched me as a percussionist." 

"I made some friendships I still have today. And it was integrated. ... and that was a joy. That's the kind of joy this world needs, and an orchestra can provide that." 

"I feel like giving back to the place that gave me so much. I still have dreams to help All City survive and thrive even more." 

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.