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Music Teachers, Facing A 'Double Whammy' Year, Get Help From Connecticut Symphonies

New Haven Symphony Orchestra

Elementary school music programs have seen a drop in the number of students enrolling in band or orchestra. The pandemic has forced music teachers to abandon their typical recruiting methods. But now a coalition of Connecticut symphony orchestras has stepped in with a series of free online services to encourage potential musicians to sign up.

Pre-COVID, school districts would have a hands-on type of demonstration so students could choose the right instrument. This typically happens the year before they are allowed in band and orchestra. In West Hartford, for instance, third graders are taken to Conard High School, where they hear the West Hartford Symphony play a concert and get the chance to come onstage and hear the instruments up close before they make a choice.

The pandemic put a halt to that. As a result, fewer students are signing up for band and orchestra. And that’s only part of the problem. Caitlin Daly-Gonzales, education director for the New Haven Symphony Orchestra, said the pandemic handed music teachers a “double whammy” this year.

“So, the first whammy was that music teachers had to change the methods in which they recruit, and the second whammy is that kids who already signed up for band or orchestra started it and it just wasn’t what they had signed up for,” said Daly-Gonzales. “So, if you sign up for a basketball team and suddenly you are practicing just on your own, and you never get to play with the team, that’s sort of like what was happening here. It just wasn’t the same.”

The Eastern Connecticut Symphony as well as the Hartford, New Haven, Stamford and Waterbury symphony orchestras have stepped up with some online ways to not only help kids choose their first instrument, but also to learn more about it, and get excited to play again.

They have launched a website called Pick Your Instrument CT. On the site are videos of professional musicians playing their instruments and explaining why they love doing so. The website also has videos of some of the masters of their instrument in performance, like legendary cellist Yo-Yo Ma performing on “Sesame Street.” The website has an instrument selection toolkit to help parents and students make the right choice.

Along with Pick Your Instrument CT, the coalition of symphonies is offering webinars and virtual open houses, where students and parents can ask questions of professional musicians and learn about the different instruments. The symphonies are also looking for video submissions from musicians in grades 6-12 who can explain why they love playing their instrument. Those videos will be included in the “For Kids by Kids” section of the website.

Ray Hardman is Connecticut Public’s Arts and Culture Reporter. He is the host of CPTV’s Emmy-nominated original series Where Art Thou? Listeners to Connecticut Public Radio may know Ray as the local voice of Morning Edition, and later of All Things Considered.

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