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Pantyhose and Trash Bags: How Music Programs Are Surviving in the Pandemic

The Northern Virginia Community College campus in Annandale, Va., is home to a thriving symphony orchestra, open to students and members of the community. Despite having fewer resources and a smaller music department than most universities, it has the support of Reunion Music Society, a local nonprofit group that helped it reach record enrollment this year.

“This orchestra would not exist without community involvement,” said Ralph Brooker, president of Reunion Music Society and principal cellist in the orchestra.

This fall, the conductor, Christopher Johnston, has been organizing about 50 active orchestra members, who include older musicians, into small groups. Some rehearse six feet apart in carports and church parking lots, but most use JamKazam, a video chat platform that allows musicians to see and hear each other in real time.

The technology is imperfect. At a jazz group meeting, JamKazam kept booting Mr. Johnston off the call. The musicians turned to Zoom, where audio lag caused the individual parts of “My Funny Valentine” to trip drunkenly over each other. The song was barely recognizable, but the musicians grinned in their little onscreen boxes — the thrill of playing together had not been dampened.

“There is therapy in getting together with other musicians.” Mr. Johnston said. “It’s helping us cope with all of the negative byproducts of this time, one of which is loneliness.”

Safety measures have gone far to reassure students and educators. Results from a survey distributed this fall show that participation in school and community bands has held steady since last year, according to James Weaver, director of performing arts with the National Federation of State High School Associations. Though about 200 of the more than 2,000 band programs surveyed are currently “frozen,” only four education-based bands were canceled outright.

Musicians at every level say that those who were passionate about a career in music before the pandemic are only more motivated now. Ms. Alvarez plans to get a master’s degree in music performance after she graduates. Mr. Vigil, who aspires to teach music at the college level, has leaned into his leadership role with the marching band.


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