Worcester Chamber Music Society

Worcester Chamber Music Society: Connecting during COVID-19

The Worcester Chamber Music Society (WCMS) played its last major concert March 1, 2020. A crowd of 1500 filled the Hanover Theatre in the city’s downtown for the organization’s annual free famil concert. The performance featured Saint-Saen’s “A Carnival of Animals,” a collaboration between WCMS’ Neighborhood Strings, a music program for underserved youth, and the Hanover Theatre Conservatory Youth Ballet Company that saw 85 kids onstage sharing their talent with their community. 

“It was a huge event,” recalled Tracy Kraus, WCMS executive director and flautist. 

Days later, WCMS’s season came to an abrupt halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the organization barely missed a beat in ensuring their programming would continue to reach their students and their audiences. 

“The first thing we talked about was, how can we stay connected to our audience and to our community?” said Kraus. “For the last 15 years, it’s been our mission to keep people connected, and we're constantly exploring  new ways to do that. 

Having cancelled eight live concerts through the summer, WCMS quickly set about creating @Home with WCMS, a video series that rolled out in late March featuring recorded performances of WCMS’s nine core musicians playing in their respective homes. The videos were posted on the organization’s website and its social media channels. 

“People really enjoyed them,” said Kraus. “We got great feedback. They were so appreciative to have something to watch and to  stay connected to us.” 

In the fall, WCMS live streamed a series of six concerts , paid for in part by COVID-19 relief grant funding from the Greater Worcester Community Foundation, individual donors, and proceeds from reduced-price ticketing. 

“I think it's a mistake to offer these experiences for free at a time where arts organizations are suffering economically,” Kraus explained. 

Audiences seemed to understand this—Kraus said many patrons donated money on top of the $10 or $20 ticket price. “It was truly heartwarming to know they wanted us to survive,” she said.

 But the combination of grant funding and ticket sales allowed WCMS to offer audiences a better production quality for the performances, in keeping with a desire to offer patrons the best experience possible. 

“We didn't spend thousands of dollars for audio-visual, but itsignificantly increased our production expenses. The response was much better than we had projected.” 

Ultimately, the concerts attracted an average of 100 patrons per show, which isn’t so far from their average in-person concert audience of 150. 

In addition to the online concert offerings, WCMS moved Neighborhood Strings, which provides free lessons in violin, viola, and cello to youth from impoverished neighborhoods, online. Lessons are now taught via Facebook, Skype, and Zoom. 

Kraus said both parents and students were appreciative of the efforts to continue the program virtually. “We were able to engage about seventy-five percent of our kids, which is really kind of unbelievable,” she added, since many students come from communities and families with limited access to the internet, computers, and other resources to support virtual learning. 

“It is very challenging for both our students and our teachers,” said Kraus. 

Their success in engaging students remotely stemmed in part from the student portal WCMS created using some of the grant funding from the Greater Worcester Community Foundation. The portal was a helpful clearinghouse of sheet music, instructor-created demonstration videos, lessons, games, and tools like digital tuners and metronomes to help students practice at home. The site has grown over the course of the pandemic with the addition of a parent portal containing programmatic information and links to community resources, assistance, and health information to help families that are struggling to get by amid the pandemic. 

To optimize the time instructors spent with students online, WCMC also used some of the grant funding to purchase a professional Zoom subscription and to train their teachers in providing virtual education. 

As the state relaxed health and safety restrictions over the summer, WCMS began offering a hybrid model of instruction, giving Neighborhood Strings students the option of continuing online or returning to in-person instruction at a the Main South Community Development Corporation where WCMS can safely give lessons to smaller ensembles of three to six kids in a well-ventilated, socially distanced setting where everyone is masked. Teachers were given the same hybrid instruction option, said Kraus, and about half chose to continue teaching virtually, while the remaining half chose to do it in-person. 

When classes ended for the year in December, Neighborhood Strings hosted an online Winter Performance during which parents and students alike expressed gratitude for the WCMS’s work to keep the program running. “The students were all really engaged and appreciative,” said Kraus. For many of the students that came to the in-person classes, she added, “it was the only time they got out of the house.Music-making has become an important social interaction so badly needed now.”

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published this page in Connecting During COVID-19 Stories 2021-02-03 12:53:29 -0500

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