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Posted on: 12 October, 2020

County Groups: 5 positive lessons we’ve learned making music during a pandemic

Since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, here at Kent Music we’ve been working hard to figure out how we can continue to provide top-notch musical opportunities for Kent’s young musicians. We’ve developed online lessons for individuals, celebrated music with a virtual summer festival, and opened the online doors to small and medium ensembles, courses and workshops with our Online Music Centre 

But what about our County Groups? Our senior groups – Kent County Youth Orchestra, Kent Youth Wind Orchestra and Kent Youth Choir, are formed of the highest standard of young musicians in the county, and have been training, supporting and developing talented musicians for decades. However, as large groups taking part in singing and playing, you may think that rehearsing or performing hasn’t been an option these past few months. 

We’re here to tell you that couldn’t be further from the truth!

Since August 2020, we’ve run five in-person sectional rehearsals for KCYO and KYWO and two full days of in-person auditions, along with developing a fantastic online singing offer. It’s taken some creative thinking – and not a little hard work – to make sure we could get back together, but we couldn’t be happier with the outcomes.

We’ve also learned some important lessons along the way…

It pays to be careful

Our biggest priority when planning our events was of course, ensuring that they could be run in a safe and secure way. Luckily, the Kent Music team is a professional and talented bunch and working closely with guidelines from the government, music and health professionals, we have been able to ensure that staff and students alike would be safe and sound. 

For our in-person sectional rehearsals, we went all out to ensure that the sessions would be safe and practical. From sending health declarations and guidance to students and staff well in advance of the rehearsals, to arranging the rehearsal spaces with a minimum of two metres between players, ventilation, and thermometer checks, our sectionals were as safe as can be. We even supplied participants with ‘COVID packs’ of sanitised tissues, hand sanitiser, drip pads and bin bags! They may not have been the most enjoyable gift bags, but they were certainly the safest.  

Meanwhile, it was decided that, based on the advice we’d received, it wouldn’t be possible to run in-person choir rehearsals. Did that deter us? Not a bit! Working with our colleagues across Kent Music, we developed Kent Music Voices, a 10-week online course for 8-14 year olds, both County Groups choir members and non-members alike. It’s designed to teach singing theory and techniques as well as a little about composers and the pieces they created in a relaxed and friendly environment. Most importantly, it offers young singers the chance to sing together again, something which wouldn’t be possible otherwise. 

Kent Music Voices is a part of Kent Music’s Online Music Centre, which is offering a whole host of online ensemble opportunities for musicians of all ages this term. 

People are adaptable

Performing, rehearsing or teaching in a new way can feel daunting, especially as it is different for everyone. Larger groups of players had particular challenges – how to ensure people could stay safe while having a fun and fulfilling experience?

As it happens, Kent Music’s students and staff are more than capable of adapting to meet the guidelines. When you have an enthusiastic group of people set on making music, anything is possible!

Our staff have been hard at work ensuring that they the digital and physical spaces where rehearsals and lessons take place are suitable and welcoming. They’ve adapted teaching methods, prepared new ways of working with orchestral and choir music, and adapted their delivery amazingly to the new guidelines.

Participants, meanwhile, have approached the changes with the utmost professionalism. Whether they’re playing in a socially distanced rehearsal hall or singing their hearts out over Zoom, all the young musicians have taken to the new setups with good humour, and, of course, excellent music.

A well-structured and confident approach, backed up by informed guidance and a supportive team, is the best resource when approaching a new way of doing things.

We’re grateful for our colleagues

Running our County Groups orchestras and choirs has always been a team effort, but the past few months have shown just how much a fantastic group of people is really worth. From staff at the Kent Music office putting together guidance and risk assessments, to our talented tutors, to the core County Groups team and more, everyone has pulled together to make sure we keep playing this year!

We’re particularly grateful to:

Our tutors and session leaders Alice Cooper-Hall (KCYO), Avis Perthen (KCYO), Philip White (KCYO and KYWO), Jeremy Shoobridge (KYWO), and Daniel Moulton (Kent Music Voices).

The staff at the venues we’ve worked with at King’s School Rochester, Colyer-Fergusson Hall Canterbury, and Sir Joseph Williamson’s Mathematical School Rochester.

Not forgetting, all the students and their parents and carers who’ve attended in-person and online!

People want to do it

In 2020 more than ever, nothing is certain, and no matter how much hard work goes into making something safe and fun, it doesn’t mean anything if no one attends. Our team were passionate about ensuring our talented groups could play together once more; we only hoped that they would be as enthusiastic.

It turns out that there was no reason to be nervous; COVID-19 did nothing to dampen players’ appetite for playing together, and we’ve had excellent attendance and feedback for auditions, in-person sectionals and online offers alike!

All the feedback we received was positive, and we think it speaks for itself. Here’s just a taste of the feedback from our in-person sectional rehearsals:

“I had a great time – so nice to play in person again!”

“The day was planned incredibly well”

“social restrictions didn’t feel awkward”

“Please keep doing what you can to continue”

“really appreciate the safety measures you introduced”

“lovely to be playing in an ensemble again!”

“… [my child] had a great day and we’re very grateful to you for arranging it. THANK YOU!”

Meanwhile, an audition adjudicator said “the students played so well – you could see the enjoyment of just playing live”

The future is bright – be confident and be excited!

Things could have been so different this year.

Had we been a little more hesitant, our ideas and hopes would never have got off the ground. Had venues not been open to hearing our plans, or if Kent Music been unable to offer online options, the new ideas would never have happened and of course, if we didn’t have such a good team of staff, students, and colleagues around us, we’d never have made our new plans what they are.

We’re so thrilled that things came together differently!

The future is looking brighter than ever with this experience behind us, and so; we’re making more plans. We’re looking at options for some non-residential days for all our senior County Groups in the not-so-distant future, and, of course, there’s Kent Music Summer School 2021 to plan for…watch this space! Whatever’s next in the pipeline, it’ll be exciting.

We hope that what we’ve learnt over the past few months will inspire other musicians, Music Hubs, and orchestras of all sizes to be as confident and as excited as we are. While we don’t know exactly what the end of 2020 and 2021 will bring for music, we know we can make it something to remember.