On May 11, we published a Sound Bit detailing lessons learned from the contingency planning process of a Summer Music Festival preparing for the summer 2020 season. The festival is now complete, with the organization ultimately making the the decision to run an entirely virtual festival. The entire process, from the initial questioning of the viability of an in-person to collecting post-festival parent surveys took 98 days. The festival ran for 3-weeks in July, engaged 73 families and 17 faculty members, offered 22 unique classes, and ran 261 unique Zoom sessions. Below are some of the things we learned:
Our Most Successful Programs
The shift from an in-person summer music camp to a virtual festival required significant curricular revision and development. Our traditional focus on large ensemble performance and repertoire preparation would not be effective or relevant in the virtual setting. This reckoning forced us to confront our core values and to develop new curriculum and programmatic offerings that realized these values in a virtual setting. What we found is that our most successful sessions and programs were those that were designed specifically for the virtual environment. Sessions that we adapted to the virtual realm, while still effective, proved less compelling and engaging than content curated specifically for an online environment. While this takeaway might seem obvious, what was interesting was that some of our ‘adapted’ sessions—think virtual large ensembles—are where we have the greatest expertise and experience. We have forty-nine years of experience offering high-quality ensemble experience, yet a digital composition course created in 3-weeks time by a non-composer proved more successful in the virtual setting. Although there is comfort in consistency and the familiar, the reality is that starting with a blank-slate might produce more meaningful experiences for our students and audiences.
Partnerships & Collaboration
The move to a virtual festival resulted in a number of unique and exciting collaborations. For the first-time in forty-nine years, we expanded our curriculum to include programming for string students through a partnership with the school’s Youth Orchestra program. In hopes of creating 1-on-1 interactions between our students and faculty, we added a private lesson program to the Festival. By partnering with a college music department, we strengthened the quality and curriculum of our music major preparation course. We also partnered with The United States Army Field Band to offer a series of masterclasses, video content, and interactive sessions. Our takeaway: there has never been a better or more important time to partner with other arts organizations, artists, or community groups. These partnerships were mutually beneficial: allowing us to better serve our students while providing exposure and opportunity to additional organizations and artists. There is great reward in collaborative work and we are eager to nurture these relationships and build new ones as we plan our return to an in-person festival.
One of our core values of the Festival is community. We pride ourselves on providing a high-quality arts experience in a collaborative, nurturing, and intense environment. Our students return summer-after-summer to see their friends and work with our world-class faculty. While we were intentional in our goal of creating community and social spaces in the virtual Festival, we learned some of the challenges and complexities of realizing this vision. The informal and organic social interactions that define the in-person festival had to be scheduled via a Zoom meeting—through this formality, something was lost. We also found that our relationships with other faculty and long-time students had to be re-understood in the virtual setting—just because a certain faculty member is eager to jump-in and join a conversation in-person doesn’t mean they will be comfortable doing so in a virtual setting. We leave the virtual festival with the realization that the social and community element of our programming is more important than ever and requires very intentional and focused efforts to curate in virtual setting.
Building a Better Future
No-one associated with the Festival wanted to or was excited about going through this process—it was born out of necessity and the realization that ‘the Festival’ as we knew it was not viable in the age of COVID-19. As we look to what the future might be, it is clear that this past summer was transformative for the program. We developed new relationships and partnerships that will continue when we return to campus. We added a number of new curricular offerings that we plan to offer this upcoming summer. We revised our marketing and recruitment strategies and strengthen our brand in the virtual realm. As a team, we better understood our strengths and weaknesses and how we can be most effective in the work we do. After throwing everything we do into question, we emerge with a more relevant program, clearer vision, and a more engaged community.