Redefining a Residency: Reflections on Our COVID Year Collaboration
Jee-Hoon Krska, Founder and Executive Director, Keys 2 Success, and Joanna Borowski, Director of Education, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra
At Keys 2 Success, a Sistema-inspired keyboard program in Newark, NJ, we found ourselves in the fall of 2020 continually looking for creative ways to keep students engaged and uplifted making music at home. Like so many of our colleagues across the field, we were challenged by the limitations of virtual instruction. But we didn’t know how to solve the challenge. We decided to start with a small idea: to have one of the musicians in the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) join the advanced piano students in our program for a few Zoom sessions. Our thinking was that it could be almost like a masterclass, with the musician talking to the students about their experiences and coaching them on musical concepts. Our only concern was whether piano students would be able to relate to and make meaningful connections with a string player.
Enter violinist Héctor Falcón. An experienced orchestra, chamber, and solo musician, Héctor has been a member of the NJSO since 2000 and is actively involved with the Orchestra’s education and community programs. Initially, the coaching sessions focused on new concepts for the students: the difference between violin and piano, how to make contrasting sounds, and definitions of musical terms. He also taught them about the tango. However, what turned out to be most significant to the students was the personal connection they made with Héctor.
Early on, Héctor introduced the students to his wife Saki Uetsuhara, also a violinist. Héctor and Saki shared their experiences playing together, and worked with the students on arrangements of “Jingle Bells” and “Ode to Joy” that could be recorded from home. Héctor also introduced them to “Libertango” (an arrangement for two violins written by Saki) and inspired them to learn the piece on their keyboards. It became a larger project that everyone worked on together, and we look forward to the day they can perform it live!
Most importantly, Héctor was eager to work with the students, and never made them feel like he wanted them to fit into a certain mold. He was happy and willing to engage with them in ways that made them feel heard. Being heard was so important to them: every student wanted him to hear them play! Héctor was very generous and encouraging, and prioritized making time for them to play for him.
As the season progressed, the idea for a larger collaborative project took shape. Previously, the Keys students had performed and made a video of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” an arrangement for piano ensemble by teaching artist Elijah Souels. To rework the arrangement for piano and strings, Elijah wrote a rudimentary string part. However, in working with Héctor and Saki, Elijah discovered a capability for a more difficult arrangement, and now the first violin part is almost like a concerto. The final video will include NJSO musicians recording the string parts and Keys students recording the piano parts.
One of the core values shared by Keys 2 Success and the NJSO is the importance of making sure that everyone involved in a program, from students to staff to artists to interns, benefits from it. This project has revealed examples of benefits that go beyond Héctor’s residency. High school intern Seraphina Taylor, a rising junior, discovered a gift for teaching through working with the Keys students; she will also be featured in the video on a more advanced piano part. High school volunteer Samvit Singhal, a percussionist and marching band drum major, served as the editor for the piece; he also assisted with the arrangement of “Libertango.” Newark native Elijah Souels has become an arranger and composer, in part through his collaborative work—his arrangement of “Simple Gifts” was recorded by El Sistema NJ Alliance students and NJSO musicians in summer 2020.
During this whole process, the most important thing we learned is that taking small steps to innovate can lead to much bigger changes than can be foreseen. We began with a partnership involving one NJSO musician doing some online individual lessons and mentoring for K2S—and we ended with a huge collaborative project that inspired many students and enlarged the scope and trajectory of both partners’ work during the pandemic year. So it’s important to approach new relationships with an attitude of discovery. Also, having a champion inside the organization is vital to making the relationship work.
Providing access is important, but ensuring familiarity and comfort is essential for students, especially in a virtual space. For example, one of the K2S staff members played a vital role in helping students stay engaged during Zoom meetings. It took a team effort to make it work!
Connecting people who love music and understand the importance of sharing their passion with future generations is critical. It opens up so many other ways we can work together. Finally, a successful relationship can inspire both organizations to create more opportunities to collaborate—and further diversify classical music in the process.
For more information about Keys 2 Success, visit their website.
For more information about the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, visit their website.