Pacific Symphony Musicians Guide String Ensemble to Virtual Concert Performance

Strings for Generations, a multigenerational string and percussion ensemble organized by Pacific Symphony in partnership with the South Coast Chinese Cultural Association, continued to energize the virtual orchestra trend with another season this Spring. 

Through its online format, string students, mentors and instructors met remotely once a week for sectional coaching sessions and larger group ensemble rehearsals with the help of several Pacific Symphony musicians (Cheryl Gates, Viola; Andy Honea, Cello; Jennise Hwang, Second Violin, Assistant Principal; Adam Neeley, Viola; Ann Tenney, First Violin), who joined the rehearsals to coach students and further their playing techniques.

The program kicked off in early March and culminated with last week’s virtual concert that welcomed over 75 guests who showed support and exuberance for our musicians. This final performance fully showcased the ensemble’s collective talents through several classical pieces that included the “Dies Irae” sequence of Mozart’s Requiem, a three-movement arrangement of musical styles from Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Bartok, as well as “Jasmine Flower,” a traditional Chinese folk song.

Pacific Symphony’s own assistant conductor, Dr. Jacob Sustaita, also returned to lead Strings for Generations in its seven-week entirety.

“We need music and ensemble playing more than ever,” Sustaita expressed during a group rehearsal. “Even though we can’t be in the same room right now, we’re still going to make music together.” 

Whether it was conveying dynamic cues, delving into the nuances of bowing techniques or empowering students to use their music as a tool for both comfort and strength, Dr. Sustaita’s exemplary guidance and mentorship stood out through the program’s duration.  “Remember that music is a language—it’s more than black notes on a page,” Dr. Sustaita told students. “So, always say something. Say something with your music in such a way that people can connect with you.” 

Students and parents alike reflected on Dr. Sustaita’s impact as an inspiring mentor:  

  • “Even from the Zoom calls, I can feel the enthusiasm of [Dr. Sustaita] and his professionalism that made me forget that it was online,” said a Strings for Generation parent. 
  • “He really wanted us to do our best. He wasn’t going to let us give up or just have it the ‘easy way’—he wanted us to learn just how adults would,” said sixth-grade second violin student, Valentina.

The essence of this program continues to emphasize creative freedom, especially in a period inundated by limitations and uncertainties. In addition to helping students refine their musicality, the Strings for Generations leadership aspired to facilitate a safe space of artistic expression. In addition to rehearsals, the Strings team organized two workshops for students to explore other art forms that coincided with their playing—from building performance skills to learning about the cultural history behind the music. 

Moments of reflection and growth spawned an overwhelming sense of excitement and imagination in both the instructors and students: 

  • “I thought this program was awesome because it was like putting pieces of a puzzle together,” said fifth-grade second violin student, Jade. “. . . even though I was not able to play in the orchestra in person, I had fun doing it online.”
  • “. . . with support and carefully organized practice, repetition and diligence, they are capable of playing beyond what they had thought they could do,” a music teacher of some Strings students stated. “It was a priceless experience after such a long year in [the pandemic]. They have learned far more than they are aware of, and this experience will serve them for the rest of their lives.”

Since the conversion to a virtual format, the program has not required parent participation. However, the program’s mentors—consisting of high school students and adult alumni— continued to energize the multigenerational spirit of the original program. Younger players could challenge themselves to absorb wisdom from their mentors, while older players could simultaneously use the zeal of the students as a tool for rejuvenating their musical passions. 

Although those types of connections are certainly more challenging to accomplish through a remote setting, they have been present, nonetheless. These seven weeks of practice, collaboration and reflection served as a means for re-defining a time characterized by unpredictability. As we continue to overcome the hurdles of the ongoing public health crisis, arts engagement can not only empower us to conquer negativity but also promote a much-needed sense of empathy between whole communities. 

As we look toward a return to in-person operations in the near future, we hope to return this amazing program into its original, in-person form for the upcoming seasons. However, for the time being, Strings for Generations successfully illustrates that we can continue to enliven the human spirit through the arts, no matter the physical distance or moments of adversity that keep us apart. 

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