This year has been a particularly tough one for middle and high school students in Saratoga Springs—but particularly so for up-and-coming musicians. All live concerts have been canceled, and just being able to practice and perform in the same room with teachers and friends has been a weekly struggle. It doesn’t take much to see how that could be a deterrent to enthusiasm and practicing (Lord knows, the latter was a struggle for me, 30 some-odd years ago, in medieval, I mean, pre-COVID times).
That is, until two savvy music instructors, who just happen to be married, hatched a game-winning plan one night over a glass of wine to get their students reengaged in music and practicing their instruments. Cynthia Lee, a band instructor at Maple Avenue Middle School, and her husband, Milton, who serves as director of the jazz ensemble and symphonic band at Saratoga Springs High School, teamed up to launch a monthlong “Practice-A-Thon”—all for a good cause. The voluntary program will take place for the entirety of the month of March, and approximately 700 students, grades 6-12, are being encouraged to take part. Those students comprise the middle school’s band, orchestra and chorus, as well as the high school’s jazz ensemble and two bands. Throughout March, students will be accepting monetary pledges from friends, family and the community, based on the number of hours they practice per week, and all the money raised will go directly to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) and Franklin Community Center (the students voted on those two organizations).
“We’re just trying to talk up practicing,” says Cynthia. “It’s been a rough year for arts with COVID. In band, the kids have to play with no masks, so they have to be 12 feet apart.” The band itself has also been split into two sections, with one practicing live and the other tuning in virtually. “During a normal school year, I might see my middle school kids five times for 45 minutes over two weeks,” explains Cynthia. “This year, I see them twice a month, live in the room. That’s it.”
The district has pitched in by purchasing computer software called SmartMusic, which allows music teachers like the Lees to assign their students virtual music projects. Students can listen to a piece of music, watch it being performed on the screen and even be critiqued by it in real time (the software tells them if they’re playing the right notes or not). It’s through SmartMusic that the Lees will be able to track their students’ practicing progress, so, no, students won’t be able to fudge their practicing schedules.
What exactly will students be practicing? In the springtime, in non-COVID years, students would be warming up for their New York State School Music Association (or NYSSMA) solos, which are live, judged performances, during which a student performs a piece and receives a grade. “At the middle school, we have all the kids participate in NYSSMA,” says Cynthia, referring to pre-COVID times. “Some go to real NYSSMA, and then I set up a mock NYSSMA, where I ask some retired teachers to come in and pretend like they’re NYSSMA judges.” But this year, NYSSMA solos will be performed virtually, so the thought here is to get students learning a solo by the end of the month, whether or not they’re doing the judged event.
Interested in sponsoring a student? Reach out to the Saratoga Springs City School District for more information, here.