Making Music Together: Virtually Irreplaceable

Written by
Ross Amico, U.S. 1 PrincetonInfo
Aug. 25, 2021

Originally published by U.S. 1 PrincetonInfo.

The pandemic may have turned everyone’s world upside down, but music, like life, tends to find a way.

Three area youth organizations have faced extraordinary challenges and found solutions to keep young people involved and working toward reestablishing in-person lessons and performances. After all, music at its most basic is best enjoyed communally.

Each group works to sharpen the skills of its students. These include not only the foundations of musical practice, but also the development of more intangible qualities, like empathy, discipline, cooperation, responsibility, integrity, and empowerment. Music can be fun, certainly, but its pursuit also allows for the ability to transform. And changed lives can mold society.

Trenton Youth Orchestra (TYO), a string ensemble for high school students, was the vision of Lou Chen, established while Chen was still a sophomore at Princeton University. What began as a Saturday morning program, in which six students from Trenton Central High School were paired with university music students, gradually expanded into a group of 20 or more — enough to tackle a virtual performance of Dvorak’s “New World Symphony,” which they did over Zoom last February. For a year or more, lessons and rehearsals took place remotely. Hardly ideal, but necessary.

“Every Saturday, we did our best to recreate the magic of our in-person rehearsals,” Chen says. “Recognizing the asynchronous nature of Zoom, we focused not only on ensemble performance, as we usually do, but also on individual creation. We learned to choreograph our own dance solos, write our own monologues, and compose our own music.

“This summer, we hosted our end-of-year virtual showcase, ‘Music, Movement & Monologues,’ featuring performances by all four of our SMArts groups.” (SMArts = Saturday Morning Arts.)

After graduation in 2019, Chen was hired by the university as program manager of Trenton Arts at Princeton (TAP). TYO is now part of an even more ambitious enterprise, a collaborative effort of the Princeton Music Department, Lewis Center for the Arts, and Pace Center for Civic Management. The Saturday morning arts program was expanded to encompass Trenton Youth Singers, Trenton Youth Dancers, and Trenton Youth Theater. All are mostly overseen by Princeton student volunteers.

TAP has also collaborated with Princeton University Concerts for its Neighborhood Music Project (NMP), for which notable musicians are invited to meet Trenton Public School students over Zoom. Among those who have participated are cellist and pianist Sheku and Isata Kanneh-Mason, clarinetist Anthony McGill (principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic, formerly of the Metropolitan Opera), and saxophonist Jess Gillam.

“Neighborhood Music Project also sponsored a creative writing contest for Trenton Central High School students, asking them to reflect on the meaning of the arts during the pandemic,” Chen adds. “And in collaboration with TCHS Orchestra, we recently released a virtual performance of music from ‘Hamilton,’ featuring members of the Princeton University Department of Music playing alongside the orchestra.”

TYO is currently accepting new Saturday Morning Arts members for the upcoming school year. To learn more, visit