Since forming the Trenton Youth Orchestra (TYO) during his sophomore year at Princeton University, Lou Chen has transformed what began as a Saturday morning program pairing six students from Trenton Central High School with music students from the University, into an ensemble of about 20 that now studies and rehearses on Zoom.
Chen, who was hired by the University as its first program manager for arts outreach soon after graduating in 2019, will present the orchestra in a concert on Friday, February 5 titled “New Year, New World.” On the program are Dvorak’s New World Symphony along with some works by student composers.
The fact that the concert will be on Zoom instead of a live event at its previous venue, the University’s Rockefeller College, does not faze Chen. Putting the performance together is just another hurdle of the pandemic.
“Don’t get me wrong, there have been a lot of challenges,” he said this week. “The pandemic really hit our students hard. But we’ve emerged from all of this feeling pretty optimistic about the spring, even though we’re hoping we won’t still be on Zoom.”
When Chen began the TYO, he and fellow University music students would meet with the Trenton group at the University’s Woolworth music building on Saturday mornings for private lessons and rehearsals. Since then, the TYO has expanded into the Trenton Arts at Princeton (TAP), a collaboration between the University’s Department of Music, Lewis Center for the Arts, and Pace Center for Civic Engagement. The Saturday Morning Arts Program now includes the orchestra, Trenton Youth Singers, Trenton Youth Dancers, and Trenton Youth Theater. They take part in rehearsals, workshops, guest performances, and one-on-one and group instruction — all led by Princeton student volunteers.
When the pandemic hit and everything switched to Zoom, Chen and his colleagues “were blindsided,” he said. “Particularly those of us in the arts – we were like, this is terrible, we’re not going to be able to do anything. You can’t sync on Zoom. There was this fatalism that sunk in. But after the immediate concerns passed, we realized we had to find some way. We can’t be content with having in person or nothing.”
The TYO program got up and running again with private lessons, and the occasional talk to students by a guest artist. “Then we inched forward a bit,” said Chen. “We programmed a virtual summer camp, as a means to keep the community together over the summer. We also piloted workshops in things like movement, conducting, composition, and ear-training. It worked really well, and we ended the camp with a solo recital and a game of Jeopardy on what they had learned. So that was a step forward.”
Chen added sectionals (small workshops), as well as some instruction in woodwinds and brass. All along, the staff has continued to tweak the online capabilities. A small delay can make ensemble playing especially challenging. Chen is especially grateful to TYO student leader Jack Shigeta ‘23, for his technical efforts. “We are constantly negotiating how to figure it all out,” Chen said. “One thing we learned early on is that it is far better to think about what is newly possible over Zoom rather than how can we do exactly the same thing in person. We discovered that over Zoom, students who are shyer might participate more if they turn off their camera. Or those who are too shy to speak could talk in the chat. There were some little ways you begin to appreciate the platform, in all of the groups. There was more space for community building, and for talking.”
Having Dvorak’s New World Symphony on the concert program has special meaning for the students. They began learning it in the fall of 2019. Chen found out that the famed conductor Gustavo Dudamel, whom he had met during Dudamel’s residency at Princeton two years ago, would be conducting the work at the New York Philharmonic in January, 2020. “I reached out to him and he invited us to come to the concert at Lincoln Center for free,” Chen said. “Afterward, he met with the kids and gave each of them a set of free headphones. There is nothing quite like hearing the New York Philharmonic playing a piece you’re learning. It really galvanized them.”
The symphony is the centerpiece of Friday’s program, which will be rounded out with original compositions by Trenton students, and a montage showing their work over the past year. “It’s a chance for the students to really celebrate themselves,” Chen said. “Before the pandemic we had five concerts scheduled, so this is a way to celebrate each other and show the community that we’re still here and we’re still doing it.”
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