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It’s been quite a year.

On March 7, 2020, the Beckman orchestra had just finished performing at Segerstrom Hall and we were looking forward to our district and state festivals. Then on Friday the 13th, our whole world closed down. 

Jim Kollias Credit: Photo courtesy of Sharyn Sakimoto

Since then, it has been Odysseus’s voyage back to Ithaca. Teachers had to find new ways to teach, play, perform and interact. It hasn’t always been perfect (far from it!) and our standard of success was just to survive.

My school district, Tustin Unified, was proactive in opening school up in the fall to in-person classes. The district began planning for the 2020-2021 school year last March and were putting things in place to have a safe opening as soon as possible.  

We started the school year in August, entirely distance learning. In September, Beckman High transitioned to a hybrid model – 30% of the students were scheduled to attend class in person Mondays and Thursdays (group 1), 30% were scheduled to attend class in person Tuesdays and Fridays (group 2), and 40% stayed home full-time. As a teacher, I was teaching both in-person and online students simultaneously.

Extreme precautions were taken. Everyone at school was distanced six feet apart. No one could share equipment, no paper handouts, masks on all day. All students had their temperature taken every day, traveled in one direction around the school, and every classroom had to be sanitized between class sessions. 

Under these protocols, I could have a maximum of 31 in my classroom at any one time. I usually have over 70 kids in my orchestra. Plus, the brass and woodwind instruments could not play indoors.

Of course, COVID was not the only obstacle in the year. On Oct. 26 in the middle of teaching, all our cell phones went off at the same time. The Silverado fire was getting close to campus. School was immediately canceled and many of us had to evacuate our homes. This of course was followed by the Bond Fire, again in Silverado Canyon, on Dec. 3. 

A Lightbulb Moment

After a month of hybrid learning, I noticed that we never had anywhere near 31 kids in my classroom even though I had 77 kids enrolled in my top orchestra. 

It occurred to me that the sports teams were meeting and practicing after school hours. If they could do it, why couldn’t we? 

I told my students that I would volunteer my time on Monday nights and host rehearsals with the string players just so they could experience a bit of normal this year. There would be no consequence nor benefit to their grade if they came or not; it was truly volunteer. 

About 20 -25 kids started coming in late October and we all appreciated that we were back together playing. 

In December,  I decided to plan a concert. It was held in our Performing Arts Center, which is a larger space than our rehearsal room, and followed the same guidelines and safety protocols as our class model. Since we could have no audience, we live-streamed on Facebook.  

You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch; Beckman High School Orchestra; directed by Jim Kollias; Sounds of Winter Concert 2020. Beckman High School, Irvine.

To our surprise, we had nearly 3,000 views on Facebook and YouTube. Game changer! Our Performing Arts Center only holds 536 (clearly, we are going to be live streaming from now on!). As much as we enjoyed performing again, we all agreed it was difficult without the interaction of a live audience.

As our Monday nights progressed, the students and I discovered that we were having more fun. We all looked forward to coming to school on Monday night to play together and just be with each other. By making this an all-volunteer effort – with no festivals, no competitions, no timeline – we were simply having a great time, and this was truly turning into something special. 

After the success of our first concert, we planned four more concerts for the second semester. I met with the kids to ask: “How can we carry this into next year?” No one could answer that question completely, but we came up with some ideas. For starters, they enjoyed the wide variety of music we were performing, and they appreciated the fact that everyone in the group was “all-in.”  

Finding Purpose and Inspiration

Our second concert, “The Superhero Concert,” took place in February and was dedicated to our Beckman H.S. band and orchestra alumni who are now healthcare workers, nurses and doctors. For this concert, we added percussion since they could also join us in masks (the band was still not allowed to play with us indoors). We performed the music of superhero themed movies while showing clips of the movies above us, and again live streamed to Facebook. 

“Incredibles Theme” by Michael Giacchino, arr by John Moss; Beckman High School Orchestra; directed by Jim Kollias; Superhero Concert 2021. Beckman High School, Irvine.

The next concert in March was a major undertaking. For this concert, we invited Daniel Alfred Wachs from Chapman University, who is an outstanding pianist, to come and join us for the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 12. Working with Wachs was absolutely inspiring for our students. He remarked numerous times how thankful he was to be performing again after a year of lockdown. 

Christian Kim, our principal cellist, asked me during one of the Monday night rehearsals if we were playing the whole concerto. I told him that normally high schools only perform the first movement of a concerto, so no. He questioned that and asked if we could perform the whole thing; everyone in the group agreed that they wanted to do something special this year.  

Piano Concerto No. 12 in A Major, K. 414 1. Allegro by W. A. Mozart; Daniel Alfred Wachs, Piano and the Beckman String Orchestra; directed by Jim Kollias; Beckman High School, Irvine.

After 17 years of teaching orchestra at Beckman High, I had never presented a full concerto. It is ironic that in the year when we are struggling with so many obstacles, we found our way to play a full concerto. 

Also of note, because athletic competitions were open again in the gym with spectators, our district also allowed us to have spectators at this third concert. We were allowed 25% of the Performing Arts Center filled (134 of 536 capacity), but only had 45 people in attendance. Even so, it was really thrilling for these kids as well as the audience to stage a live performance again. 

Our third concert occurred in April. Continuing with the student-generated ideas for programs, we presented “The Music of Japanese Animation: The Music of Anime, Studio Ghibli, and Video Games.” There was a lot of excitement with this program; much of the music had to be specially arranged for our string and percussion group. 

It was a superb program that was made possible by my music teaching colleague Joseph Perkins (Orchard Hills Middle School) who wrote many of the arrangements. 

Our last concert, delivered this past Tuesday, was a program we had planned to perform in Carnegie Hall – a program of music entirely by female composers. We performed much of the music from that program as well as featuring one of our students, Yuriko Mikasa, on the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 12. 

Doing the Impossible

Classes this year have been interesting to say the least. I definitely didn’t sign up to become a music teacher to talk to a computer screen with two-thirds of the people not visible on screen. Still, given that I have 33 years of teaching experience, I saw this year as a challenge to come up with a way to be able to deliver meaningful instruction while keeping in mind how everyone was suffering. 

I consciously made the effort to honor and appreciate everyone’s decision to stay at home. I ended up pivoting from group/ensemble rehearsal instruction to building individual skills. I had to write A LOT of new material this year while adjusting to new curriculum management platforms as well as learning Google Meet, Zoom and other applications. 

I was fortunate and appreciative to be in a district that supported us both with safety materials as well as professional development this year. The result has been many teaching strategies that will be incorporated into the regular course offering going forward.  

This was a heart-breaking year: Our group was denied the opportunity to perform at Segerstrom Hall and Carnegie Hall, as well as take part in all the other performances that make our orchestra experience special. In the end, I wanted to make sure that I, as well as the students, found ways to enjoy the journey this year even though it was a very different path than we had planned. 

With all the “abnormal” conditions we had to deal with and overcome, I also told my Monday night group, “There are a lot of normal things I don’t ever want to go back to!”  There is no doubt that one day I will look back at this year’s concerts as some of the most special in my career. I’m very appreciative of the group of students I worked with this year and their perseverance and resilience. I hope they learned as much in the class as I learned from them and from this experience.

These students are truly special: They worked hard and inspired me. They recharged my batteries every time I became frustrated with the pandemic. 

Ultimately, when things became really hard, I thought about that scene in “Apollo 13” when the engineers on the ground had to work together to bring the astronauts home safely using random objects:  “OK people listen up! People from upstairs handed us this one and we’ve got to come through. We’ve got to find a way for this to fit in the hole of this … using nothing but that.” 

Every day this year, we have been called to do the impossible with glue, duct tape, disinfectant, masks, and Zoom. Most importantly, we could not fail our students.

We are still finding a way to make music at Beckman and battle through this. On to Ithaca.

Jim Kollias is a guest writer for Voice of OC. He teaches orchestra at Arnold O. Beckman High School in Irvine.  

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