Hawaii Youth Symphony

Keeping the Music Playing

Music programs were some of the hardest-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Music is all about coming together, listening to each other, and collaborating to create a beautiful sound. As we move into the first fully in-person year of programming since 2019, we took some time to reflect on how the pandemic has impacted not only our organization, but young musicians across the country.

Pre-pandemic programming

Listen & Learn 2019
Listen & Learn Concert 2019

The Hawaii Youth Symphony has brought young musicians from across the state to play together for nearly 60 years. In-person rehearsals, as well as several annual concert performances are both a huge part of our mission of developing youth to their fullest potential. 

“Performing in front of an audience promotes self-confidence, self-motivation and self-expression. It gives kids something exciting to work towards, teaches them about teamwork, and helps them learn to cope with success and failure in a safe and educational environment,” says Randy Wong, President of Hawaii Youth Symphony. “Learning to perform builds skills that our young people will draw upon as they become civic leaders, community members, and responsible adults.” 

Each winter, we put on our annual Listen & Learn community concert series. Endorsed by the Hawaii State Department of Education, Listen & Learn concerts are a FREE opportunity for children from across the islands to see HYS students perform, with the goal of inspiring keiki to get involved with instrumental music. “These concerts also help to instill the value of community service among our student performers; a further investment in the ways that music enriches our community,” Randy Wong said. Our students also have other performance opportunities; our Symphony Programs have concerts at Honolulu’s famous Blaisdell Concert Hall

Pacific Music Institute 2019
Pacific Music Institute 2019

Each summer, students come together to participate in Pacific Music Institute by Hawaii Youth Symphony, a week-long instrumental music intensive camp for students from Hawaiʻi, the mainland, the Pacific Rim, and beyond! At PMI, we strive to provide a collaborative environment, where students can work closely with our faculty- a team of rockstar musicians and music educators.

In short, our programming takes advantage of all the amazing things that can happen when music students and music teachers get together in a room with some instruments.

Keeping the music playing through COVID-19

Needless to say, it’s difficult to transition something as collaborative as rehearsing in an orchestra or performing in front of a live audience to a digital format. But we did it!

Symphony+ 2020 Online Program
Symphony+ 2020 Online Program

It was important to us that we keep the music playing for students in Hawaiʻi, who were sorely missing the opportunity to connect with their peers. We created HYS+, a virtual symphony program where students rehearsed over Zoom and were able to continue to have structure and social engagement, as well as advance their music skills throughout the global pandemic.

One student reflects that “HYS created a place where we could virtually learn about various music topics, and even learn from professional musicians that we might not have had a chance to work with before. HYS+ is inclusive to everyone, even students outside the state!”

During the pandemic, we filmed and live streamed our winter and spring concerts, so that our students still had performance opportunities to work towards. We also kept our traditions alive by creating a virtual Listen & Learn concert series and partnering with local TV and radio stations to share them with our community. 

Though we unfortunately had to cancel our Pacific Music Institute programming for the summer of 2020, in 2021, we reinvented PMI to be a safe, hybrid summer music program. Small in-person ensembles met at the spacious Hawaiʻi Convention Center, and we also were able to open our online PMI+ program to students located anywhere in the world!

Pacific Music Institute 2021 Hybrid Program
Pacific Music Institute 2021 Hybrid Program

Our commitment to education

In the COVID-19 era, our commitment to improving access to music education in Hawaiʻi became even more crucial, as the pandemic disportionately affected rural and low-income communities. From 2020-2021, we were able to provide over $52,000 in financial support to families in need of assistance, extending the reach of our online and hybrid programs to those who needed them most.

Mahalo to all who made this possible!

As a music education nonprofit, we are very grateful for the support of our donors, who allowed us to continue to operate through the pandemic. Our board chair, Patti Look, said that Hawaii Youth Symphony’s vision to Make Music A Right “is incredibly inspiring…because imagine what our world would be like if every child played an instrument! Our entire organization, from board to staff to stakeholders, is galvanized to play a part in advancing access to music education.”

Opportunities in our new normal

The silver lining: adapting our activities to the pandemic presented exciting new enrichment opportunities that would never have been anticipated. Our students were able to participate in unique and memorable experiences that would not previously have been possible through our regular programming.

Nā Mele Televised Concert 2020
Nā Mele Televised Concert 2020

For example, we turned our annual end-of-year He Makana O Nā Mele: The Gift of Music Gala into an hour-long TV special, which has become an exciting experience for everyone at HYS to look forward to. Filmed safely in 2020 and 2021 by a professional TV crew, our students had the opportunity to rehearse and perform in a different setting. “They have access to several resources, including a professional audio engineer, production crew, video producer, time in a studio environment, and involvement in post-production,” said HYS Jazz director Dean Taba, whose experience recording recording albums, TV shows, soundtracks, and more made him a great mentor for our students.

Through our televised program, we were able to broadcast internationally, reaching 60,000 viewers, compared to our in-person gala’s headcount of 800.

Japan Junior Orchestra Collaboration
Collaborating with Junior Orchestras in Japan and Okinawa

In our 2021 program, our partnership with Hawaiʻi Tourism Japan allowed Hawaii Youth Symphony students to virtually collaborate with Junior Orchestras from Hawaiʻi’s sister cities in Japan and the Ukulele Junior Orchestra from Kanazawa in a collaborative performance that aired in both Hawaiʻi and Japan. We’re so grateful to our partners, who’ve helped us translate our programming into Japanese and provide channels through which to share our vision of making music a right.

Our leadership team strongly believes that partnerships like this are part of the path forward, both for our organization and for nonprofits and orchestras around the world. “It will be crucial for us and other orchestras to build strategic partnerships with organizations in and beyond music,” Patti Look said.

Transitioning back to in-person music education

The 2022-2023 school year will be the first time all of our programs are fully reopening for in-person activities! Our rehearsals and performances take place at schools, Boys & Girls Club of Hawaiʻi clubhouses, and other community spaces across Oʻahu. Our operations team has been working diligently to coordinate the return of in-person programming, and their dedication to music education is inspiring.

HYS Staff
HYS staff preparing for safe, small group rehearsals

In addition to our staff, we have been blown away by our students’ resilience and passion for music over the past few years. They were willing to practice online, participate in socially-distanced rehearsals, wear face coverings while playing their instruments, and more, just to practice music with their peers.

This year, with travel reopened, we are able to resume flying young musicians from our neighboring islands to Oʻahu for weekly rehearsals and for performances, as well as send faculty to Moloka‘i to resume student workshops. The island of Oʻahu is known as the gathering place; we fondly think of it as a gathering place for young musicians, and are looking forward to continuing to expand the reach of our programs across the islands in years to come.

PMI String Quartet
Pacific Music Institute 2022 Solo & String Quartet Program

“Building back our services to pre-pandemic levels presents both opportunities and challenges,”  HYS board chair Patti Look reflects in an interview with Symphony Magazine, “as we move forward, we face complex considerations. With programming, partnerships, and fundraising all evolving, how will we now choose what to keep between the new and the old, the different and the familiar?” 

We join other arts organizations across the country in taking what we learned from the pandemic and looking to the coming years with hope and enthusiasm for the future. Together, we can make music education a right.

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