It’s one thing for Hawaii Youth Symphony musicians to play in tune and in time, seated elbow to elbow with an enthusiastic conductor up front egging them on.
Try doing it while scattered by a pandemic. This fall, HYS students have managed to keep making music together — from classical to jazz — even while confined to their homes. Guided by master musicians near and far, they link up via videoconference on whatever device they have, even if it’s only a phone.
On Dec. 8, with the help of some technical wizardry, Hawaii Youth Symphony members will finally get a chance to showcase their talents in public once more. And they will be playing for their largest audience yet.
“Now, more than ever, music has the power to bridge communities that cannot physically connect,” said Randy Wong, president of the nonprofit organization, which serves about 700 students age 7 to 18 statewide each year.
The students are teaming up with luminaries including Jake Shimabukuro and Raiatea Helm — as well as youth orchestras in Japan — to present “He Makana o na Mele: The Gift of Music.” The one-hour musical special will be televised at 8 p.m. Dec. 8 on KHNL, rebroadcast at 7 p.m. Dec. 10 on K5 and available to stream online.
It will feature cherished songs of Hawaii, contemporary and classical music, with players synchronized in elaborate orchestrations created for the show by master composers here and in Japan.
“With all these COVID protocols and restrictions, we had to find a way to work around the situation,” said Joseph Stepec, director of orchestral activities for Hawaii Youth Symphony. “It’s really a state-of-the-art undertaking for us.”
Most of the local performances were taped outdoors amid the coconut palms at the Royal Hawaiian Center. To comply with COVID-19 protocols, small groups of masked musicians played separately in socially distanced waves: first the violins, then the violas, and so on.
Students who blow into their instruments, from flutes to trombones, recorded their parts from the safety of their homes to reduce the potential for spreading the airborne coronavirus.
“We couldn’t risk putting certain people together who play instruments that expel air,” Stepec said. “That definitely was a challenge.”
The video editor had the enormous task of putting all the takes together, weaving the recorded performances like the strands of a tapestry, layered upon each other, to make up one organic whole.
Students stayed in sync for their joint performances by using a “scratch track,” an audio recording to pace them through the music since they couldn’t all be together.
“They listened on headphones while playing,” Stepec said. “A scratch track keeps us all together. It’s sort of like a metronome. Without it we wouldn’t be able to do this project.”
“The neat thing about this, especially for the students, is this way of putting stuff together is usually done in places like Hollywood, where they record soundtracks to films,” he said. “Our students have never done that before. It’s a really interesting experience working with this technology and this entirely different way of making music.”
The show encompasses all levels of Hawaii Youth Symphony, from the elementary kids in the Academy String Program to symphony orchestras featuring select high schoolers, as well as students in the HYS Jazz program.
Junior orchestras from Hokkaido, Fukuoka, Hiroshima, Ehime and Okinawa, and the Ukulele Junior Orchestra from Kanazawa will also take part, with support from Hawaii Tourism Japan.
“This program will be a breath of fresh air — it’s going to have a little bit of everything, and I’m very excited about the collaborations between orchestras,” said ukulele virtuoso Shimabukuro, a board member of Hawaii Youth Symphony.
The event will serve as the annual fundraiser for the organization, which is the second-largest youth symphony in the country. Proceeds will go toward realizing its vision that “making music is a right, not a privilege,” including financial aid and instruments for students.
“The program that we have for our viewers will touch people’s hearts and show them how we’ve remained flexible and innovative,” Stepec said. “We hope people will donate because this is really just a wonderful organization that has hundreds and hundreds of alumni across the globe, which are all people this organization has shaped for the better.”
“It’s not just instruments that we are blowing into or bowing, it’s lives that we are shaping through music, and that’s really important,” Stepec said.
When the pandemic struck, the symphony created “HYS Plus” to offer online instruction to students stuck at home. It connected Hawaii students with faculty and guest artists from the islands and all over the world, he said.
Cameron Enomoto, a viola player who is a senior at Kamehameha Schools Kapalama, attends HYS rehearsals on Sundays remotely and said she benefited from master classes with Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra members.
“I think that’s been one of the more helpful programs for me,” Enomoto said. “Even though I’m not able to be with them in person, they’re still able to provide insight and additional tools for me to continue developing skills so I can become a better musician.”
She was excited to be selected as part of a string quartet with Shimabukuro and Helm performing the song “Far Too Wide for Me,” composed by Hawaii’s Patrick Downes.
The pandemic had some silver linings. It prompted HYS to launch a new online course, Jazz Plus, that is open to all students and provides a new avenue into the field, alongside the two jazz ensembles, which require auditions and a time commitment.
“It gave students who were curious but didn’t want to commit to it an opportunity to learn about jazz and improvisation and contemporary music,” said Dean Taba, an HYS alumnus who directs its jazz program.
“We are reaching students who play instruments that are not needed in the string orchestra or symphony orchestra,” he said. “For example, saxophone, drum set, bass guitar, electric guitar or any kind of guitar, piano and keyboard students.”
A silver lining to having kids play from their homes, he said, is that it helped some of them loosen up a bit and just plunge in.
“With improvised music, many students would often be too shy in person to try improvising in front of the whole group,” he said. “But what’s nice about online is they’re at home, they’re often muted, so they feel very safe. They’re not afraid to try things that they might have hesitated to in a classroom or rehearsal.”
The Youth Symphony commissioned award- winning Hawaii-born composer Michael-Thomas Foumai — also an HYS alumnus — to create a new arrangement of “Hawai‘i Aloha” that will culminate the evening and bring together the international cast.
For Enomoto, playing with the Youth Symphony has been a welcome outlet during the pandemic.
“For students who are still looking to pursue music, I’d say keep practicing even though it’s hard right now,” she said. “Hopefully, in the future we will be able to meet in person and play together again.”
HAWAII YOUTH SYMPHONY
>> “He Makana o na Mele: The Gift of Music” will air on Hawaii News Now KHNL at 8 p.m. Dec. 8 and be rebroadcast on K5 at 7 p.m. Dec. 10.
>> The event will also be available via hawaiinewsnow.com/hys to stream online.
>> Audiences are invited to follow #MakeMusicARight on Hawaii Youth Symphony’s social media and donate via hiyouthsymphony.givesmart.com.
More information is available at hiyouthsymphony.org.