Solo & Ensemble continues in a virtual model

Solo & Ensemble has continued its virtual model for this year’s competition, after first implementing it at the beginning of the pandemic one year ago. Solo & Ensemble is an annual festival held throughout the state by the Wisconsin School Music Association (WSMA). The event gives students an opportunity to demonstrate and advance their musical talents, whether they are enrolled in orchestra, band or choir.

“Each year [students] prepare solo work or small ensemble work: duets, trios, quartets and the like,” said Jason Clark, choir director. “Then they would perform for a judge, and the judge would evaluate their performance [and] give them a rating. If they score high enough, then they would advance to the state festival, which happens a little bit later in the year.”

Normally, the event takes place in person at a local high school. However, due to COVID-19, the WSMA has implemented a different format in which the students are given a window to submit a video recording of their performance. 

“[The window] opened on February 23 and it closes on April 9, so students have a [six] week period to make their recording of their performance and submit it to the WSMA,” said Karen Frink, orchestra director. 

The recording process, Frink adds, can be frustrating.

“It’s not quite as rewarding because you’re not gearing up for a performance, it’s a recording,” Frink said. “You just are home and you set up your phone and you do a performance. You can’t stop, you can’t edit, you can’t cut. When you’re recording, it’s frustrating because very often you are harder on yourself, and so you redo it over and over and over again … to get perfection.”

Charlie Gravelle, senior and band student, finds the recording process less stressful than performing in front of a judge.

“Honestly, with performing online, you get more confidence because it’s easier to submit a recording,” Gravelle said. “You can do it as many times as you want until you have it perfect.”

Honestly, with performing online, you get more confidence because … you can do it as many times as you want until you have it perfect.

— Charlie Gravelle, senior and band student

Isabella Lozier, junior, choir student and orchestra student, finds herself performing in more events because of this format of competition.

“This year there have been so many virtual recordings that now it just feels kind of normal and regular,” Lozier said. “I think maybe I’m doing more because everything is recorded and virtually, it doesn’t feel like real performances.” 

There are many adjustments that students will have to make in preparing for their performances. Unlike in past years, students are not given as much allotted time in class to practice. 

“Now that we’re in hybrid, I see these kids [in-person] once a week, so I need to get orchestra going,” Frink said. “So everything they do for Solo & Ensemble is pretty much on their own.”

Although participation is open to all students, most of the students participating this year are those with private teachers. There is limited class time because of the virtual format, so there is less time to practice during school. As a result, Clark reports that participation is a lot lower than normal.

“The students that I have that are participating this year have all done their preparation with their private voice teacher,” Clark said. “I think we’re going to have a total of five events for choir which is much fewer than we normally have.”

Gravelle has noticed less participation in band as well.

“In years past there’s usually group pieces that are practiced that are either performed in class or performed at Solo & Ensemble and this year there’s none of that,” Gravelle said. “You could probably count the people that are doing Solo & Ensemble on your hand.”

The same pattern goes for orchestra.

“In a normal year for high school orchestra, I would have as many as 50 solos and on top of that, about 40 ensembles,” Frink said. “I’m anticipating maybe two or three ensembles and hopefully still between 30 and 45 solos.”

In a normal year for high school orchestra, I would have as many as 50 solos and on top of that, about 40 ensembles. I’m anticipating maybe two or three ensembles and hopefully still between 30 and 45 solos.

— Karen Frink, orchestra teacher

The parameters for judging are quite similar to past years. The judges will watch the recording of each performance and give feedback like usual. However, the feedback itself is different.

“The feedback comes a lot more quickly and has been a lot more thorough in my experience,” Clark said. “I think that because there have been fewer kids participating, you get a higher quality judge who will take the time to really provide thoughtful feedback.”

With  the current circumstances and state of performing arts right now, Clark is hopeful for the future when performance opportunities can be renewed.

“Being forced to be without it for this long, I think when we get back to a place where those opportunities can be opened up again, that there will be a renaissance of people that really appreciate [it],” Clark said.