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Like so many other schools and arts organizations, the Music Academy of the West faces a major challenge during the indefinite period of social distancing currently dictated by the global coronavirus pandemic. When Governor Newsom ordered Californians to shelter in place back in March, the Academy was not yet in session, but the wheels were already in motion that bring over a hundred young musicians and faculty members to the organization’s Montecito campus every June for eight weeks of intensive instruction, rehearsal, and performance. Wonderful, ambitious concerts had been planned, not only for the academy’s Hahn Hall performance space, but also for Santa Barbara’s premier venues: the Lobero, the Granada, and the Santa Barbara Bowl. While it’s not a certainty that all of those large public events will have to be canceled for 2020, it is a likelihood that Music Academy President and CEO Scott Reed and his team have had to face in the intervening weeks.
As of now, the academy plans to reconstitute itself as the Music Academy Remote Learning Institute for at least the first month of its season. There will be an announcement on May 15 as to whether conditions have been met that would allow at least some of the planned public concerts and in-person instruction scheduled for the program’s second four weeks to go forward.
I spoke with Reed last week by phone. The transcript that follows has been edited for clarity and length.
What have your priorities been as you deal with the disruption of your program? Always the first and foremost concern is the safety and well-being of our entire Music Academy family, and that includes all of our alumni since 1947, our community of supporters, and our fellows of course. You start there, and then you start looking at how do we still deliver our mission. Then the roadmap starts presenting itself. I am super fortunate to have a fantastic team of solution oriented people at the academy, and that team includes our faculty and our board in addition to some of the greatest administration in the profession, but this is where that comes to test.
Do you think that you will be able to stage public concerts this summer? I think that that’s a mystery to all of us. And we certainly don’t have a crystal ball, nor do we have any intention of putting anybody in an unsafe environment, or doing anything that is in conflict with our amazing local public officials and our state officials. And so what we thought is the best thing to do would be to continue to create some time to be aware and to react accordingly. And we knew that June 14—that’s when our on-site festival was planned to begin—we knew that that was not feasible and trying to make that feasible was not a productive way for us to be moving forward. And so we said, how can we provide something, how do we still deliver our mission, although we’ll be delivering it in a different way? And that’s how we came up with the Music Academy Remote Learning Institute instead, and then we’ll go from there. Rather than saying that while in crisis, we’re going to answer this entire question for our organization in one fell swoop, instead, it’s what can we answer right now? And then what can we work towards answering with responsible awareness? So that’s how we chose to do it.
Are fellows who participate in the remote learning institute eligible to return in 2021? Yes. We are deferring admissions to all of our fellows. So, although our fellows do have an opportunity to participate in our remote program this summer, we are not seeing this as a replacement of the summer school. If you were admitted this year, you are guaranteed a spot in 2021. We had an all-time applicant high this year of 2020 applicants for 139 spots. They have earned the opportunity to experience this festival in paradise with this illustrious faculty, and for our faculty members to start to get to know these amazing artists this summer as well. The potential here is that we will have a 2021 festival that will be even more connected and will be even more celebratory of relationships. People will have had an opportunity to work together for a longer period of time and make it through this crisis together. I think there’s going to be some profound moments in our 2021 festival as a result of the way the Music Academy has pivoted this summer.
What steps have you taken to support the pivot to remote instruction? We’ve hired two co directors of MARLI. They just started with us on Monday. This was led by Jamie Broumas, our new Chief Artistic Officer. We’ve got Jennifer Bowman who is the Director of Music Education at the Kennedy Center. She’ll be spending the summer with us. And Jennifer is just a dynamic professional running so many major programs for the Kennedy Center, so many of them through online applications. And so, we brought her in, and then her counterpart is Casey Molino Dunn. Casey is on the faculty at Manhattan School of Music. He’s the director of the Center for Music Entrepreneurship there, and Manhattan School of Music is really seen in the conservatory landscape as a leader in distance learning. So many conservatories have been forced to turn on a dime and go on into an online environment so they can complete degree courses and things like this. We have the advantage here of being able to actually plan for it and plan for training and engagement.
Will the MARLI program have a performance component? Yes, we are planning on having some performances online through MARLI as part of our Music Academy online concert hall. And, again, even now, what we’re looking at could change depending on what kind of restrictions are released around social distancing and things like that. So, we’re looking at everything from what we’re seeing now in-home performances by individuals or by people that live together, or pre-recorded layering that goes on that creates a performance from one or two people or multiple people in different venues.
How do you plan to sustain the Academy’s connection to its constituency of supporters? The other thing we’re doing is that we are creating an online compeer experience during MARLI. We’re going to work with our compeers online, and we’re going to schedule meetings once a week between them and their fellow. And we’ll have activities that we prescribe for the compeers and the fellows. So that special aspect of the Music Academy, that connection with the community, is not lost even in the virtual environment. And again, knowing that these fellows will be joining us in 2021 because of our deferred enrollment, the relationship gets to start earlier and there will be a time when they can all come together and enjoy each other for a dinner in person. We feel like we’re going to be able to retain that through this online compeer experience. And should we be able to do some kind of on-site Festival later this season, which, while we’re not there yet, there is a glimmer of hope in our hearts that we might be able to do something then, depending on what we’re allowed to do and what’s responsible for us to do, that will transition very well into what could be a four-week experience in the second half of the summer.
Any final thoughts? One of the things I think people love most about the Music Academy is the visible commitment this organization has had well before me and will have well after me to the fellows that attend our program. And that can be something that’s visible, with people on campus and going to performances, but there’s also an invisible way that it’s there as a known core of our program. And I want the Santa Barbara community to know that that same commitment will be happening in 2020.