For three months, Amedee Williams faced the biggest challenge of his career as a music teacher as he had 140 Scarsdale High School orchestra students learning distantly from their homes due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For their hard work and dedication during a difficult time, Williams is rewarding his students with an interactive master class featuring five violinists from the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.
On Monday, June 8, at 4 p.m., five Scarsdale High School violin players selected by Williams will have a chance to perform via Zoom for Met Orchestra professionals Wen Qian, Bruno Eicher, Amy Kauffman, Caterina Szepes and Catherine Sim.
“Each of the Met violinists that are going to be on are really going to help them on specifics of their playing and work on things they may have technical problems with that they will hopefully be able to solve at a very high level,” Williams said. “The five violinists who are playing, my hope is they will really improve. It isn’t just me saying something — it’s somebody with a lot of credibility saying it. Students always listen a little differently if someone else says it even if they’ve been hearing the same thing from me. It will reinforce either what I’ve been saying or maybe they have a different perspective than I have.”
Junior Vivian Guo is one of the violinists honored to be performing before such a distinguished group.
“I’m looking forward to meeting professional artists and learning about their experience with music,” Guo said. “I hope I can get useful feedback on capturing the sentimentality of my piece, because mine is less on technical skills and more of an emotional piece.”
The selected performances will be followed by a question and answer and roundtable session with topics submitted by Williams’ students.
“There are some pretty interesting questions in there,” he said. “They’re Scarsdale kids, so they’re very insightful. My hope is the end of the master class will be a roundtable discussion answering the questions for anyone who is watching.”
Since there is no final concert this school year, and no final concert for the 30-plus seniors, Williams felt it was crucial to have a culminating event. “It’s really important on so many different levels,” he said. “No. 1, I’m really still pushing the kids to work hard and they’re working toward something they’re really excited about. Without that personal contact I have with the students regularly, it’s really hard to inspire them to go work. I’m really hoping this does it.”
The Met Opera shut down on March 11, just days after Scarsdale High School. But while students have had distance learning, the Met musicians haven’t been as fortunate.
“We miss our work — playing beautiful music with the best and nicest group of musicians, listening to the beautiful voices from the singers and the camaraderie we share in our great orchestra,” Met assistant concertmaster Qian said. “Of course the most difficult is our financial loss from being furloughed.”
The Met musicians, who don’t expect to be back to work until Jan. 1, 2021, are donating their time to the Scarsdale students.
“We would like to help passing on our knowledge and skill to the next generations of young people,” Qian said. “Especially during this time, we feel the need to bring people back to the beauty and love of music.”
This spring, Williams had to do some trial and error to figure out how to become a virtual orchestra conductor and teacher when the coronavirus closed down schools beginning March 9. It was clear early on that big groups weren’t going to work out, so Williams set up smaller and individual lessons. For lectures, Williams was able to have larger groups of students together online.
One effective measure Williams adopted is having his students submit videos of themselves playing so he can critique them and continue to inspire improvement.
“He created a Google classroom when schools closed, and [he] shares really interesting and sometimes funny music videos, too,” Guo said. “We’ve had a couple of recording assignments and Mr. Williams invited us to join him for a Zoom lunch.”
Junior Joanna Wang who also plays violin and piano has had to rise to the challenge of keeping up with her musical endeavors.
“I think the hardest part about studying music now for me is having lessons,” Wang said. “Especially during my piano lessons over Zoom, the sound is not sustained and the dynamics are often stabilized — even with altering the Zoom settings — making it hard for my teacher to pick out the nuances in my playing. Regarding practice, it’s really up to the student to keep track of — as it was before.”
Williams said he has done his best to encourage his students to continue making progress, and he’s seen positive strides as they have more time to practice since they don’t have after-school and weekend commitments.
“Even though the schoolwork has been overwhelming, some of them really found the time to practice,” Williams said. “It’s disappointing that we can’t be together to work, because they are practicing.”
The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra musicians are conducting the June 8 master class, which is open to the public, at https://zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_a0qMtSl4TeWz1hOUdRNPFg. Contributions to help Met musicians in need can be made at metorchestramusicians.org.