New York, NY—Two historic music institutions that have each provided innovative and creative music ensembles to legions of youth and older adults have now merged to create the largest youth ensemble program in New York City.

The InterSchool Orchestras of New York (ISO), founded by Annabelle Prager in 1972 because her son’s school didn’t offer ensemble music instruction, will now come under the umbrella of the Third Street Music School Settlement, which was founded by the arts education pioneer Emile Wagner in 1894.

In a recent interview, Third Street’s Executive Director Valerie Lewis, said that the merger comes at a crucial time when many music programs throughout the city and in public schools are closing because of the pandemic.

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“There’s going to be less arts education this year because we’re in a financial crisis, so it’s critically important to preserve this program to ensure NYC’s children, tweens and teens have the opportunity to connect with an optimal orchestral experience. The families are just elated, and the students are so happy to be playing music with others,” said Lewis.

Lewis noted that ensemble experiences create such rich experiences, it’s the glue of the community music movement.

“Whether it’s chamber music, rock band, we even have a harpsichord ensemble, these are ways for students to work together, to work with different teachers and explore different genres and really deepen their artistic experience through ensemble learning,” said Lewis.

She added, “Through ensemble learning, students learn collaborative skills, they make friends, and they learn problem-solving. It is beautiful to watch our students’ progression from year to year.”

Lewis also talked about the positive impact orchestral study has on students ages 8 through 18, namely that it creates a foundation for learning. 

“Especially now, I say to parents: ‘Encourage your kids to put down their device and pick up an instrument.’ Learning and practicing music helps increase attention span . Studies show that orchestral study supports brain activity in children and adults.”

Now with ISO under its umbrella, she wants to commission new works, such as the possibility of performing in person to a live audience next year.

“I want to start touring again and I want to have performances indoor and out, whatever it takes to get these students showcased and to share with our New York City community, if not the world that music really prevails and our students are resilient.”

Just like some other cultural institutions that have had to pivot online, Third Street Music School had very little experience offering a virtual performance or event. Overnight it had to learn how to adopt and deploy new technologies to accommodate a new reality that started on March 13 when it closed its doors because the pandemic hit.

But within 48 hours, the school started teaching individual lessons online.

“We figured out Zoom, we figured out FaceTime, and we upgraded all of our systems. We have a concert hall and over 250 performances a year, so, fortunately, we have a technical staff in place to support our faculty and families,” said Lewis.

And for students who didn’t have instruments and/or online access, Third Street got instruments into the hands of students and offered free loans for computers so that they could participate in the individual remote classes.

A little more challenging was conducting ensemble, chamber music and orchestras virtually. Third Street’s oldest student is 96 years old and some older students aren’t necessarily familiar with a lot of the new technology.

But the staff spent numerous hours a day to ensure that the older students were comfortable with the technology.

“It wasn’t so easy at first, but, again, our faculty and our students had to experiment, and every day we just built and improved, built and improved,” noted Lewis.

An important component to Third Street’s work is the ensemble programs it provides in 27 public schools. Again, the team had to pivot to online performances. It took about two weeks to get all the technology sorted out, but they’ve been able to get the program online and delivered to the schools on a daily basis.

Lewis may have questioned at first the feasibility of conducting ensembles and group classes virtually, but she’s been pleasantly surprised.

“It was an incredible learning experience. This is not to say that people are not eager to get back to having a real human connection again, but it is worked a lot better than anyone anticipated, and I think it speaks to the quality of the instruction at Third Street,” Lewis said.

Third Street Music School and ISO have each produced illustrious alums over the years, and Lewis believes that the pandemic will give rise to new alums who’ll embark on extraordinary careers.

“I think there are going to be future celebrated musicians that come out of this program, but moreover, I think this pandemic is going to create extraordinary artistry. I think this pandemic will shape music for many years to come, and is already shaping artists and their approach to their craft and music for many years to come.” 

To learn more about Third Street’s instrument lessons and ensemble programs, email Myra Nieves at mnieves@thirdstreetmusicschool.org or www.virtualthirdstreet.org.