Patrick Scafidi, Managing Editor of The Ensemble Newsletters, in conversation with Terese Mörtvik, Communicator, Side by Side, Sweden
When El Sistema Sweden and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra (GSO) began accepting applications for the annual Side by Side by El Sistema international youth music and choir camp, taking place from June 13–16 this year, the coronavirus pandemic had yet to stop the world in its tracks. Applications poured in that first day—roughly 1,000 of them, despite the website shutting down for a few hours due to server issues. That number doubled shortly thereafter as applications continued to pour in from across the world.
We all know the story of what came next. Countries shut down, citizens shut themselves in, and music programs everywhere searched for ways to press on and serve their communities. Though the Side by Side team had prepared contingencies for smaller camps, it soon became clear that any downsized version of Side by Side would still require a strong digital platform. “We realized that we couldn’t expect to gather even 500 people in June,” says Side by Side Communicator Terese Mörtvik.
Like so many organizations, Side by Side was faced with a decision: cancel everything, or find a new way to exist. Luckily, they were prepared. “The Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra has had this ambition to go digital in some way for Side by Side for a very long time,” says Terese Mörtvik. “And we wanted to create some sort of a digital platform—or an app—for quite a few years now. To enhance the camp experience and open it up to people who aren’t able to travel to Sweden.”
Thus, “Side by Side: Digital” was born, and a new way of curriculum-building alongside it.
Once the decision was made to take the camp entirely online, the program’s priorities shifted. How could staff keep campers engaged and interactive? How does one “build bridges,” a fundamental Side by Side objective, over the internet? “We need people to feel that they are a part of the camp, and not just watching TV.” For El Sistema Sweden and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, the wheels began turning.
First, attendees had their participation fees refunded, and then the team got to work on a digital platform. As camp organizers had long dreamt of a digital platform that allows for more participants, the team agreed they would take as many campers as their bandwidth allowed, free of charge. Next came the curriculum itself. “We won’t actually have all the instructors that we planned. We knew early on that this won’t be the Side by Side camp we had planned for,” says Terese Mörtvik. With adjusted expectations came an adjusted repertoire—down to two pieces, The Lion King’s “Circle of Life” and the camp song, “Sida vid Sida.” For Mörtvik and the Side by Side team, it was important to preserve the culminating Festival Concert as much as possible. “We very much hope that it will be a feeling of coming together, and a sort of crescendo to the whole camp.”
This presented new challenges—namely, the act of doing ensemble work in a distance-learning context. “The Orchestra actually works a lot with live sessions; we have done a lot of live events on GSOplay. So we do have the technical know-how in-house, and we also work with some very talented people that we have drafted for this project, like Christer Hedberg from &friends and Andreas Almér from Midnight Machines,” says Terese Mörtvik. Campers will record their parts, learned and rehearsed over the course of the week, and send their videos to Side by Side. The camp will piece the final concert together using those submissions. If it sounds like a tall order, that’s because it is. But as Mörtvik explains, “we just sat in a meeting and said, no matter what, we’re going to do a camp and concert.”
Concert aside, the camp will not simply consist of webinars. “Campers will follow instructions to do some sort of music exercise, then be invited to film their efforts and upload the video to the site. This will be showcased in different ways by Side by Side, like in a daily recap video.” Students will also have the chance to interact with one another, live, using the digital platform. “It was one of our most important parts—being able to create that space for students to actually get to know and inspire each other. That’s the actual feeling of going to camp.”
Like everyone, Side by Side are figuring it out as they go along. And there are many solutions that may not be obvious until after the inaugural digital camp. But these problems come with silver linings, too. Many students will not have the internet access required to join the digital camp—but the camp can now serve hundreds more students than it has in years past. The number of tracks available to campers will decrease significantly—but more campers will share experiences. “Working closely with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra musicians is something that’s left for the advanced students. But this year, all students can get the firsthand experience of learning from one of our professional musicians in-house,” says Mörtvik. For every bump in the road, there is the opportunity to experience something completely new; and with that, the chance to demonstrate to participating communities how determined El Sistema programs are to serving young people.
“We have so many wonderful and talented and generous people working with us in different capacities to make this happen. It really came down to: what can we produce in the few weeks we have before camp starts? How can we make the most of our time and resources to make this a great experience? Our ambitions are high. And our hopes are high.”