Welcome to the final installment of Navigating the New Normal: Nonprofit Lessons Learned in the Covid-19 Era, featuring insights from leaders at several of our community partner organizations. Click here to read the series introduction, penned by MMI's Director of Grantmaking and Capacity Building, Rychetta Watkins.
Today, we're featuring an interview with Brittany Cooper-d'Orsay, Executive Director at the Memphis Youth Symphony Program (MYSP). MMI recently spoke with Brittany about how MYSP navigated their return to in-person music-making and why it's important to take things one day at a time.
MMI: So, MYSP has been around since the 1960s, right?
Brittany: Yeah, 1966.
MMI: And when did MYSP separate from Memphis Symphony Orchestra as a nonprofit?
Brittany: So glad you asked that because a lot of people don't know that we are separate. We separated in 2006. It creates a lot of confusion because our names are similar. That's one of the reasons why I was so passionate about doing a logo redesign to make our colors a little bit different from them. But we share Kalena Bovell, who is the assistant conductor of the Memphis Symphony, and she's our Youth Symphony conductor. And that's a great resource to share because we're getting an up-and-coming conductor who's going to go on in one of the big jobs somewhere else.
I think the reason for the split was really financial—trying to make sure that donations that were coming into the Youth Symphony went to the Youth Symphony and being able to apply for grants instead of them applying for grants and that kind of thing. So that's the reason for the split, but we still do have a very strong partnership with them.
MMI: I love the branding redesign. It's super clean and beautiful.
Brittany: Thanks. It was kind of good timing for the pandemic because we were able to do some of our strategic plan work, which was really a rebranding. So we got a new mission statement. We created an impact statement for the first time, updated our tagline, and then also had a new website overhaul and then the new logo.
MMI: So when did you become director at MYSP?
Brittany: July 1st of 2020. I was on the board before that.
Brittany: Right in the midst of the pandemic. I was so excited about taking on this leadership role, though it's not been what I thought it was going to be for sure.
MMI: So what does a normal year look like at MYSP, pre-pandemic?
Brittany: A normal season consists of three ensembles—our prelude strings, string orchestra, and then our Youth Symphony being the top ensemble that is winds and strings together. Typically, we start in September with a kickoff weekend, and we have about five concerts a year going through May. We're talking a lot of students indoors in not the biggest space, and parents coming to concerts.
We also have a concerto competition for the Youth Symphony students, usually a big annual fundraiser. And then our students usually audition in May, with late auditions in August. So, that's what it is supposed to look like. We're closer to that this season, and last year was not that at all.
MMI: Last year when the pandemic happened and it became apparent as the months went by that things were going to be different for a while, at what point did you really start rethinking and retooling what you were able to do at MYSP?
Brittany: During the summer, when it was clear that the season was not going to look like a normal season, I surveyed all of our parents and students to gauge their interests and comfort levels. We did do some virtual stuff, and I'll talk more about that in a moment. But I will say that I was very surprised by how many of our students and parents still wanted some kind of in-person music-making to happen.
I really felt that pressure to figure out a way to do it safely. I was attending a lot of these virtual studies of all these colleges and orchestras that were running studies about wind instruments and aerosol spread. I listened to a lot of that and tried to take from that the safety protocols that we put in place. Ultimately, what that looked like for us, was for in-person music-making to happen in much smaller groups—two to five people. We started doing that in September 2020, all outdoors. The string players were all masked, and I had the wind players use bell covers.
But then sometimes, guess what? It would rain. Playing outdoors comes with so many challenges. We bought tents and clothes pins for the music stands because the music's blowing everywhere. It was a heck of a year.
There were of course some students and parents who weren't comfortable with them doing in-person stuff, so we had a virtual chamber ensemble, which was kind of modern music because the timing didn't have to work out perfectly. It was actually composed for Zoom at the beginning of the pandemic. There were sections where they would need to join in together, but it didn't have to time up exactly. So those students really got to experience a different kind of music-making. And then for everybody, we had a virtual lecture series that went throughout the year. At first, we had really high attendance. And then it started to dwindle as, you know, students were getting sick of being on Zoom all the time.
Ultimately, though, music-making on Zoom is just not adequate. So, this year, we're not really doing anything virtual.
MMI: It sounds like you did pivot quite quickly to continue offering as close to the normal programming as possible. Was there a point at which you sort of thought, “Okay, now we have to just get back to doing things in person.”
Brittany: Well, winter happened. We took a break for the holidays because I knew Covid numbers were going to go up. And when it was cold, we had to move indoors. So I didn't feel great about that, but like I said, I just really, really spaced the students out.
And then towards April or May my groups gradually got larger. I had a wind group that was ten, but then I had a string group that was 20 again, because it's different. Those string players can be masked and the wind players have more of a spread.
I felt very strongly about being as safe as possible, especially because we had been so safe—we have had no known Covid spread happen during our programming. And I just looked left and right and saw that everybody was back to normal. But I made the decision that instead of having auditions in May, we were going to hold off even longer so that people really had the opportunity to get vaccinated, and we were going to have in-person auditions in August. I really stuck to that. Germantown Youth Symphony is kind of our biggest competitor, and they had everything recorded. I just know that that audition experience is so important for our students. If they plan to continue to do music, it's so important to prepare and actually have a live audition. So, I stuck to my guns on that. Ever since those August auditions, we've been back to not-quite normal, but way more of a normal experience than we had in the past. Our Youth Symphony is more like 70 instead of 100.
Our biggest hurdle has just been finding space. The Memphis Youth Symphony program, we're so small. We have some offices at Playhouse, but we don't have any dedicated rehearsal or performance space.So we're at the mercy of the community to offer rental spaces to us. And I mean, everybody is so freaked out that they don't want external visitors. It's been a real challenge finding spaces. The University of Memphis has really been the only place that will have us. And so I've been very, very grateful to them.
MMI: We've talked a little bit about the challenges that come with playing outdoors, or at all, during a pandemic. But were there any wins or things that you think you want to retain even after this is truly in the rear-view mirror?
Brittany: Yeah. The wonderful thing about chamber ensembles, these smaller groups, is that they can travel very nicely, whereas a full orchestra of a hundred students can't. And I've had more and more people asking, “Can we have a chamber group?” Right now I'm just trying to work with what I have. I do have two string quartets, but I'm really interested in growing our chamber music program and providing opportunities for students to get some paid gigs, as well as gigs that are exposure events for us—opportunities for community engagement. Eventually, I would love to see us do more work in the nursing homes and things like that. So definitely the chamber groups are something that I would like to really see grow in the future.
MMI: What guiding principles are informing your approach to planning the future of MYSP, given that the pandemic is still happening?
Brittany: Never assume anything is 100% set in stone. And I think being flexible and having grace for ourselves is so important during this time. I get so worried. I know our parents want things to be completely back to normal, or many of them do, but reminding them that it's not normal, and the reason we have the restrictions that we have is for the safety of their students. At the end of the day, we are trying to do what's best for our students.
And it's tough because I'm also seeing that students really need this. They don’t have the same social engagement and relationships over Zoom that they have in person. It’s been really heartwarming to see our students back together. Yeah, they're in masks, but they're laughing and talking with their friends.
I really am taking it a day at a time, a month at a time, trying to look out and get ahead of things. It's so hard to get ahead of things right now. The one thing that I'm excited about, that we're moving forward with, despite the fact that we're still coming out of this pandemic, is for two years now, we've been trying to start a wind ensemble and a concert band. And we are finally going to start those in January.
I try to set little goals and not lose sight of those big dreams that you have. You have to get through the day first.
I've been really grateful to MMI and Arts Memphis and Tennessee Arts Commission and a lot of these organizations that have tried to step up and be supportive to us smaller arts nonprofits. I think that many of us feel like we wouldn't have made it without that collective support. And it is really wonderful to have some of these conversations with people at other arts nonprofits and to hear that I’m not alone. It can feel very isolating being the one full-time staff member at MYSP.
Even if it's on Zoom, I get in these spaces and I'm hearing things and I'm like, “Oh my gosh, it's not just me.” I have gotten a sense of comfort from knowing that we're all in this together and we're all struggling, right? I mean, nobody's budget was what we expected last year.
MMI: For sure. And that's part of the reason we wanted to do this series. It’s hard to navigate this confusing time where people desperately want things to be back to normal. And a lot of daily life can feel normal, in spite of the very not-normal situation that continues to inform our choices. There were so many conversations happening at the onset of the pandemic and in those initial few months— how are nonprofits doing? How are we all doing? And to some extent, those conversations have tapered off. We're not out of it, but we are all in it together.
Click here to read our interview with Steve Lee, director of the Memphis Jazz Workshop. Click here for our conversation with Lar'Juanette Williams, director of the Memphis Black Arts Alliance.