After months of restrictions, Quebec's youth orchestras want to play together again

·4 min read
Members of the Mount Royal Youth Orchestra have been split into four groups because they cannot practise together inside under the current health restrictions. (Submitted by Jean MacRae - image credit)
Members of the Mount Royal Youth Orchestra have been split into four groups because they cannot practise together inside under the current health restrictions. (Submitted by Jean MacRae - image credit)

For many young musicians, the pandemic has meant not just disruption to their studies and social life, but also to their participation in community-run youth orchestras.

Under the current rules for amateur orchestras that aren't run by schools, only 25 people can practise together indoors with a conductor, no matter the size of the room. But a standard youth orchestra is made up of at least double that many musicians.

The Montreal Symphony Youth Orchestra, for example, has between 80 and 100 musicians.

That's why the Quebec Association of Youth Orchestras is asking the government to allow them to rehearse together in larger numbers.

Jean MacRae, president of the association and artistic director and conductor of the Mount Royal Youth Orchestra, explained that because they aren't professional musicians, their activities fall under the category of sports and recreation activities.

If they were professionals, they'd fall under the jurisdiction of the province's workplace health and safety board, and they don't answer to the Ministry of Education because they're not associated with any school.

MacRae told CBC Montreal's Daybreak that this leaves them in "a bit of a grey area."

Submitted by Jean MacRae
Submitted by Jean MacRae

The limit of 25 people inside doesn't allow for all the young musicians to share a room, which has led MacRae to get creative.

"I've split the orchestra into four groups," she said. "I've got the first violins in one room, and I take the second violas, and the cellos are in the hallway, basically."

Even though the orchestra has access to a large gymnasium with space to be distanced, the rules don't allow for it.

"It's like reading a book where half the pages are ripped out." - Jean MacRae

"I actually personally measured the chairs so that they were two metres apart. We had Plexiglass screens in front of the wind players so that there was no contamination of the people in front of them," said MacRae.

MacRae said her temporary workaround of splitting up the sections is functional, but not ideal.

"It's like reading a book where half the pages are ripped out," she said.

'It's hard on their mental health'

Moreover, she said not being able to play as a group is affecting the kids' morale.

"That's the great thing about being in a symphony orchestra, you've got this massive sound and the shared experience of the passion, of the music together," she said.

"We got cut off in March 2020, like the rest of the world. And they are just waiting to get back and play together. So to be waiting just a little bit longer and just to have so few [in the room], it's hard on them, it's hard on their mental health."

MacRae said her association has asked the government to increase the number of people allowed in rehearsal rooms and provide consistent protocols for professional and non-professional orchestras.

Submitted by Jean MacRae
Submitted by Jean MacRae

She said she'd received word from the Quebec Ministry of Culture this week and that the government is working on a solution with Quebec Public Health.

"They've told us that they are putting as much pressure as they can, and they are trying to get it to go through as fast as they can, because they understand how urgent it is for our members," said MacRae.

The Ministry of Culture did not return CBC's request for comment.

LISTEN | Jean MacRae explains how the pandemic has affected young musicians:

With a concert planned for this fall, MacRae is also hoping for clarification on whether all her musicians will need a vaccine passport to perform.

Most of all, she's hoping that after all their hard work, the young musicians get the chance to perform together on stage in front of friends and family, even if they haven't had the chance to practise much as a full ensemble.

"If we haven't been able to work together, well, at the dress rehearsal for the concert, we'll play together, and then we'll do it," she said.

"I'm telling them, we're going to play this repertoire no matter what."

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