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Bloomington High School Chamber Orchestra’s Zoom Tunes Prove Challenging

The first performance of this piece took place on April 1, 1747 at Covent Garden, and Judas Maccabaeus became one of Handel's most popular oratorios.

Performing arts students continue to overcome pandemic hurdles in a big, complicated way.

The Bloomington High School Chamber Orchestra has performed a chorus from “Judas Maccabeaus” by George Friedrich Handel remotely, under direction from orchestra teacher Caleb Mackinder.

Mackinder carefully selected the piece, saying he had to find a piece that could harmonize with the fear of trying something new.

“Because we’ve never done anything like this before. I’ve never taught like this and they’ve never played like this, so I wanted it to be something simple,” said Mackinder.

The video on Facebook features a collage of high school students playing stringed instruments like the violin and cello.

Mackinder used an app called Upbeat Music to have students play along to a “click track.” The app allows students to wear headphones and play along to a beat.

Mackinder said technology sometimes fell flat,and he had to troubleshoot microphone issues.

“These students are used to being able to play together in a community,” he said. “That’s a big part of being involved in a musical ensemble. And so getting used to playing by yourself and not knowing if you are playing in tune or with the right rhythms ... it’s challenging.”

Mackinder said he had to have some students go back and redo the assignment. Some may have miscounted a beat and then were off for the entire piece.

“That takes some getting used to, and this recording was just with a click track, and so there was no feedback for them to know if they were playing accurately or not,” said Mackinder. “So in our future recordings, we’re going to try to play along with a backing track.”

A backing track means students can hear and say, “I’m going to play along with the violin part and I know that it sounds like this, and so I can make sure I’m accurate.”

Mackinder said the video post was meant to uplift viewers and those behind the performance.

“It’s advocacy for teachers who are really trying their best right now and are figuring things out. Not just music teachers but for every single teacher out there that is trying their best and doing what they can,” said Mackinder.

But the projects and learning aren’t over until the conductor waves the baton. The BHS students have their work cut out for them.

“Right now we are working on an arrangement, a symphony by Howard Hanson, the main theme that is used for the Interlochen Arts Camp theme,” said Mackinder. “So the chamber orchestra is working on that and the concert orchestra is working on a sea shanty because those are all the rage right now.”

Mackinder said every teacher this year feels a first-year teacher because of COVID-19, and that requires a lot of trial and error.

“Some students are doing really well with learning in this setting and some students are struggling who haven’t struggled in the past with school. So figuring out how to reach out to those students is a new thing,” said Mackinder. 

He said Zoom is providing opportunities for beginners and those working on their skills.

“I have students that have been taking private lessons for years and their teachers are teaching on Zoom. There are a few shops in town you can do that. The kind of nice thing about being on Zoom is that you could take lessons from someone in San Francisco if you wanted to,” said Mackinder. 

The piece “Judas Maccabaeus” is an oratorio in three acts composed in 1746 by Handel. The piece was meant as a compliment to the victorious Prince William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, upon his return from the Battle of Culloden.

Mackinder has taught orchestra in District 87 for two years. He is the lead teacher for 5th grade orchestra and both orchestras at Bloomington High School.

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