Backyard orchestra provides learning opportunity for virtual students


When Carmel resident Li Li realized that Carmel Clay Schools students who opted for the virtual classroom option were unable to attend orchestra, she decided to act on it.

Li, a violist for the Indianapolis Symphony, and her husband, Joel Smirnoff, who also is a musician and teaches violin at the Juilliard School in New York, decided to give the virtual students an option to practice playing their instruments. The decision led to the creation of the backyard orchestra.

Only hybrid (students) could do the orchestra at school,” Li said. “My son actually is in sixth grade right now, and this whole sixth grade year was supposed to be the first year they picked up an instrument and played in orchestra, but he’s been virtual, so he’s never had the opportunity to do that. I thought there are a lot of kids like him.”

Li said her backyard is flat, and she thought she could set up chairs and teach students how to play their instruments.

“We wanted to do it for the community, and (the parents) really loved the idea,” Li said.

The backyard orchestra is open to all virtual students, regardless of grade level.

“Basically, parents would come with their kids and they put chairs on the grass and just listen, and we actually did a little performance for them,” Li said.

The program started in summer 2020, and Li is continuing it this spring. Students who opted for virtual learning will continue to do so through the end of the school year.

“We did quite a few pieces mixed with classical and ‘Star Wars’ and all that,” Li said. “It was really important for the kids to have this social event, and they all loved it. The pandemic has hit the kids and the elderly the worst. Parents like me, we kept them at home, so really there’s nothing for them to do socially.”

Practices began last month. Seventeen students participate in the backyard orchestra. They meet for eight to nine sessions once a week and then perform.

“My husband helps makes all the arrangements for the pieces and I conduct them,” Li said. “We have rehearsals and all that. We don’t teach them individually but teach like a class. It’s a new thing for me as well.”


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