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Playing A Global Tango: The Northwest School Organizes A `Virtual Orchestra’

courtesy of The Northwest School
Orchestra students at The Northwest School with instructor Jo Nardolillo

A private school in Seattle is testing the idea that music is a universal language. Orchestra students from The Northwest School will perform an Argentinian tango Wednesday evening that they’ve been working on in tandem with music students around the world.

Last fall, when the school year began, Jo Nardolillo told her students that they were going to create a virtual orchestra. Ninth grader Amelia Hare said she was enthusiastic, if a bit skeptical.

“I was excited,” Hare said. “I wasn’t really sure how it was going to work.”

Nardolillo wanted to show that music class could embody some of the foundational principles of The Northwest School: social justice and global citizenship.

Credit photo courtesy of The Northwest School
Students with the Lelt Foundation Ensemble in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, participated in the "virtual orchestra."

So she came up with an idea that’s only become possible in the age of the Internet and smart phones. Students at seven schools around the globe would practice the same piece of music and then make a video of themselves that Nardolillo would then stitch together into one combined video, so that it would sound as if they were playing in the same concert hall.

The schools are on five continents – in Thailand, Colombia, Ethiopia, Italy, Israel, Washington, D.C., and here in Seattle.

Nardolillo deliberately chose a tango because it’s not from one of the countries represented.

“And it’s folk music, which was written for instruments almost none of which any of us play, so it seemed like a real level playing field,” she said.

That made it possible for the Ethiopian students to play the piece using traditional instruments such as the krar, which is similar to a lyre, and for the students in Colombia to use guitars and drums, while the American students use Western orchestral instruments such as cellos and violins.

The moment of truth came when Nardolillo put the videos into the editing software to see if all the students were playing in rhythm together. She had provided a drum recording to each group ahead of time so that they could use that to keep the same tempo.

Hantong Wu is from China and a junior at The Northwest School. He said when he saw the video Nardolillo produced of all the students playing at the same time, he thought it was magical.

“For me personally, that moment of all the harmony and seeing the visual of playing the fingers together at the same spot on the cello, doing the same vibrato - that’s very exciting to me, and that connection is very strong,” he said.

The students traded video messages and letters throughout the school year. Hare said she particularly cherishes the letters they received from Ethiopia decorated with butterflies and glitter.

Credit photo courtesy of The Northwest School
Amelia Hare (left) and Qian Guo display letters they received from students in Ethiopia.

The orchestra students from The Northwest School will perform Wednesday evening in front of a screen projecting the video of the other students from around the world playing the piece. The performance will take place at Plymouth Church in Seattle at 7:00 p.m.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.