Experiencing the 2020 ASTA Conference in Orlando, Florida

Experiencing the 2020 ASTA Conference in Orlando, Florida

by Loreta Fin

Greetings from my “Home Office” in sunny Brisbane.

Just over three weeks before I wrote this article, I was in Orlando, Florida, with my good friend Anne Sweeney, Head of Strings at SCEGGS, Darlinghurst, in Sydney. We had organised back in 2019 to meet up at the 2020 American String Teachers’ Association National Conference – to catch up, while receiving some serious Professional Learning. We decided to go to different sessions, so that we could “cover more ground”. The first thing to know about an ASTA conference is that – just like most of the meals in their restaurants – it is a SUPER-SIZED experience. For a start, over 1600 delegates attended and there were 6-8 sessions running, every 60-90 minutes. There were also almost 100 exhibitors, selling instruments, music, novelties, college programs, tours etc. oh, and hanging many different coloured ribbons which “describe yourself” on your lanyard was a big thing.

I am going to start by talking about ONE session that I went to, on the final day of the conference. Dr. Mary-Elizabeth Brown presented a one-hour session on the AVIVA project. It was all about her online teaching program, where she connects weekly or fortnightly with students and parents on 5 different continents. I heard some familiar words, like Skype, WhatsApp, FaceTime….and THEN, I began to get lost in a haze of new and strange words, like Zoom, Snownball, Yeti, Nebo, Acuity and Stripe. I distinctly remember sitting there and thinking: Isn’t it great that she’s doing this? Good on her….. but I’LL never need to use this. THAT was just over three weeks ago! I now feel like I have been on more platforms than there are on Grand Central Station.

When we arrived in Orlando, there was very little talk in the USA about Covid-19. People still greeted each other with hugs and hand-shakes. As the week wore on, CV-19 increasingly became the focus of the morning news. Anne and I both wondered whether we would get home. We had to self-quarantine on our return, after initially being advised that it WAS safe to go back to work, by state education and medical authorities. Thankfully, we both tested negative to the virus and completed our 14 days.

So, before all THAT happened, we had the BEST time at the ASTA conference. Anne attended the National Teachers’ Orchestra Workshops, which was a pre-conference day of rehearsals, while I represented AUSTA at the State Leadership Conference, as a guest. This was attended by all the State and National Chapter Presidents and was a day filled with great ideas about working with people in a volunteer capacity. I bring greetings to all from outgoing ASTA National President, William LaRue-Jones, who visited Australia a few years back, and incoming President, Kristen Pellegrini. That day ended with a fabulous concert, by the Teachers’ Orchestra – and I cheered Anne on in the 2nd Violin section, while checking out the viola section (of course), which was led by our new friend Jim Palmer, who has done some great new arrangements for Alfred Publishing.

On the three days that followed, Anne and I attended a huge variety of sessions – on pedagogy of Suzuki, Roland, Dorothy DeLay, Phyllis Young and others, as well as product, information and conducting sessions. The highlight for me was a session on teaching orchestras to play expressively, by Dr Bob Gillespie, author of the Essential Elements books. He was by far the most engaging and entertaining presenter I saw – and we MUST get him out here. He said he would love to come.

Bob is a good friend and colleague of Barry Green, whose trip to Australia this May/June has, sadly, been postponed. Barry is a lovely man and his new publication, Stringersize – a new workout for the Mind, Body and Spirit, would be a great resource in this strange new world in which we now find ourselves. It uses different styles of music and movement, to teach techniques, bowing and expression. Anne and I also met up with Sydney musician and teacher, Lorraine Chai, author of the creative Stringtastic Books. As AUSTA representatives, we hosted Barry Green and enjoyed a lovely night out together at an Italian Restaurant, called Mia’s. Barry was so looking forward to coming and meeting you all – so, when it eventually happens, DON’T MISS IT!

Anne, Lorraine and I were not the only Aussies at the conference. It was great to see Andrew Baker there in the Exhibitors’ Hall, with his wonderful Leatherwood Bespoke Rosin. It was also exciting to see my books on the Alfred stand, as well as Matthew Hoey’s Seven Mystery Melodies, and Cameron Patrick’s Movie String Quartets. I spotted a few of Keith Sharp’s and Anne Svendson’s pieces, too – we Aussies are certainly making our mark in the American string scene.

We attended repertoire-reading sessions, where I was both surprised and thrilled to see that two of my pieces had been selected by the ASTA committee. It was there that we got to chat with Deborah Baker-Monday and Susan Day, as well as Chris Bernotas and Mark Wood, whose music you may be familiar with. They ALL said they would love to come to Australia. Ideas for future conferences?

Running alongside the Conference, was the National Orchestra Festival, where schools competed for the honour of performing in the closing concert. This was a great way to finish, complementing the amazing Opening Concert, which featured electric violin veterans, Jesus Florida, Joe Deninzon and Tracey Silverman, with outstanding guest appearances by Mark Wood and Martha Mooke, as well as an impromptu solo from Mark O’Connor in an exciting combined effort for the Grand Finale.

All up, it was four huge, exhausting days, inevitably ending with a large glass (or two) of wine, which brings me to my final point. There is ONE aspect, in which we outdo the Americans at our conferences in Oz! Without any doubt, I would say that we do the “social” side of our conferences really well. At ASTA, there were great concerts, but no food and no wine. There were “meet and greet” sessions, but no food and no wine. There were Exhibitors’ Hall sessions, but no food and no wine….and yet, at the opening Leadership Sessions that I attended, when the facilitator was asking the leaders to “brainstorm” ideas on how to get people involved and truly engaged with an association, there were many great thoughts and ideas – and the recurring one was …..FOOD and WINE!

If you ever get the chance to go to an ASTA Conference, Anne and I would thoroughly recommend it. I hope to go again in 2023 – when the world is Covid-19-free. Meanwhile, I have put a series of videos on tuning and teaching beginners on my website in the resources section. If they are of any use to anyone during this online teaching phase, please take and share. Go to www.wilfinmusic.com.au and click resources. Meanwhile, stay safe, stay home, stay PHYSICALLY distanced, but SOCIALLY CONNECTED…..see you “online”

Loreta Fin