Fife Youth Jazz Orchestra (FYJO) is a music initiative for young people aged 8 to 24. The orchestra prides itself on offering a different way to play musical instruments, through learning to improvise, play by ear and, most importantly, play enthusiastically. 

Since FYJO’s inception over 45 years ago, young musicians have been meeting on Thursday evenings in the Lochgelly Centre in Fife to play together - until March 2020 when everything ground to a halt.

Responding to and learning from the Covid-19 Pandemic

Following lockdown, FYJO’s co-founder and leader, Richard Michael, suggested running the orchestra online. Initially, the band’s committee members were unsure how this would work, due to concerns about delays in internet speed affecting how the group played together, as well as issues around GDPR and child protection.

Nevertheless, like many other creative groups, FYJO persevered and was pleased with the results of its transition to digital delivery: “It took quite a bit of effort but it's safe to say it turned out better than we thought it would.” Claire Martindale, Secretary.

FYJO decided to use Zoom to rehearse and Dropbox to distribute music. Claire carried out introductory Zoom calls with the parents of any child who wanted to join, in order to explain how the rehearsals worked and the orchestra’s rules around child safety. This initial Zoom call also offered the opportunity for Claire to ensure that new members were comfortable using Zoom.

The Orchestra responded to the limitations of playing music on Zoom by adapting the type of music they played. While improvisation was already an important part of FYJO’s practice, they decided to increase their focus on simple tunes and improvising, as these do not require full orchestral backing. This meant that players were less reliant on hearing what the other orchestra members were doing. Band members would listen to a tune played by the Musical Director, before practising it (with their mics off).

While the majority of learning and practising was done with the band on mute, band members also got the chance to unmute and play for the group. Playing on mute meant that the ability to read body language became paramount for FYJO, as Claire explained: “Do they look like they're enjoying the music? Do they look like they feel it’s going well? You’re just reading body language; you can't hear it. But you've got to react as though you can hear all of that because you have to respond and give feedback.”

Overcoming the challenges and finding the benefits

A key positive of the ‘mute function’ on Zoom, was that playing in this way felt less intimidating for some members, especially when it came to improvising. This approach to musical rehearsals encouraged creative freedom in members who are usually too shy or anxious to freely experiment musically in front of others.

Another unexpected benefit of using Zoom was the chat function, which allowed band members to give each other feedback when an individual improvised aloud for the group. This meant that, even though the band was not together physically, there was a lot of immediate feedback, and the children were able to interact with each other without disturbing the session.

Nevertheless, playing ‘on mute’ meant that the orchestra missed out on hearing themselves play as a collective. As a solution, the members of FYJO created a video compiling individual performances. This provided the opportunity to hear the band play together for the first time, as many new members had joined after the band moved online.

The influx of new members occurred as moving online opened the group up to people who were unable to participate previously. FYJO attracted new members from all over Scotland, the rest of the UK and even abroad, as a Romanian family joined every week. Membership increased from eight members to a full complement of at least 40 musicians. FYJO was also able to set up a ‘Jazz Teenies’ session for children under 8, which started half an hour before the main band’s rehearsal session

Finding new methods of teaching

Alongside the increased accessibility for many individuals who had been unable to join FYJO in person, another possible reason for the increase in FYJO membership during lockdown is the new methods of teaching they were able to introduce, having gotten familiar with the specific features of online platforms.

After several weeks of running rehearsals online, the orchestra noticed that the ‘breakout room’ function on Zoom would allow them to split the orchestra up into smaller groups, based on the type of instrument played. Using the breakout room function allowed them to vary the structure of their rehearsals, with the band playing together before breaking up into smaller, more musically specific groups. This facilitated greater opportunities for one-to-one practical advice and more specific learning. Claire observed that the chance to work in small, specialised groups was a “big draw for a lot of people” and that this was something that the group would not be able to do at their usual, in-person venue.

The activities of FYJO also attracted the attention of many music teachers who were interested in how the group managed to successfully take its activities online. FYJO was able to invite several of these music teachers to sit in on its rehearsals, thus expanding its network as a music initiative. “They've been really enthused about how you can teach music very educationally and very enjoyably without people having to set foot outside the house.” (Claire)

As well as the music teachers who have been invited, FYJO has also seen some unexpected guests in its Zoom rehearsals, as the parents of band members joined in with their children. This spontaneous involvement of family members, enabled by the digital format, shows how FYJO’s online presence was an outlet for creativity and a source of joy and connection for families during lockdown.

Moving forward

As restrictions around meeting in-person eased, FYJO began to consider how to merge the group’s online success with returning to in-person rehearsals when possible. When they surveyed members regarding the return of face-to-face rehearsals, some musicians announced that they would be unable to continue in-person, either because they had other pre-existing activities to which they were now able to return or because they joined the online rehearsals from further afield and lived too far away to attend the Lochgelly-based rehearsals.

As a result, FYJO had to think about how to continue to engage with the new members it gained during lockdown. When rehearsals restarted in September 2021, FYJO offered an online edition of rehearsals on the last Thursday of each month (with the other weeks being in-person rehearsals). The ‘Jazz Teenies’ section of the band will continue entirely digitally.

FYJO also plans to host special online events, for example occasional whole-day courses or weekend courses, that will allow them to maintain contact with the large network that it has established. This blended approach will allow FYJO to retain the benefits of remote rehearsals in a way that most suits their future plans.

For more information about the orchestra, please visit