Shiuan leads music program through challenging times

September 24, 2020 — by Nicole Lu
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The music department faculty takes a picture together before the first day of school on Aug. 13.

Amidst the departures of various music department staff, Shiuan faces newfound obstacles as the new performing arts department chair


Last year, Jason Shiuan was the youngest member of the music faculty. This year, he is leading the department through unprecedented times and changes.

Longtime department chair Mike Boitz is on paternity leave this semester, while choir director Andrew Ford left his position last spring after being arrested on sexual assault charges that date back roughly 15 years and have nothing to do with his time as a teacher at the school.

 As the new department chair, Shiuan is juggling responsibilities he hasn’t had before. Among other things, he is responsible for managing the budget for both music and drama and advocating for the department during chair meetings. He is also shepherding new and substitute instructors through the rigors of online teaching.

The new faces in the music department include teachers Norman Dea, a retired music educator who is subbing as the orchestra director, and Kristina Nakagawa, the new choir teacher. Also filling in as the band director is Sean Clark. 

Shiuan said his main priority has been helping the new teaching staff settle in. 

It might seem natural for Shiuan, who now has the most experience in the department, to take on the role as chair, but he said the transition has been difficult.

“I had a sense that there was a lot that goes in it that I didn't know about,” Shiuan said. “A lot of things I never had to worry about because Mr. Boitz always took care of it, so it's daunting.”

In previous years, Shiuan was responsible for symphonic band, wind ensemble, jazz band, marching band and the percussion section. Due to his new position, Shiuan has also been helping out in orchestra and even teaching a couple classes of orchestra himself, something that many students are excited about.

“I had limited interactions with him as a teacher previously since he taught band, and I was an orchestra student,” orchestra manager junior Lance Wong said. “But I always heard only positive things about him, and now, having him as an orchestra teacher, I can see why. He brings that signature good mood and fun attitude the rest of the department usually has, and I can also see his dedication and creativity when it came to adjusting our class for virtual learning.”

With this unprecedented start to the school year and faculty departures, the music department has undergone numerous changes this semester. Playing as a group and critiquing individual skills is difficult to do online, so Shiuan has tailored the classes and utilized different apps such as Upbeat to help replicate the musical experience as much as possible.

To cope with the new learning environment, Shiuan has introduced new concepts, such as progress checks, where players record a set of scales and patterns every week, into his classes to keep ensembles engaged. Though these checks are more for practice than new concepts, Wong believes that introducing them has maintained productivity in the virtual classroom.

“Online learning has been the most difficult thing about the music classes and performing arts classes in general,” Shiuan said. “What people traditionally know as a band or choir or  orchestra is nearly impossible in a Zoom class. We've had to come up with a lot of different ways to allow students to have independent practice in online meetings and collaborate with one another, but we've also been thinking of different technologies that can help us get closer to what a music-making experience is like.”

Many students have expressed their gratitude for the immense amount of responsibility each teacher, especially Shiuan, has borne in trying to recreate a regular classroom despite the drastic changes from last year.

“Shiuan is swamped in work that requires constant effort in order to maintain the music program,” head orchestra manager senior Isaiah Chung said. “I know that he's going to put in 100 percent of his energy in ensuring things go smoothly, but the other head managers and band leadership are taking a much bigger role this year to attempt to alleviate the massive load that Mr. Shiuan is undertaking.”

In a typical class, Shiuan organizes basic classwork such as auditions or hosting clinicians and handles events during school hours. 

Head managers and student leadership in the music department are responsible for events outside of school, including receiving music books, cataloguing sheet music and books and organizing virtual retreats or upcoming concerts. Though planning encompasses both physical and virtual work, Chung and the other students keep in touch with Shiuan about tasks they can take off his plate.

Despite all the challenges that online learning has thrown at the music department, Shiuan said that there is a silver lining. Because meetings are online, he has had the opportunity to bring in various clinicians, composers and famous musicians to coach and talk with students, something that would’ve been difficult to schedule due to location differences. 

For instance, clinicians and coaches such as freelance band and orchestra musicians Drew Powell and Ji-Hee Kim used to work in the music program at Saratoga High but have since moved out of state. Due to quarantine, however, Shiuan said they and many others have the chance to “be part of our little virtual band world.”

Although Shiuan has been facing a multitude of challenges in his first few months as department chair, Shiuan said he feels supported by his colleagues, including Boitz, who he still reaches out to for help.

“Even though it’s as difficult as it feels right now, I think we're going to come out better for it,” Shiuan said. “When that first day back comes, and we're all in person, it's going to be a really rewarding day.”


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