New Jersey Youth Symphony.

The New Jersey Youth Symphony faced an unprecedented dilemma in March: should it cancel its annual Playathon, the organization’s largest fundraising event each year?

Held at New Jersey’s largest outlet mall, the Mills at Jersey Gardens in Elizabeth, the event typically draws thousands to the afternoon of free concerts. This year’s, scheduled for March 29, would be the 35th time the event had been held.

The Playathon supports performing arts education and raises money for scholarships and tuition assistance for one of New Jersey’s largest youth orchestra programs. The day of music-making brings together students from Wharton Institute for the Performing Arts’ New Jersey Youth Symphony, Paterson Music Project, and Performing Arts School to perform crowd-favorite selections from movies, Broadway and beyond, including The Sound of Music, Pirates of the Caribbean, Star Wars, and Harry Potter.

The Playathon is the only event that brings together all NJYS students to perform as one orchestra. The one-of-a-kind ensemble, featuring over 500 students in grades 3-12, historically takes the stage in Center Court after smaller pop-up stages around the mall feature performances by students from the three programs of the Wharton Institute for the Performing Arts.

All of that seemed in jeopardy with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. The annual fundraiser raises nearly $100,000 for the organization, and because tuition only covers 70% of the cost to operate the program, simply cancelling the event could prove catastrophic for the students and the organization. As more and more educational activities moved online, the idea to hold a virtual Playathon quickly came to fruition. With less than two weeks to switch gears from producing a day-long concert event at the mall to an afternoon of performances on the video conferencing platform Zoom, NJYS managed to rally its community to come together despite social distancing.

The virtual Playathon, featuring student performers playing music they would have performed together as an orchestra, raffles, trivia contests, interviews with the NJYS conductors, a live auction to win the conductor’s baton and the chance to conduct the New Jersey Youth Symphony next season, and special performances by the NJYS Jazz faculty, proved to be a success. With the help of WNYC’s Weekend Edition Host David Furst as event emcee and utilizing a text-to-donate service, the virtual Playathon alone brought in over $11,000 towards the fundraising goal, the highest amount ever raised on the day of the event, and reached over 2,500 people via live stream on Facebook. Because of this, the Playathon initiative has now raised just over $70,000 and is just $30,000 away from its $100,000 goal.

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