Performing Arts: What’s on the horizon (during distant learning)?
Students in Instrumental Music, Drama, Dance and Choir share some of the early work, challenges and successes of starting the year away from school
Of all of the subjects in school, perhaps those hardest hit by the novel coronavirus is the performing arts.
Students can still do their math from home, but they can’t play the saxophone in sync with bandmates or choreograph to 8-count rhythms over Zoom. It’s also awfully hard to act out a part naturally when stuck in a little box on a monitor via Google Meet.
With all that’s happening away from campus, what’s on the horizon for the performing arts?
Many professional instrumental musicians have had their careers completely erupt into flames due to the coronavirus. With the implementation of social distancing, they can’t make money from gigs. However, technology has allowed the pros to adapt. Many professionals are still finding ways to perform with others by recording from home and have gigs in accordance with social distancing guidelines.
Northgate High School’s instrumental music students are vastly different from the pros, but they are finding their way. Some of the top musicians at Northgate are taking a route similar to the pros, investing in remote recording.
Junior Sebastian Zamarripa, a trombonist, euphoniumist, guitarist, pianist, and arranger, and member of Northgate’s jazz and wind ensemble classes uses professional recording paraphernalia. He has also participated in an online band program led by five-time GRAMMY winner, composer, arranger, and bandleader in Hollywood, Gordon Goodwin.
Zamarripa’s involvement has involved using professional recording paraphernalia. “I learned valuable fundamentals in audio engineering and how to work effectively with people from a distance,” he said.
Zamarripa notes that this program was a ray of hope for him through these challenging times.
“It really saved me through the virus,” he said. “I saw it as a new challenge and opportunity to share music with others when it didn’t seem like it would be possible.”
He mentions that his participation in this professional arena also gave him “valuable time with Gordon Goodwin and an opportunity to continue making connections through the [music] industry.”
However, it’s difficult to simply be taught over Zoom and to try to play with others over video chat. The instrumental music program, entirely dependent on people playing with each other (in real time, without Wi-Fi lag), is not what musicians are accustomed to. And with all of the performance events canceled for the fall semester, some students say participation and morale has gone down.
Despite the difficulty of Zoom for rehearsals, Greg Brown, director of instrumental music including Northgate’s nationally-renowned jazz bands, is guiding his students to delve deeply into the vast theory of music, rather than playing instruments. Brown says there is always a way for musicians to learn, even if it’s over Zoom. However, despite his optimism and great efforts to make class interesting, he is incredibly dissatisfied with the inability for instant feedback between director and students.
“Ordinarily, I get immediate feedback as soon as I hear the group play. I know what I’m hearing and I know what I need to do next. But now, it’s three or four days later before I get feedback from their playing tests. It’s like a math teacher lecturing students, and they don’t know what their students know until they take the test,” Brown said. “I don’t know what they know and I don’t know unless they participate, which many of them won’t. And that system is not as beautiful or efficient as our usual system.”
In addition to timely feedback, Brown said the music groups are missing out on in-person connection. “It’s a community, or even a family, if you can handle it well and that’s a beautiful thing. Establishing that via distance learning is a big challenge.”
“It’s important that we all see each other to keep that feeling of collaboration and that family atmosphere so we don’t lose it. It’s what we miss about regular class.”
“I really have no idea what we’re going to sound like, if and when we get together. I can do Flipgrid tests and hear how people are doing on their parts. There’s so much that we do in (in-person) rehearsal with all the collaborative things that make music expressive and beautiful that we can’t do right now, so when we throw ourselves together, it’s going to be interesting and nebulous.”
There are a few instances where instrumental music students meet in small, socially-distanced groups to practice in sections in real time. This doesn’t work on a large scale as it may break social distancing guidelines, and it’s certainly hard to make work every single day.
The Jazz Band I may find a way to rehearse in person, with the possibility for October group socially-distanced rehearsals in the sizable backyard of a Northgate alumni music family.
For now, the average Northgate High School instrumentalist will need to simply remain muted on Zoom, leave their instruments in their case and learn a thing or two about music theory, while practicing on their own or in small groups with others who play the same instrument.
Northgate’s drama students are also impacted by distance learning. Northgate has four drama classes – Drama I and II, Production Workshop and Stagecraft.
Drama students agree that there is a great need to interact and react off of each other, whether practicing acting skills or planning performances, and that all successful classes have a close-knit feel, which is nearly impossible right now.
“Drama is a very personal, hands-on subject, which makes online learning even more difficult than usual,” said Kacey Lindeman, a senior in Production Workshop. “I think that the biggest difference between pre-COVID drama class and COVID drama class is the absence of in-person chemistry.”
Lindeman said she feels more connected with her drama class than any other, but that the inability for in-person collaboration is a significant negative impact.
“I can’t speak for the other drama classes, but in PDUB (Production Workshop) we start with a mental and physical warmup, usually with lots of yoga-type stretches, then work on whatever our current project is,” she said. “Sometimes that requires breakout rooms, sometimes class discussions, sometimes performing and recording small sketches on Zoom. There’s lots of collaboration in everything we do.”
Despite challenges, Production Workshop has much planned for the future and when asked to describe what they’re currently working on, Lindeman had a lot to say. “We’re only using mediums that don’t require in-person contact. So far, we’ve filmed music videos and live Zoom performances. At some point this year, we’re going to produce audio dramas, which we’re super hyped for!”
She remains optimistic through her connection to the group. “Although I miss live theatre and seeing the PDUB family in person, this class is still the highlight of my days,” she says. “We’re finding ways to laugh and create and be vulnerable together, which is the heart of what PDUB is, for me. We’re certainly making the best of the situation,” Lindeman said.
Tatiana Avdienko, a freshman, is also experiencing Drama II from a distance. “Drama has been different in many ways,” she said. “We can’t do a traditional play because we can’t meet in person, so we are having to generate new ideas.”
Avdienko also has two music classes – orchestra and Jazz Band II, giving her three classes in performing arts, and all in a distance learning mode. She said she feels positive about class time, but when stepping back to look at the bigger picture hopes for a return to school and in-person classes.
“I feel very sad that we can’t do plays, because that was the best part of drama in middle school. I think that my classmates feel the same way,” said Advienko, who plays the string bass.
When asked to compare drama and her band classes in terms of enjoyment, Avdienko said she can’t choose one over the other. “I like drama and band equally,” she said. “I enjoy band because I get to learn a lot about music theory which will help me when we start playing, and I enjoy drama because I get to have fun with friends and more social time.”
The dance program at Northgate isn’t spared from the complications brought on by the coronavirus. While some individuals can go on their own time to outside studios that are meeting in person, the dancers of Northgate are limited to Zoom calls.
“Class doesn’t have the same feel or excitement like it used to,” said Kiron Davis, a junior on the dance team. “Before the pandemic, we would stretch and get into learning new dances, but it was always different.”
Davis says that although they are working on short dances and writing projects, she is disappointed with their limitations compared to the past. “We were able to get guest choreographers to give us dances for rallies or our shows, but now it’s too complicated and difficult to find one,” she said. “In class this year, we talk and work on whatever dance project we’re doing and then leave. We all wish we could just go back to the Northgate dance studio and have fun, but we’re doing our best to make do with what we have,” Davis remarked.
“Since I only do dance for Northgate, we really haven’t done much beside Zooms lately,” added sophomore Andrea O’Neill, a member of varsity dance, said in late September.
However, some people are dancers outside of the Northgate program, and their dance life is looking a little better.
Brianna McBride, a freshman dancer, explains: “Since we go to the studio, most things are pretty similar, but we do have to take precautions. We have to wear masks, stay apart as much as possible, and we meet slightly less.”
Senior Allison Jacques said dance in remote learning “has been a learning experience,” but one that has improved since last spring when school in person was abruptly cancelled.
“It was definitely more difficult last spring semester since we were in the process of preparing for our large show in May. Now as a senior, I have looked at how other dance studios and how other performing arts are working together through zoom over these months,” Jacques said.
“I’ve learned that teaching through zoom is not always the easiest because of time lag and that the camera does not mirror the movement for you. Even though the choreography process takes longer, the co-captains and I have taken on this leadership position and have been encouraging the team. I am still glad that other people are able to see us dance as a team even if it is in a video format and not in person.”
Members of choir are affected very similarly to those in the instrumental music program, with the only difference that their voice is the instrument. Now that the “singing together” aspect has been taken out of choir, what’s left?
“Choir used to be a class where we could all just sit around and sing with each other as a group before COVID, and it was a lot easier to learn music,” reminisces Ethan Lumanlan, a senior in choir. “During COVID, it became a bit harder to learn, but we’re pulling it together.”
Lumanlan goes on to describe his choir class: “A usual class is just some announcements from Mr. Carter, and then we look over at any music we have to record or some new stuff. We go through warm ups while muted, and someone would play the piano on Mr. Carter’s end,” he finishes sadly.
Lumanlan describes how they have been doing work despite the virus: “To try and work around social distancing, we sometimes do sectionals, but there are no more than five people there at a time, and everyone is at least six feet apart. I feel like this is the best we could do during COVID, but I feel like everyone in my class wants to go back to school and sing together.”
Chloe Chung, a first-year student in choir and a sophomore at Northgate, explains that there may be a bright side: “Although singing together is hard in a distance-learning format, choir focuses more on building relationships between members and providing a safe, nonjudgmental environment where members are valued for their unique opinions and talents,” Chung said.
First-year students may feel that they are missing out on the “true” performing arts experience at Northgate. However, in music groups like choir, it’s always important to build camaraderie between the members, because the musical chemistry is always improved when there’s not only talent, but friendship. Luckily, Chung shares her thoughts on this brighter side to distance learning: “We often become close through breakout rooms for random, everyday topics like the signature choir nicknames, especially with our own sections.”
Chung also shares her experience in the learning part of class time. “During practice, we are usually singing on mute while Mr. Carter sings over the computer to guide us. Even though we can’t hear each other while singing, we practice on our own and submit videos of us singing along with in-class solo sight-singing.” Not even those in choir are free from homework.
Chung rounds off her story by sharing her experience as a first-year choir student. “Even though there are different levels of skill, most members are fairly new or inexperienced musicians, so there is very little pressure to always be good and get things perfect right away. Mr. Carter also is very relaxed and enjoys making jokes,” she added, referring to choir director, Geoff Carter.
It seems that choir has a strong bright side to it through the madness of the coronavirus. Chung goes on to say that, “choir has so far been a very good experience for me as a place to express creativity without being judged by others.”
All in all, the performing arts are heavily affected by the coronavirus. Members of these four groups have found that the performing arts have been painfully separated through the Zoom box borders, but they are finding ways to continue with their art. As restrictions for groups meeting in size ease, members say they look forward to increasing the size of their rehearsals, with the overall goal of a return to school and performances.
In the meantime, members of these groups say they will continue to stove to be the best they can be. “The constraints of quarantine are pushing us into new creative territories,” said Production Workshop member Kacey Lindeman, “which is really exciting! Who knows what we’ll make?”