College music and theater programs face a challenge amid coronavirus


A Michigan State University professor stands behind a clear plastic shower curtain and, after spraying with disinfectant, feels satisfied that everything is clean.

Then his fingers spin the virtuoso arpeggios of a Chopin etude – this is a recital room, not an East Lansing bathroom. A makeshift divider between two keyboards, suspended from an 8-foot coat rack, is disinfected as students go through.

Welcome to piano lessons in the time of coronavirus.

University performing arts professors are reinventing their programs to be remote and virtual. An international coalition of school music directors, industry associations and advocacy groups is funding research into how COVID-19 can be mitigated in the performing arts. The aim is to shed light on the risks presented by activities as diverse as singing, playing wind instruments and acting.

Preliminary study results show that instruments with straighter shapes – such as clarinets and trumpets – produce higher aerosol emissions. Covering them with different types of materials, such as a cloth bag or pantyhose screen, reduces the flow of potentially harmful particles.

But in the absence of a socially distanced model for creating art, professors must find creative ways to impart their craft.

“Live experience is paramount”

In Michigan, colleges promise some degree of face-to-face instruction, though a substantial portion of coursework is moving online at schools like MSU and the University of Michigan. For their performing arts programs, this means an activity-by-activity calculation of risk and reward.

Theory-focused courses, it is thought, transfer quite well to video conferencing platforms. Private lessons and demo-oriented studio classes are feasible when everyone has the right technology.

UM saxophone teacher Timothy McAllister said he believes “live experience is everything,” since much of his teaching approach relies on the physical presence of students.

“We need to be able to really hear the fine mechanics of their sound,” McAllister said.

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Virtual teaching has improved as McAllister and his students experiment with personalized computer applications, settings and equipment, he said, though unstable internet connections still get in the way.

“If I’m 20 feet away from them on the other side of a classroom, that’s still far superior to listening to them on the internet,” he added.

Plexiglas and parking garages

Sets are nearly impossible without in-person collaboration. Producers are therefore trying to translate live musical creation into a format that protects public health.

In many cases, size itself is the biggest obstacle to safety. Students can expect chamber quartets rather than Mahler symphonies, threesomes rather than Broadway musicals.

MSU bands will be limited to 20 members and will be able to rely on polycarbonate or plexiglass enclosures to protect musicians, said MSU College of Music Dean James Forger. They will broadcast live concerts for the public, performing in very large venues rather than traditional performance halls.

Forger said university choirs will avoid concerts altogether because they pose a higher risk. But groups will try to keep singing in widely spaced arrangements.

“We could rehearse early in the parking lots,” Forger said. “We also have two very large spaces … where we will have a conductor on stage. We will have a small number of vocal students in the audience with a Lexan shield.”

The theater will be difficult to stage – if at all possible – due to the more intimate physical contact. Activities like opera are the “most dangerous” and will not continue at MSU at this time, Forger said.

The outlook for marching bands will depend on whether or not sports teams are allowed to play and, additionally, which non-athletes are allowed to attend competitions.

John Pasquale, who leads UM’s bands and marching bands, said shows on the football field would be set up so that musicians stand at least 4 feet apart, limiting shapes they can form on the turf. And early projections suggest buses can only be filled to a quarter of their normal capacity, 14 passengers instead of 56, to maintain social distancing.

“For the group to travel anywhere – if the group travels – it will cost a lot more,” Pasquale said.

Individual artists also face restrictions. At MSU, Forger said, the school is blocking practice rooms deemed too small or lacking in air circulation. Singers will be assigned time slots at the end of the day so that their aerosol emissions can dissipate overnight.

A virus threatens the virtual shift

When burgeoning coronavirus outbreaks forced colleges to evacuate their campuses in March, the shift to virtual classes hit the performing arts hard. Many ensembles simply interrupted rehearsals. The highly anticipated senior wrap performance faced cancellations.

Forger said the “uneven” technology and uneven access to high-quality equipment was the most painful aspect of the spring transition for MSU. With no end in sight for the pandemic, there’s a serious chance the current situation will get worse, and teachers are planning for every eventuality. Forger staff have already ordered $60,000 worth of microphones to prepare in case some or all of their programming has to be moved remotely again.

Despite the difficult transition, students praised aspects of the online learning format, including virtual tours from famous alumni and leading professionals, said Mark Clague, associate dean at the UM School of Music. , Theater & Dance.

McAllister said he encourages students to create a competitive advantage in the face of online change by creating their own YouTube channels and honing their recording skills.

“I want each of them to be prepared and motivated to train during this time knowing that they have a chance to put their mark or their skill set within everyone’s reach,” McAllister said.

‘All the time changing’

A month away from moving onto campus, as administrators grapple with rising caseloads and changing medical advice, student performers remain largely unsure of what to expect.

Helen LaGrand — a UM cello performance major from Grand Rapids — said the virtual lessons haven’t been “too bad” over the summer, and she’s looking forward to performing in one or more string quartets. who will meet in person. She’s convinced her university is working hard behind the scenes, but their plans still seem opaque.

“What’s frustrating is that you don’t know what to expect. The situation is constantly changing,” LaGrand said. “They just don’t communicate very well – just super vague emails.”

Despite the schools’ best efforts to adapt, some students could take a full break from college – hoping to wait out the pandemic until conditions improve next semester or year. ‘next year.

UM dance president Christian Matijas-Mecca said many dancers are co-degree students who typically complete their performance degree in four years, devoting an additional term or two at the end of the year. another major. He predicts that many will “reverse” this path and complete their college degrees first, given the restrictions on group projects.

Matijas-Mecca said he believes a sense of community is at the heart of performance businesses. Even with half the dancers in the studio at a time – the rest logging in from home – and a ban on partner dances, he hopes to foster that spirit for his students in the fall.

“There’s a sense of community and togetherness that’s pretty unwavering,” Matijas-Mecca said.

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