VAPA Through the Screen

A new challenge arises for music and dance students as the school year returns with distance learning. From missing their spring concerts and field trips last semester to the continuation of learning from home this semester, the students are only more disappointed and distressed. Being visual and performing artists, they rely heavily on performance and teamwork, which are areas that require being together as a group. Participation has become a major requirement, being the only way for students to present themselves to each other as well as track down their engagement during class. While the shift from being in the classroom to learning online was a difficult transition to make and get used to, music and dance students continue to strive forward and make the most out of their limited time and resources. 

Band and Orchestra

As band and orchestra focuses predominantly on sound and performance, distance learning makes the experience a lot more difficult. Due to the technical difficulties that come with making sound all together during a zoom meeting, students are asked to remain muted throughout class rehearsals, taking away their ability to listen to what they sound like as a group. With limited sound as well as the inability to physically be together, cameras have taken on an important role in participation, communication, and connecting with each other. Ms. Hendricks, the band and orchestra director, expresses that music and, “what we do requires visual[s], we have to be able to see each other.” Even though it has already been nine weeks since the beginning of the school year, Ms. Hendricks still faces the challenge of getting her students to turn on their cameras. “I know it is uncomfortable, I don’t want to look at myself on my computer or on the camera, but it is important for the students to see me and know that I’m here going through this with them,” explains Ms. Hendricks.  She likes to remind her students to “be human.” She  wants them to forget whatever is going on with the computer and camera and to think about building connections and relationships with their peers. Regarding practice and sound, Ms. Hendrick uses breakout rooms to hold sectionals, where every section of the band and orchestra gets the opportunity to practice together. Professional musicians from the San Francisco Symphony help coach all band and orchestra students during class sessions. Although students are not allowed to rehearse all together, Ms. Hendricks shares her hope for them to “use this time as an opportunity to skill build by working on individual challenges on the instrument.” Her concern is mainly for her younger groups, as they are still new to the school and music itself. She tries her best to help them the same way she would at school. Even if it means putting in extra effort, her main goal is to strengthen her musicians. 

Choir

Despite teaching choir for over fifteen years, this is the first time Ms. Karney has had to teachit through a screen. Similar to band and orchestra, one of the biggest challenges in learning from home is the inability to practice as a group. “Usually in the choir room, I would be playing the piano and everybody would be singing all at once. Online, I can see them but I can’t hear them,” says Ms. Karney. Due to the short amount of time per class, she is unable to check in with each and every student, and instead assigns student recordings to track down progress. On top of singing, her students also focus on written assignments of music exercises and reports on different artists. With the help of Soundtrap, a Google Cloud recording studio program, she and her students are able to put together music using their tracks and recordings. This way, her students can interact with each other, as well as listen to what they sound like as a group. She is currently preparing for the VAPA showcase, where the choir will be able to perform a song they have been working on. “It is very rough, and that’s because we all are working on different microphones, different computers, but it is coming together very nicely,” shares Ms. Karney. She also believes that this experience will help her students learn how to adapt to circumstances that artists have to face, as well as to problem solving and negotiating around change. As the upcoming VAPA showcase will be audio only, showing themselves and singing at the same time, also called a “virtual choir” is something they hope to achieve later on. The choir also uses the breakout rooms, or “practice rooms” as Ms. Karney calls them, where students work together in small groups and ensembles. In more advanced groups, students work on writing, teaching, and performing their own music compositions to each other. Participation in choir has been off to a strong start, and Ms. Karney is very proud and grateful for her students and their effort. 

Dance 

Unlike music, dance mainly focuses on the movement of the body. Ms. Mayer, the dance director, describes distance learning “in some ways similar to real life teaching,” since students are still able to learn movement phrases by watching her and each other. Space becomes limited, as every student has a different amount of room to move around in. “Sometimes we kick the tables and the chairs that are too close, but that is what makes up the experience,” shares Ms. Mayer. Even though there are public dance studios that can be used to practice in, Ms. Mayer and her students decide to dance from home for both their own safety and fairness. Not all students have the opportunity to look for a space that is large enough to support their dancing. As Ms. Mayer says, “it wouldn’t be fair for myself or a student to have an entire dance studio to themselves while the rest of the class have to execute their moves between their bed and desk… the moves won’t come out the same.” Dancing from home allows everyone to be on the same level, by going through the same circumstances and limitations.

Dance revolves a lot around group projects, which causes the breakout rooms to be an essential part of class. In small groups, the students are able to teach one another, whether it is by talking or showing, “they have to know how to figure it out.” Even with distance learning, performing in front of each other still continues. Ms. Mayer has her students dance in groups, where students who aren’t performing turn off their cameras, so that all the attention is only on the students who are. By doing that, Ms. Mayer also gets a chance to correct technique and give feedback. While it may seem frightening to be dancing alone in front of the screen, participation is not a problem, as almost everyone is actively engaged all the time. Instead, the hardest challenge is being able to perform to an audience outside their own class. The only way for dance students to present themselves together as a group is through video recordings. It is extremely hard since “performance is what we love and dance is a performance art,” expresses Ms. Mayer. Dancing online takes away the elements of formation, quality, and emotion, which, if in person, can be done all at once. The process of having to edit and put together videos to create one piece is an incredibly heavy task, considering all the time already spent working online.  

Although distance learning has a big effect on music and dance students, nothing prevents them from getting to do what they love. Facing the challenges that come with learning online, they are able to learn and grow into stronger artists. They are more than excited to get back together, once distance learning comes to an end, and perform the way they used to.