Reimagining Performing in the Remote Landscape

I’m no Pollyanna but I have been reflecting on the benefits that have come from our remote learning experience. While this may not be the preferred way for students to learn and teachers to teach, the experience has certainly brought some things into sharp focus. As the Chair of the Performing Arts department and a member of the Visual Arts and Integrated Studies departments, my vantage point has been through a wide-angle lens. 
Connecting across a landscape cluttered with email notifications, Zoom links, and a wide range of unfamiliar and varied technological demands has not been especially easy, but I am terrifically proud of my students and colleagues for their willingness to adapt. The growth I have seen in our students and the resourcefulness modeled by my colleagues has struck me as particularly mission appropriate. Fundamental to the School’s mission is the dictum that all students should strive to be bold risk-takers, creative problem solvers, and thoughtful self-critics, and I have seen this happening in the Performing Arts in so many ways.

Put It Out There 
Gail Mosites, Vocal Music Teacher in the Middle and Upper Schools, has been working with choirs in both divisions to create virtual concert pieces. For students, singing alone into a computer separated by a two-second lag does not make for comfortable vocal collaboration. Finding a space to rehearse while siblings are also in school and parents work from home may require a student to sing in their closet. Focus and thoughtful responses are destabilized when nothing around you looks like the choir room. To create a group sound, Ms. Mosites has asked each student to record themselves singing their part solo. These tracks will then be mixed by Ms. Mosites into a performance video. She reports that the bravery required to sing alone, then listen to it, assess the areas that need to be addressed, and rerecord is startling. Grit at its best! Her students have joked, but with an underlying streak of raw honesty, about how challenging that process is. These moments of self-reflection poke at some tender spots but have ultimately led to confidence. I have heard some of the preliminary results and the sound is beautiful.

Intimate Moments
One of the challenges of peering into a screen to gauge student response is the sense of detachment. The screen distances our perceptions and many of the non-verbal cues so vital in teaching seem muffled. In the orchestra classroom, sensing the group “vibe” is critical to successful playing. A multiplicity of cues fill the rehearsal room when an ensemble works together. In the remote setting, these cues are silent. Elisa Hill, who directs the instrumental ensembles in the Middle and Upper Schools, has seized an opportunity. Orchestra gathers as a community via Zoom. Students are hungry for communal connections, camaraderie with classmates from other grades, and a new kind of class experience. The Zoom platform offers breakout rooms where students can find one-on-one tutelage with Ms. Hill. These focused and private connections have led to intense and productive instruction. The break from the screen to play and play again is vital. Recording yourself in the solo setting is challenging personally as well as technically, yet the excitement at the prospect of again hearing one’s part in a group is real. Recording music to be used in the beloved traditions that close the school year is important to these students.

Away From The Screen
Many teachers are looking for ways to step back from the screen. The importance of the moments that Lower School Music Teacher Jayla Griggs offers her students to sing and move in Lower School music classes can’t be underestimated. Paired with the responses she encourages regarding their use of music as an expression and their own experiences with music, practicing their instruments or listening with their families continues to underscore how music is so vital. Similarly, Bethany Schimonsky, the Ellis Dance teacher, has had to completely reimagine what group performance looks like. Collecting video of students dancing in all sorts of environments, from living rooms to outdoor spaces, to be merged into one composition will make for an imaginative view of the possibilities for dance far beyond the studio and stage.

Pivot Now!
The demand to instantly change direction, method, and mode of teaching has confronted each teacher in the remote learning world. In the Performing Arts, the regular gathering of groups abruptly halted. Ongoing projects were paused and the opportunity to create with full ensembles stilled. Simon Cummings, Ellis’ Strings Teacher, was in the process of creating original student compositions driven by group collaboration and improvisation. Remote learning has changed his original plans, but not his willingness to create a performing opportunity for his students. Creating new arrangements, supporting beginning players, and navigating the new challenges of audio and video editing are now vital to his practice and a challenge he’s taken on with a positive attitude. Performing Arts Teacher Lydia Gibson was in the final stages of producing the play The Rude Mechanicals with the sixth and seventh grades. Eager to ensure that the students’ work was not left incomplete, she completely changed approaches and recorded the play via Zoom. The trials of direction through the screen and creating a sense of continuity and connectedness have moved Ms. Gibson toward a new understanding of her students’ capacity for patience and approaches toward managing frustration. When the traditional avenues for communication are not open, Ms. Gibson notes that her students have learned to reflect and redirect in ways that she hopes they will take from the rehearsal space into other aspects of their learning.

New Opportunities
In the traditional Ellis performance calendar, students end the year with a mini-course production. Since this is not possible, Theatre Directors Tim Israel and Lydia Gibson immediately considered the possibilities of producing a radio play. Inspired by broadcasts of the past, Upper School students produced a version of a Candy Matson murder mystery. This was made as a live broadcast, intensifying the excitement and challenges of live theatre. This also sparked conversation around possibilities for the fall. Students have been talking up the play She Kills Monsters by Qui Nguyen for some time now, and this would suit a production that builds on our tradition but also incorporates some newfound skills regarding video and the innovative use of screens. The play is making a splash in the video conferencing theatre arena, and Ms. Gibson and Mr. Israel are committed to merging the lessons of the remote learning landscape with offerings in next year’s theatre season, whatever that may look like.

As we look to the future, all members of the Performing Arts department are committed to offering Ellisians the space to develop their creative potential. We look forward to joining everyone in the classroom, theatre, studio, and beyond.