Fine arts teachers help the show go on during the pandemic

After the coronavirus forced the cancellation of high school concerts and plays last spring, music and theater teachers were determined their students could still learn and perform as the pandemic stretched on.

“How do we teach performing arts online? How do we keep them engaged and interested?” said Tali Allen, director of education at the Muny. “It’s challenging but I think if there’s anything good about this, we’re all challenged together.”

Virtual fine arts classes have been interrupted by spotty internet connections and dogs howling along with the tune. Videoconferencing platforms are not meant for singing or playing together because of the sound delay. Still the student shows have gone on this fall — in masks, on the computer, outside or in an empty auditorium.

Muny U. launched in November to offer free classes in musical theater production to area high schools. About 30 professionals, including veterans of Broadway and the Muny, teach virtual classes on the development of musicals from show selection and casting to production and marketing.

The project pairs furloughed artists with high school teachers who have had to upend their curriculum and schedules for an online format.

“That kind of camaraderie is a new thing, even in the theater community,” Allen said. “Teachers have been able to connect in a different way, sharing and exchanging ideas. You’ve got to find opportunities for these kids where you can.”

Michael Casimir, a violist with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, has been teaching music online at Normandy High School this fall during the symphony’s reduced schedule.

Casimir, 29, can relate to the feelings of isolation for students, who have not returned to their classrooms since the school shut down last March.

“Music is a very collaborative and social thing,” Casimir said. “They do music because their friends are in it, and that’s not a thing anymore because nobody’s in the room with you.”

Normandy orchestra students said they are grateful for the chance to study with Casimir, one of the few Black professional violists in the country. For his part, Casimir said he hopes to be a bridge between the schools and fine arts, working with students who are future audience members or even music stand partners.

“My classroom has more Black kids than the orchestra does,” Casimir said. “The opportunity to work with people that look like me in classical music, it’s something I’ve always loved and wanted to do.”

Duane Foster, fine arts coordinator for the Normandy Schools Collaborative, said bringing in resident teachers from the community helps dispel myths about the high school, which gained national attention as Michael Brown’s alma mater.

“I’ve been going to Normandy my whole life,” said sophomore LaShawnna Levy, who plays the bass. “If you’ve never been, we are a family. We’ve played instruments together from the second grade. Our music is top-notch. We’re smart, we can act, we can dance. We can do it all.”

Theater students in at least two local schools have been able to meet the writers of plays they performed. Playwright Joe Calarco hosted a videoconference with drama students at Eureka High School who performed his play “Winter Break” as a film earlier this month.

Students at Thomas Jefferson School in Sunset Hills performed “Carl the Second” in masks and outside for a small audience in November. Afterward, playwright Marc Palmieri got in touch with the students to offer his congratulations from New York City and answer questions about their characters.

“Most playwrights don’t even realize a high school is doing a production of their show,” said theater teacher Rob Lippert. “It gave our students that chance to interact that they probably wouldn’t have otherwise.”

Thomas Jefferson altered its fine arts curriculum during the pandemic as about one-third of students chose to learn from home. An audition class now focuses on monologues and script analysis instead of group performances. Courses in art history and digital arts are offered in place of sculpture or ceramics.

“We’ve really pared back on studio arts at this time,” Lippert said. “It requires an environment where you have people in a room and working on things physically with a teacher mentoring over your shoulder.”

Teachers get creative

Each holiday season, the Cor Jesu Academy chamber choir keeps a busy schedule performing at soup kitchens, nursing homes and homeless shelters.

This year, “I just looked at the girls and said, ‘I love you all, but nobody wants 35 high school kids walking into their facilities,’” said choir director Kathleen Pottinger.

One of the senior living homes on their typical itinerary called Pottinger to see if the students could perform outside, with residents listening from their windows or balconies. The choir director quickly set up four such performances in December.

Group singing is a particularly high-risk activity for the spread of COVID-19, according to federal health guidelines. Over the summer, Pottinger told the students they could only rehearse this semester if they stayed apart and wore masks.

“They said, ‘We’ll do whatever it takes to get to sing together again,’” Pottinger said.

Masks don’t seem to affect the choral sound, she said. The choir filmed its annual holiday concert at St. Francis Xavier College Church, with the distanced students nearly filling all of the pews in place of an audience.

“I was so grateful for them,” Pottinger said. “They were so positive. In a lot of ways I look back at this semester with fondness. There was a whole lot of collaboration that happened.”

Students and alumni from Hazelwood East middle and high schools watched videos of choral director Robert Swingler teaching them to sing his original composition, “Mama — A Performance in Remembrance of George Floyd.” Floyd called out “Mama” as he died at the hands of Minneapolis police last May.

“He said it on one pitch, and I took that pitch and wrote the song,” Swingler said. “I was probably at that table anywhere from four to five hours into the next morning writing down the words that came to me, writing down the music, and to tell you the truth, I never want to be inspired like this again.”

Swingler’s students used a program called Flipgrid to submit their parts of the performance, and Swingler edited them together. It took more than 100 hours to produce the four minute, 30-second video, he said.

The video was shown at a Hazelwood School Board meeting this month and has been viewed more than 2,000 times on the district’s website and social media.

“Music does so much for us, the arts in general does so much for us,” Swingler said. “I hope that this song and this performance are all part of a solution to something we’re all grasping for.”

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