Challenges with teaching music and theater during pandemic

New cohorts improve quality of music learning

Challenges with teaching music and theater during pandemicBY LAURA QUEZADA

Staff Writer The News Review

“This has been the most challenging teaching assignment by far,” admits Amber Peterson, Music Teacher at Burroughs High School (BHS). “I taught at the university level for big ensembles supporting the opera or different theater productions as well as private voice and music theory. I taught choir at Cerro Coso and I had my own private studio.”

Peterson joined BHS last July to teach band, orchestra, and choir while the pandemic restrictions were in place. “At the beginning of the school year, I thought it was going to be a few weeks of distance learning, thinking that our numbers weren’t very big here, and that we would get back to school shortly. So it felt like a stop gap measure.”

After a few weeks it became apparent that it wasn’t temporary. “When I realized that we were not getting in the classroom anytime soon, we quickly restructured things. The district paid for us to be using a software program called Smart Music that is web based where there is a whole library of music literature that the students play through.” This software gives students immediate feedback on their playing because they are recorded as they accompany the music. Peterson is also able to playback student recordings and provide feedback. “Which is so much less efficient and effective. Usually you are dealing with a classroom as a whole and they can be listening and fine-tuning and revising and fixing and you can fix a lot of things with just stopping and saying one thing to everybody at once.” It is challenging for the students and the teacher. “It is requiring a lot more discipline on the students’ end. For some, they are really improving their skills and for others that is a real hard thing.”

Most classes are online on Zoom. “All of the students log in to their music - whatever piece we are working on. I share my screen and my sound. We all play along in our own space. Then we often go off into breakout rooms and work on specific assignments to fine tune a portion of it, then we come back together. They report how they are doing, at what tempo they are able to play it cleanly with good intonation. It is almost like your own practice room. They come back and we move on from there.”

“Being recorded is intimidating for some; all you hear is yourself. In choir it is never like that. You are singing with a bunch of people and you can kind of blend in and get more confidence and sing out more as you are feeling more secure. Because the ensemble experience is so altered we are doing a music survey of literature and listening a lot more than we do in an average performance class. They are learning to listen and have aesthetic valuing and being able to articulately describe what they are hearing and why they like it and what they don’t like. I think that will also inform their own performing and appreciation of music. We have a lot more of that in our daily routine than we would if we were meeting in person and just focusing on performing. So it has altered the curriculum from what it would normally be.”

Students are missing one of the heights of music experience, “In every group there are people who are super strong at intonation, super strong with rhythm, and we rise together as a group and the sum becomes greater than the part. In any ensemble, because you can rely on all the different strengths and achieve a higher level. Without that scaffolding to be able to rely on everybody’s strengths, you can’t achieve as much.”

This semester the music department has been approved to bring small cohorts onto campus. “We are playing or singing outside six feet apart and wearing masks. We cannot have a teacher cross cohorts either. You can only participate in one and not have too big a sphere in case of any exposure.” In January, BHS Faculty Member, Brian Cosner, began a Jazz Combo Cohort, in February Peterson started a choir cohort, and in March she will add an orchestra cohort, alternating between choir and orchestra from week to week. “The puzzle pieces fitting together gets pretty tricky.”

Cohorts are an improvement in quality of learning for the students, but present their own difficulties. “It is challenging outside and with the masks on. Because singing involves so much in the sense of confidence, if you can’t hear the people around you as well you tend to sing quieter. In the beginning I am trying to make them feel secure enough so they can sing out. It has been an uphill march for sure. I think that we are getting there. It is still better than singing by yourself at home.”

Peterson concludes, “I look forward to being back with the students, I think everybody does. I hope it makes us recognize how precious it is to be able to be together to perform. That if there is a lesson to be learned from this, that is a big one. That we don’t take it for granted in the future.”

Flexibility is key in the Approach to Teaching Theater Arts at Burroughs

“When people make the claims that kids are not learning right now in distance learning, I am going to say that from my point of view that would be very hard to substantiate, because the kids are learning differently,” asserts BHS Visual & Performing Arts teacher, Tristan Kratz. “They are learning. I am to able adjust and support curriculum that is already there and these kids are actually learning more.”

Kratz adapted to online teaching and the educational standards by emphasizing the academic side of theater studies and incorporating cross-curricular coursework to deepen students’ knowledge of course material. Currently Kratz teaches two theater classes. “The Baby Class, the 1-2 class, that is the introduction to theater and the company class, which is strictly acting or the technical class which is learning and doing the technical work behind the scenes for the performances which is high school performances and used to be all the other acts that came into the Parker Performing Arts Center.”

Prior to the pandemic the introductory class would be “incorporating the history of theater with specific performance standards, meaning ‘they have to perform.’ It is more of an overview to introduce students to theater language, theater concepts, theater history and the beginning of performance. Because that’s the ground level class that will move the kids, if they so choose, into the upper division classes.”

“The shift into distance learning has been an upheaval for how this class has been traditionally taught because it is performance, it is live theater. We changed it this semester. The students are going deeper into the plays and the stories that they read in their literature classes, but from a performance angle. Meaning instead of reading it as literature now we get to spend that time to go into ‘What were the acting choices to bring that story to life?’ Because as any actor knows, reading the script is the very first step, that is where we begin.” In contrast, she explains, “In the English classes, because of the nature of that curriculum, it is taught as literature not as performance. So now the kids are able to really go into that and really analyze what it takes, what those characters are doing, why are they doing what they are doing? How did those actors make those choices? What did the director do as far as framing the scene and or the blocking? All the stuff we do as actors, they can actually go in that and understand that curriculum at a much deeper level. And they are really responding.”

However, there are skills learned in live theater that do not translate into an academic approach. “One of the values of theater education has nothing to do with the preconceived notion that kids take theater because we want them to become actors later. No. We take theater education because it is the most all-encompassing way of teaching students resiliency, resourcefulness, math, science, history, literature, art, PE; it is every single subject tied into one focus. There is more than one way to solve a problem, there has to be, they have to think on their feet, they have to be resilient, they have to be resourceful, and they have got to be innovative. It doesn’t matter what gets thrown at them because they will be able to adjust and produce, because that is what we do in theater. They learn empathy. The number one tool you have to have as an actor is you have to be able to look at another human being that is being created, understand why they say and do what they do so you can actually embody that, you can’t do that if you are judging them.”

“Not just practical skills but all those soft skills that everybody is clamoring for: collaboration, cooperation, innovation, flexibility, resiliency, that has to happen. Because even if you don’t like somebody, you got to work with them. Even if you don’t necessarily understand or accept another human being in the space with you. You are on production. You got to get it done. You have to work together.”

The Parker Performing Arts building has been shut down for education and community use since the 2019 earthquakes, President of the Sierra Sands United School District School Board, Bill Farris, reports on its status, “It is in the works right now, being repaired from the damage from the earthquakes. That process is in place, of course it wasn’t quite as urgent since there is no ability to use the facility, but it is going through the process of the bidding and the reconstruction to repair it.

The intent is to bring it back to at least where it was and some areas will be better than others.”

Pictured: Amber Peterson, Music Teacher at Burroughs High School follows pandemic requirements in teaching her students from her music studio in her home. — Photo By Laura Austin

Story First Published: 2021-03-05