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College of Visual and Performing Arts Flexes Creative Muscle to Address the COVID-19 Pandemic
“Visual and Performing Arts students wouldn’t have a reason to be here if they couldn’t sing or hold an instrument or act onstage or spend time in the studio. The arts are a social activity, not something that lends itself to isolation. We knew that bringing students back safely was going to be an important part of keeping our community together,” says Milton Laufer, director of the Setnor School of Music in the College of Visual and Performing Arts.
“Theater productions are our laboratories, and we felt that pivoting to digital or zoom performances wasn’t enough. We wanted to give performers the opportunity to gain experience in a physical space and for our theater design and technology students to work on sets and costumes,” notes Ralph Zito, chair of the Department of Drama.
The challenge VPA faced as COVID-19 hit the United States in March: teaching voice, choral music, instruments, dance, acting, studio art, museum curation and hands-on design disciplines during a global pandemic, with restrictions on social distancing, studio capacity and in-person contact.
“I have to say our creativity served us well. We’re in a position now where many peer institutions are asking us what we have done so they can copy it. It was an enormous team effort and we had tremendous support from the rest of the University. It was worth it, because of the impact on our students,” says VPA Dean Michael Tick.
Jessica Dominique Montgomery, who is a master’s student studying vocal pedagogy and vocal performance at the Setnor School, agrees. She feels that the ability to work with her teachers directly has been essential to taking her skills and performance to the next level.
Flexibility and Teamwork
VPA leaders and faculty praised the University’s support for the plans put forward by each program for modifying hands-on instruction based on COVID-19 prevention protocols. “They really trusted us to figure out the best way to use spaces and handle issues like safety demonstrations before students use specialized equipment in studios,” says Bob Wysocki, director of the School of Art and the Doris E. Klein Endowed Professor of Art. Graduate students and instructors helped create instructional videos covering how to use equipment safely in order to minimize the time students spend in shared spaces.
Michelle Taylor, assistant director for operations at the Setnor School of Music, says that work study and graduate students have been an essential part of the team. No stranger to complex logistics in her previous career at Carnegie Hall in New York City, Taylor says, “Our graduate assistants are so prepared for things they couldn’t have imagined. I can’t say enough about their organization, focus and diligence. They have been critical to ensuring that we had no classroom transmission by helping us manage the schedules for clearing rooms after a short period of time, working with ensembles, collaborating on online performance logistics and technology so we can share music in a different way during the pandemic. All of our music students followed the health guidelines, even when nobody was watching.”
Noting that she normally picks the music she’ll perform as much as a year in advance as a graduate student, Montgomery had already committed to performing art songs that challenge the musician’s range, breath control, agility and overall technique. “I had to be very creative in how I navigated these pieces while singing with a mask on, modifying my breathing and engaging with my breath support.” Working with Janet Brown, associate teaching professor of applied music and performance, was key. “Having a teacher who believes that you can do it is a privilege and a wonderful experience.”
Montgomery says that it was particularly meaningful when her undergraduate professors, who were watching her performance remotely from Florida State University, complimented her performance, even as she was singing through a mask. “My musicianship has grown since coming to Syracuse University.”
Performance-based teaching could only be done safely through teamwork. “The Public Health Team was great about providing consultation on guidelines for distancing and air circulation and other technical issues. The Office of Academic Affairs really took the approach that we know the best ways to teach in our disciplines and helped us find the right spaces for distanced rehearsals, such as Goldstein Auditorium, athletic fields and Hendricks Chapel. Facilities Services mobilized quickly and was ahead of many issues, including procuring plexiglass and mobile air filtration units,” says Tick.
Laufer notes that the University’s assistance purchasing special masks for use while playing instruments, cleaning supplies, devices to limit the spread of aerosols from playing instruments and the multi-channel microphones essential for distanced musical performances was crucial.
“By mid-September we had distributed 1,300 face shields, 315 bottles of hand sanitizer, 270 instructor PPE kits, 180 bottles of disinfectant spray, 85 bottles of microphone sanitizer and 5400 alcohol pads to disinfect piano keys,” adds Kati Foley, who is a project director in the dean’s office and was responsible for sourcing and distributing personal protective equipment at VPA.
The Creative Touch
Visual and Performing Arts drew on its creativity to deliver great teaching in different ways. “The nature of being an artist is being adaptive. We had a chance to start over at the moment the paradigm shifted and the faculty in the School of Art have risen to the occasion–completely re-thinking their teaching for de-densified classrooms and studios,” says Wysocki.
“We have seen little moments of the most amazing creativity from our faculty and students to create engagement with professionals, sites and museums–it’s really critical for the master’s program in museum studies,” says Emily Stokes-Rees, interim director of the School of Design.
“Thanks to the pandemic, we have an archive of detailed videos of professional techniques. Instead of viewing a classroom demonstration from a distance, students can watch up close–as many times as they need to. Now that everyone is on Zoom, we have had incredible opportunities to engage far-flung alumni in conversations about how what they learned at Syracuse has helped them in the professional world of museum curation.”
Alex Mendez Giner, an associate professor of film, says that graduate assistants and a really complex technical setup were key to teaching cinematography during the fall semester. To demonstrate how cameras are used and angles are chosen, he had to figure out how to present each point of view during an online class. “It was incredibly challenging from a technical setup to stream what is essentially a TV station with three cameras so we can show angles, the approaches, how I was choosing the technique. The teaching assistants were operating cameras and we were essentially going live for the class.” He was surprised at how quickly and successfully they adapted. “There’s no perfect substitution when we are teaching these very intimate classes that require the teacher to be there in terms of actual class work. What drives me is how creative and talented our students are at all levels.”
Zito notes, “The acting faculty were surprised about what could be accomplished in an online format. There’s a level of attention to detail and truthfulness that happens when you are essentially on camera. I was teaching a Shakespeare scene study class, and the only two faces you were seeing were the two people acting with each other, and you could watch what was going on behind a person’s eyes in a different way. We may be teaching different skills in a different order, but learning has happened and I am grateful for what we have been able to deliver.”
Montgomery believes that the ability to modify classes for the pandemic has been key, “So much of the learning experience in performance is just getting up there and doing it. The fall semester gave me a challenge–was I going to let the pandemic stop me from being successful and achieving what I want to achieve in my performance and my career. I took that challenge and succeeded.”
“I’m incredibly proud of all of our students, faculty and staff. Last semester I taught in a national leadership institute for deans and associate deans from the top arts institutions around the country. Every few weeks someone asks me about what we are doing at Syracuse University because they have seen us make it work and how our students are learning,” says Tick.