Keeping the Performing Arts Alive in Our Ever-Changing Teaching Environment

Fall 2021

By Amy Burns

The performing arts were upended when the global pandemic caused a lockdown and schools had to move to remote learning. Even with in-person instruction returning, the arts are continuing to adapt to a variety of restrictions. These restrictions vary from reducing ensemble size, no longer having children share instruments or dance together at the elementary level, holding class using a video platform that cannot handle ensemble playing, needing to accommodate ever-changing learning environments, and more. Programs that once held numerous live concerts and theater productions had to find new ways to reach those students who needed the arts in their daily lives for social-emotional growth or to ignite their passions. As stated in the video “Beyond the Boundaries: Arts Education Through a Pandemic,” “The arts teach you how to be human … how to connect with another person … how to solve a problem … how to take nothing and create everything.”1 How do we keep the arts alive in the ever-changing teaching environment?

Technology

The role of technology in music and performing arts programs became a necessity. Whether it was using a video platform to teach students, using a video editing tool to create a virtual performance, or introducing a learning management system to keep the learning alive, technology became the way to connect with our students. There were many technological tools that helped bring out the students’ and teachers’ creativity as well as keeping students connected to the performing arts. Here are six tech tools that can be used to continue to enhance an arts program during a pandemic.
  • Learning Management Systems (LMS): LMS is software that helps teachers connect to their students by hosting assignments, rubrics, and resources, while tracking the students’ progress and keeping data about that progress. It enables teachers to collect videos of their students performing as well as complete musical activities and assignments. Some favorites are Canvas, Google Classroom, Schoology, MusicFirst, and Seesaw.
  • Screen recording tools: Screen recording tools, such as Screencastify (www.screencastify.com/) and Loom (www.loom.com/education), give teachers a creative way to teach. They can use the tool to create a video of themselves teaching so students can refer to it later in the day. In elementary music classes, screen recording tools are used to create play-along videos. Music educators create rhythm patterns or body percussion slides in a presentation program like PowerPoint or Keynote, add a soundtrack to the presentation, and then launch the screen recording tool to record themselves moving the pointer/conductor across the screen. Though there are many YouTube channels that have free play-along videos, the educators creating their own allowed students to perform to a specific curriculum or approach in a classroom that might have been restricted because they could not sing.
  • Canva: Canva became the “one stop shop” for any artistically challenged educators. With their free educators’ version (www.canva.com/education/), music educators can create the most beautiful digital manipulatives for their students to use on the LMS or in their play-along videos.
  • Virtual instruments: When elementary students could no longer share instruments, dance, or sing in the classroom but were able to bring their device to music class, the device became the instrument. Music educators created virtual instrument closets so that students could pick an instrument that originated from a website, such as scratch.mit.edu or playxylo.com, to perform simple songs and play along with rhythm play-along videos (see Figure 1).
                           Figure 1: Virtual Instrument Closet
  • Easy Virtual Choir: There are many wonderful video editing tools like WeVideo and Final Cut Pro that can be used to create and edit videos. However, not many of us have the time to learn all of the fine details required to use those programs. Easy Virtual Choir is free and gives you the opportunity to upload an accompaniment track, invite students to privately record their part, and then create the final virtual performance video.
  • Music collaboration programs: There are several music-making programs that allow students to collaborate with other students who are inside their classrooms and with others across the globe. Using programs like Soundtrap EDU (www.soundtrap.com/edu/) or Bandlab EDU (edu.bandlab.com/), students are able to create music together with their devices. Younger students could create music with sites such as Incredibox.com, Beepbox.co, or Chrome Music Lab (musiclab.chromeexperiments.com/) and share it with one another through their LMS. 

Connecting with Caregivers

The pandemic taught us that now, more than ever, students’ social-emotional learning must be a focus. There are many students who have not been inside a school since 2020. The younger students have missed formative years of learning to socialize and to work together to problem-solve. Social-emotional learning is essential to students’ well-being. The arts integrate four core artistic processes (creating, performing, responding, and connecting) into the five social-emotional learning competencies (self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, responsible decision-making, and relationship skills).The latter competency is enhanced by connecting with the students’ caregivers to bring arts to their children. In the ever-changing teaching scenario, this can occur in several different ways (see Figure 2).


          Figure 2: Connecting students’ learning with their caregivers using Seesaw
  • Seesaw: Seesaw (web.seesaw.me) is a digital platform for student engagement. It gives the students a platform to showcase their learning using videos, photos, drawings, text, PDFs, and links. When students are engaging in the arts in your classroom, they can showcase that on their Seesaw journals. When you approve the journal, their caregivers have the chance to view, like, and comment on it. This allows caregivers to see that your music classroom or ensemble is more than just a concert prep class. It is a class that can tap into children’s social-emotional learning, integrate other subjects into it, and make cross-curricular connections (see Figure 3).
       
                 Figure 3: Using Seesaw to showcase students’ learning
  • If you do not have a tool like this, many LMS have the ability to connect caregivers to their children. Or you can create a website with Google Sites or Wix (www.wix.com/) so you can share the students’ work with their caregivers. Finally, send an email or make a phone call to reach out and let caregivers know how much the arts are helping their children through this pandemic.

Performances

A performance requires practice, refinement, teamwork, collaboration, listening skills, and more. The flipside of a performance is the audience. The performers feed off the energy of the audience. When the pandemic stopped all live performances, the effects were large. We could create virtual performances, but the performers did not receive that immediate feedback and energy from the live audience. Though virtual performances presented the safest way to perform, if it is possible, a performance that can include an audience is beneficial to the students. There are some ways to achieve this even during a pandemic.
  • Perform outside: This is not always ideal due to weather, amplification concerns, rescheduling, or the need to have a Plan B to Plan Z, but it could be a viable option.
  • Perform live for smaller audiences: Depending on the size of your ensemble or the audience, if your state or district allows indoor performances and if your administration supports them, splitting up the performances to accommodate smaller audiences might be an option.
  • Livestream: If you have the copyright license to do so, try livestreaming your concerts or performances so that there is an online audience present. Social media platforms allow for comments or likes, but there could be problems with controlling comments on a social media platform. Therefore, you will need to explore this option thoroughly.
  • Video the performance: Video the performance, and then debut it live on social media or a video communication platform so the performers can receive the live audience feed.
  • School website: Video the performance, and then place it on a school website. Create a form on the website for viewers to leave a compliment to the performers (see Figure 4).  

       Figure 4: An example of Far Hills Country Day School's Talent Assembly Website

These are just a few ways to bring back the energy of the audience to the performing artists.
 
What happens next? I feel that the possibilities are endless. Educators of music and performing arts are creative, out-of-the-box thinkers. We were able to create classrooms from tech devices, connect with students in ways we did not think possible, and continue teaching performing arts where almost every restriction was placed on our in-person teaching. With technology, creativity, and passion, we can keep the arts alive in our schools.

Notes

  1. Arts Ed NJ, Beyond the Boundaries: Arts Education Through a Pandemic [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xzJO6wPEh_M&t=2s.
  2. Positive Action. (2020, September 4). The Five Social Emotional Learning (SEL) Core Competencies [+ Teaching Lessons]. https://www.positiveaction.net/blog/sel-competencies.
Amy Burns

Amy Burns ([email protected]) is Lower School General Music/Instrumental Teacher/Philharmonic Director/Conservatory Co-Director/Performing Arts Department Chair at Far Hills Country Day School in Far Hills, New Jersey.