Learning to Perform During a Pandemic

“We live and breathe performing arts whether it’s singing, dancing, writing, or drawing,” says Seton Hill theatre major Todd Griffin. “It’s in our daily lives.”

Prior to March 2020, theatre, dance and music majors at Seton Hill had a lot of opportunities to perform.

“For music students, a typical academic year is spent working towards at least one solo recital for each student, and choral and instrumental ensemble concerts at the end of the semester where they showcase the skills they have been rehearsing and practicing all semester,” said Michelle Walters, Director of Community Relations for the School of Visual & Performing Arts. For theatre and dance students, Michelle added, “There are four to five productions throughout the academic year that include auditions, rehearsals, technical and dress rehearsals, and performances.” 

Interacting with an audience is integral to learning in every one of these majors.

“Pre-pandemic we were able to welcome the public into our concert hall, theatres and galleries,” said Kellee Van Aken, Ph.D., Dean of the School of Visual and Performing Arts. “There were recitals, concerts, exhibitions, plays and musicals that had opening nights with receptions where students, faculty and guests could celebrate and mingle. We had a full schedule that, especially at the mid-point of the semester, would be especially lively with events almost every weekend. The relationship between artists and audience is vital to what we do.”

Then COVID-19 came on the scene. Suddenly, audiences were not able to attend students’ live performances. Professors and students had to interact online or in strictly managed safe spaces. The tight-knit arts community at Seton Hill had to learn to support each other from a distance. Everyone had to learn new skills - immediately.

As an Apple Distinguished School, Seton Hill already had the infrastructure and tools in place to move to online teaching, learning and performing. That doesn’t mean it was easy. 

“Faculty have worked together to figure out recording and streaming platforms,” Kellee says. “We have put our performances on the School of Visual and Performing Arts YouTube channel, which was not something that we had used with any consistency. This academic year it has been our primary way of reaching our audience.” 

“Another big challenge has been making the work safely,” Kellee added.  “It's hard to put orchestral pieces together when you cannot fit everyone safely distanced into the space. We switched to smaller ensembles. Our dance pieces also had fewer performers to minimize the risk of people spreading the virus. Rehearsals for our production of “Hamlet” moved online with the hopes of coming together as a company to stream the performance live with the cast together in the theatre. But as soon as one person was quarantined we moved the whole production online and students were acting in their rooms.”

While faculty worked triple time to keep the learning environment strong, students adapted in their own ways.

Musical Theatre Major Todd Griffin: Nourished by Community Environment

Todd GriffinTodd Griffin, a junior musical theatre major, fell in love with the community aspect of Seton Hill’s Visual and Performing Arts Program. “The community is inviting and welcoming, and while it’s competitive, it’s also a nourishing environment,” he said. 

A normal academic year for Todd consisted of a busy schedule. “Rehearsals are almost every day,” he said. “You begin with your normal day classes and go straight to rehearsals for hours each day.” Compared to past years, he described this academic year’s schedule as limited. 

“Visual and performing arts are essential to expression and there’s always an area for everyone to express their talents,” he says. “Live performances are a chance to take people out of their everyday lives. It gives them an escape to help them relax. You’re able to interact with your audience to pull them into the show. The audience is what drives or motivates you or gives you energy.” 

“The process is slowed down by following safety guidelines. Even though it is difficult, it’s still possible. It’s a matter of being patient and knowing things will turn around.”

Musical Theatre Major Vanessa Clarke-Deaver: Days Full of Acting, Singing, Dancing & Learning

Vanessa Clarke-DeaverFor sophomore Vanessa Clarke-Deaver, who has a major in musical theatre and a minor in dance, the Visual and Performing Arts Program is where she feels the safest and most accepted. 

“[The visual and performing arts] allow us to express and feel emotion to its fullest extent, which is so important, especially today,” she said. “The arts allow us to share experiences, joy, sadness and catharsis with each other.” 

Vanessa’s typical schedule included all aspects of theatre performance, such as vocal technique, dance and acting. “In addition, I take several classes that go deeper into different skills needed for this industry such as Production Lab, Voice Acting, Teaching of Dance, and more,” she said. 

Due to the lack of live theatre, Vanessa’s schedule looks different. “I used to be in rehearsals for community theatre productions until about 10:00 or 11:00 every night,” she said. “Now, my performance schedule has been pretty nonexistent.” 

While schools were utilizing remote learning during the height of the pandemic, Vanessa was still able to continue her passions as a dance teacher and a high school musical choreographer. “My days are full of singing, dancing, acting, and learning about this industry. I love it!” 

Music Education Major Dale Streletz: Learning to Persevere

Dale Streletz“The arts offer an outlet for expression, help to form tight bonds that can last a lifetime, and teach soft skills such as responsibility, leadership and teamwork,” said music education major Dale Streletz. 

For Dale, past schedules consisted of a more hands-on experience. “Professors would be able to help correct errors with learning instruments or singing easier.” 

This year, instrumentalists have learned to play with special bags around their instruments. “While this does help, it makes it hard for professors and students to double-check technical skills,” he said. “[Prior to the pandemic] we were also able to attend live performances and support one another. This year, that is a little more difficult.” 

“Being back at Seton Hill and making music again has helped me work through the rough spots. Working with other individuals who are dedicated, caring and passionate gives me strength to move forward and is something that I will try to continue to do in my professional career.”

As a music education major, Dale has faced challenges that he believes have strengthened his skills as a future music educator. 

“I think that the most significant thing that I can take away from this strange situation is the ability to persevere,” he said. “Being back at Seton Hill and making music again has helped me work through the rough spots. Working with other individuals who are dedicated, caring and passionate gives me strength to move forward and is something that I will try to continue to do in my professional career.”

Music Therapy Major Grace Vivio: Getting Creative

Grace VivioGrace Vivio, a junior music therapy major with a psychology minor, described the visual and performing arts as an essential part of life. “It generally fosters lifelong skills of creativity, collaboration, communication and critical thinking,” she said. 

In a normal academic year, instrumentalists’ performance schedules consisted of three concerts being held for the Westmoreland Symphonic Winds, student recitals, various senior recitals, and other chamber ensemble concerts. “We typically have community members that play within the Westmoreland Symphonic Winds, and I love that aspect of it,” Grace said. “We get to play with current or retired music educators and performers that shaped how music is within the local area... I love having the aspect of a community of past, current, and future musicians… We still have concerts and recitals, but they are often live-streamed or pre-recorded. Occasionally, recitals and a few concerts are open to the Seton Hill community where students, faculty, and staff can attend.”

The biggest challenge Grace faced was having practicum online via Zoom. “Specifically for music therapy, we have practicum placements where we facilitate music therapy sessions with clients at several different sites,” she said. “Some of our sites have been limited due to the pandemic, and we had to get creative on how we can still effectively run our sessions with our clients. It’s been a huge learning curve on what skills and techniques translate better on an online platform where we can still achieve the goals of the client.” 

“I think the most uplifting moment throughout the pandemic is how I learned to be flexible from the different learning formats and facilitating music therapy sessions online,” she added. “I believe without this experience, I would not consider developing the skills I have now.”

Dance & Business Major Skyler Hostetler: Dance Remains a Passion

Skyler HostetlerFreshman dance and business double major Skyler Hostetler began her college career in the midst of the pandemic. While Skyler didn’t necessarily get to experience a “normal” academic year, her schedule remains busy with dancing and rehearsing. She participated in last semester’s fall dance concert which was live-streamed on YouTube. This spring semester, she joined the dance team and is thrilled to be able to go into the studio on her own time.  

“Quite frankly, it’s my life,” she says. “Dance is my passion and I feel so fulfilled every time I get to move. Dance allows me to show who I am. It helps me express myself and my uniqueness. Every time I dance I feel so in touch with who I am, and I think that is so important to have.” 

Moving Forward

Even though this year has caused challenges, the Performing Arts faculty and students have brought the University’s motto, “Hazard yet forward,” into their work. They have been able to take what was thrown at them, learn to think and act critically, and implement new creative practices to keep art alive. 

“We will be able to continue using the technology we’ve implemented for online lessons, live-streamed performances, and recorded performances,” Michelle said. “Our students and faculty have learned how to be resourceful while finding ways that learning can continue.” 

Kellee agrees.  “I believe that streaming our work is here to stay. It makes what we do more accessible, allowing family members who may be too far away to come to a performance to see it online. But nothing can replace the experience of sharing a space with an audience and artists engaged in making art.”

The strong bonds and experiences that the visual and performing arts students and faculty have created together allowed for a sense of community and support. These bonds will continue to hold true moving forward. 

“Throughout this turbulent time,” Grace says, “I believe a lot of people found solace and relied on the arts as a way to cope and to temporarily escape or ground themselves.” 

Photo of Vanessa Clarke-Deaver by Allison Riddle.