NACOGDOCHES, Texas – Each day for the past few weeks, Dr. Christina Guenther, professor of flute at Stephen F. Austin State University, accompanied by her husband, Dr. Ron Petti, director of collaborative piano at SFA, have recorded a video of themselves performing works that Guenther’s students are working on. The videos are posted to her flute studio’s Facebook page for students’ enjoyment and to help them learn the music.
“I hope it keeps everyone feeling like we’re still getting to be together … at least a little,” she said.
This is just one of many innovative ideas that fine arts professors at SFA have come up with to teach their students in the virtual world that COVID-19 has created.
While some college courses translate fairly easily to online content, teaching the fine arts – art, music and theatre – which have been traditionally face-to-face, hands-on instruction, takes extra creativity to make remote learning and interaction work.
Normally in the SFA flute studio, students periodically perform impromptu duets to work on sight reading, intonation, ensemble performance and adjusting. Because that was no longer possible after spring break this year, Guenther recorded duo videos – a Mozart duo, a Brazilian choro, a tango by Piazzolla – and provided corresponding sheet music for the students.
“They were to pick at least one duo to play along with – I always play the bottom line – and then comment about their experience,” Guenther said. “While it is not the same as in person, it gave them a chance to have some quasi-duo interaction with me, and, because it was pre-recorded, they couldn’t stop to fix things like we can in person; they had to keep going. Some of their comments were about not being able to stop and realizing they need to work to be able to play along without a metronome and just feel the beat. Because they have access to these videos, they can ‘duo’ with me anytime they want.”
A particular challenge for art, music or theatre education majors has been trying to fulfill student teaching requirements when public and private schools are closed. According to Claire Murphy, assistant professor of music education, SFA music education majors who are clinical (student) teaching this semester have continued to work to grow and develop, despite the closing of schools.
“Our clinical teachers are working closely with their cooperating teachers to provide online instruction and learning opportunities for K-12 students in Texas,” Murphy said. “They have participated in Zoom sessions led by faculty and music educators across the state, in order to discuss teaching strategies, resources, concepts, etc. that would be discussed in a face-to-face teaching and learning environment. Our students are rolling up their sleeves to continue to grow and learn and work to help their cooperating teachers and students in every way possible. Our Lumberjacks are adaptable and resilient.”
With teachers across the nation no longer in classrooms, it has provided Dr. David Campo, director of bands at SFA, an opportunity “bring in” guest speakers online to share their knowledge with his music students.
“High school and middle school band directors from across the state have spoken to my band administration class,” Campo said.“ Last week, we had a visit with composer Quincy Hilliard. The biggest challenge for us is that there is no way to have ensemble rehearsals, and that is a critical component of the music education degree, not to mention that ensembles develop an important camaraderie that enhances the experience for all of us.”
Not all SFA music majors had the ability to shelter in place with quality instruments, according to Dr. Andrew Parr, professor of piano. “Our situations have run the gamut from beautiful pianos to none at all,” he said. “I found that any former complaints about the quality of SFA’s practice room facilities have disappeared completely! I also discovered that online lessons could still feel personal and productive, and that we were always glad to see each other again each week.”
Graduate and undergraduate students in the choral/voice area are taking advantage of the sudden and dramatic shift to music making by scheduling Zoom sessions with world-famous conductors, composers, authors and pedagogues, said Dr. Michael Murphy, director of choral activities at SFA. During normal times, the schedules and fees of getting notable music heavyweights for speaking engagements would be prohibitive, he said.
“This disruptive event has reminded me how much we need and should value community in the act of music making,” he said. “Music is made more powerful when shared, whether it is with each other or for an audience. Our students miss authentic connection and community with their professors and with each other. To help diminish this sense of loss of community, our alumni in the voice area have been writing encouraging letters to our current voice students.”
While the SFA theatre faculty is doing “an incredible job” adapting, School of Theatre Director Cleo House Jr. said these are not ideal circumstances for teaching theatre. “Our art form is rooted in human-to-human, real-world interaction, so there is a struggle,” he said. “But what this situation has done is forced a different kind of creativity and innovation that we probably would never have approached without the pandemic. While we miss the face-to-face time with our students dearly, I’m certain there will be takeaways from this time that we will all use moving forward.”
The School of Theatre has not only adjusted the way classes are delivered, but also how it conducts auditions and interviews with new, incoming students. House said. A new approach was taken for the spring Theatre Day, which traditionally brings high school students from across East Texas to the SFA campus to talk with theatre professors, tour facilities and attend plays. “Our most recent Theatre Day on April 20 was a series of Zoom meetings with the different areas as well as creating YouTube videos that we used to give tours of the facilities,” House said.
As a professor of movement and acting in the School of Theatre, Dr. Slade Billew said it is a struggle to teach certain performance skills that “are best learned through direct interaction, and often with physical contact, in a context where people must maintain social distancing.
“I know many of the students have struggled to learn fight choreography and other movement practices via video and without a practice partner,” Billew said. “Theatre is intrinsically about liveness and humans together in a space. It is quite challenging to practice and teach this art remotely.”
One of hardest transitions from theatre classroom to online has been for Billew’s students who are learning clown performance. “Clowning is a skill that is all about relationship to the live audience,” he said. “We decided to try clowning by Zoom, and the students have been incredibly innovative with using the camera as a scene partner, and finding ways to build a direct connection to an on camera audience in a way that will continue to benefit them in this increasingly mediatized culture.”
Teaching hands-on studio art classes online inspired associate art professor Neal Cox, who teaches printmaking and alternative processes photography, to send hand-built supply kits to his students. The students emailed Cox files of images they wanted to print, and he printed them on transparent film.
“Neal spent over two weeks hand building supplies and preparing and shipping packages to students so that they could keep working,” School of Art Director Christopher Talbot said. “He prepared videos of his demonstrations from his own home to show students how to use things they might have around their house to complete the projects instead of using the facilities here at SFA.”
“I show my students how to expose their screens to sunlight and develop in their sinks,” Cox posted on one of the YouTube video examples he created for screen exposure development. “It's obviously better to have a nice vacuum frame exposure unit and an industrial developing sink, but when COVID-19 sends all of your students home, and you still have to teach them, you send them the basics and show them how to work from home.”
To view an example of one of Cox’s videos, visit https://youtu.be/xMsUbfUz8Ps. School of Art faculty and students have also posted teaching videos they created of various art techniques at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCtbqUvPzKL16lvAFzR788Zw/featured.
While the pandemic has created teaching challenges worldwide, SFA professors say the forced distance learning has reinforced how committed and adaptable students can be.
“I said to students at the beginning of this that we would need to ‘improvise, adapt, and overcome,’” Billew said, “and I have been profoundly affected by how hard they have worked to do just that.”
“Not that we needed a global pandemic to reinforce this idea, but we have some very strong, adaptable and resilient students in our School of Music,” said Jacob Walburn, professor of trumpet. “Many of my own students are working part time, and in several cases, full-time jobs, to try and bring in extra income for their families. Many of my students are at home with both parents and several siblings, trying to manage computer/WiFi time. They are being forced to adapt to a situation none of us has ever been in, yet despite these difficulties, they are showing up, doing their work, and getting the job done. I hope our colleagues in other disciplines across campus are as lucky as we are to be able to teach such dedicated students.”