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Fine Arts Teaching During a Pandemic: The Artful Workarounds of Kathryn and David Gresham

July 1, 2020 - Brevard, NC:


Coping with crisisWhen I finally sat down with my former Brevard College fine arts colleagues, Doctors Kathryn and David Gresham, to ask them how they weathered the onset of the pandemic and completed nine weeks of teaching via unexpected distance learning, Kathryn laughed. "Well, it was like one of my friends quipped: I'm getting whiplash from watching the pendulum swing between 'I got this' and 'I don't got this!'" What could be viewed in the rearview mirror as funny now was surely anything but, back in March. And yet, extraordinarily creative solutions were found and implemented, sometimes on the fly.

Kathryn is division chair of fine arts and a notable soprano singer and pedagogue. Her husband, tenor David Gresham, also a fine pedagogue and conductor, directs the college's choral ensembles. He also is artistic director and conductor of the Transylvania Choral Society, a summer faculty member at the Brevard Music Center, and music director at Brevard's Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd. Their students are regular winners at NATS competitions and now populate teaching and church music positions and opera companies.

When Brevard College students left the campus back in early March for spring break, no one could have foreseen that their absence from campus – first prolonged by a week out from spring break – would end up lasting for the remainder of the semester. As the new reality took hold, Kathryn said that instructors were required to ask students about their computer capabilities at home. What they discovered was that home resources varied widely: while some had adequate access to distance learning resources, other students had real hardships. They were either competing with other family members for online access, had poor computers or connections, or had none at all. Moreover, some students needed to work and/or care for family members. Some folks, simply overwhelmed by how radically their educational experience had changed, dropped off the school's radar entirely.

Meanwhile, on campus, the general faculty assessed which courses could not be taught online (e.g., a few wilderness leadership activity courses) or that had been scheduled to begin mid-semester, and those were canceled. With an enormous amount of assistance from the college's IT department and faculty members designated as IT coaches (David is one), most of the remaining curriculum was transitioned quickly to online platforms. Though required to take regular "attendance," individual faculty members exercised a certain amount of freedom in how their courses were conducted. In the case of Kathryn's diction class, for example, students met once per week synchronously, via Zoom, and once per week asynchronously, whereby they submitted their work electronically within a given deadline. What had previously been an easy course preparation for her and a fairly simple class to conduct, given the dynamic nature of in-class interactions, now involved far more preparation in order to reach each student.

Voice lessons were transformed with the aid of rehearsal tracks executed by staff accompanists that were sent to students. Most lessons were conducted live using FaceTime. In some cases, students would listen to the rehearsal track through earbuds while recording their performances on a separate device and then send back the audio file. Kathryn recorded vocalization tracks for students that they could access via Google Drive. Studio class, normally a meeting in which students perform for and critique one another, was conducted asynchronously, with students posting their recorded repertory online. Applied juries, the final exam of applied study, required a great deal more work by both accompanists and professors to coordinate and assess online.

David had been very busy in the first half of spring semester. By spring break, he had already completed a choir recruiting tour to various high schools and had rehearsed most music for later spring concerts. The college students were looking forward to a collaboration with the Transylvania Choral Society for a performance of Robert Cohen's Alzheimer's Stories and a hymn, "When Memory Fades and Recognition Falters," by Brevard College faculty member Mary Louise (Mel) Bringle, as well as their own choral concert; all these events, of course, were canceled.

David began experimenting with creating a "virtual choir" by collecting recorded tracks from individual singers and mixing them in a digital audio workstation. The learning on this went both ways, and since March, he says he's amassed a tremendous amount of information about audio editing. "The tech hurdles that the students were surprised by also surprised me. I learned very quickly that you had to be very specific about what you asked them to do, in terms of where to hold the recording device, etc. Otherwise, I would get unusable tracks, and they'd have to do it over." The upshot was that no virtual recording came close to the already-recorded live performances of the same pieces, and the virtual project was abandoned in favor of deeper discussions of choral repertory. David and his students interacted over Zoom and created a Google Document to record and respond to submissions related to the choral art.

The issues the college faces as it reopens this fall are daunting to everyone. The semester, compressed with no fall break, will run August 17 through November 25, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Protocols for everyday living as well as learning are being developed in conjunction with other area colleges and local and state health authorities. Faculty members and administration have been mapping out various classrooms and other usable spaces to ensure social distancing requirements. Class piano, for example, has been moved into a much larger room where the instruments are suitably spaced apart and where the instructor can zoom in on them remotely to observe hand and finger movements. Voice lessons will be moved to well-ventilated spaces large enough to distance instructor from student from accompanist.

Because singing, with loud speaking, shouting, and the playing of wind instruments are activities known to generate larger quantities of aerosols that could contain the coronavirus, singers, actors, instrumentalists, and those around them are potentially at greater risk of contracting infection. Therefore, this part of the student population will comprise a targeted group for periodic coronavirus testing.

Richard Read reported on June 1, 2020, in the Los Angeles Times, that "the researchers say that the coronavirus can spread in respiratory aerosols, which may linger in the air for an hour or more, floating farther than the six feet commonly prescribed for social distancing. They say that choir members are particularly vulnerable to infection from airborne particles, because they exhale and inhale deeply to sing, often at close quarters in poorly ventilated rooms." To mitigate against this sobering reality, David plans to hold choir rehearsals in Thomas Hall at Brevard Music Center, a large open-air structure with a giant ceiling Big Ass Fan (the name of the company, really!). If all goes well, the choral groups will record from this space and send the recordings out on dates that would have been those for live performances – even the College's beloved Lessons and Carols service at fall semester's end.

No recounting of the mechanics for the transformation of learning in this area of performing arts, as mentioned above, can ever begin to capture the extra WORK and WORRY all college personnel endured last spring in their efforts to keep students creatively engaged and learning during this crisis. The shock of those early days of the pandemic, the confusion caused by what we don't know about the virus, and the mad scramble for teaching and learning solutions seemed faintly to echo throughout our discussions about the College's reopening this fall. What will happen if the carefully choreographed dance with the virus begins to unravel with chains of infections? What if...? From what I've seen, these two eductaional leaders will creatively soldier on.