Ballet in the kitchen? What arts majors learned during lockdown.

Why We Wrote This

When the pandemic hit, arts students and professors found that at-home learning invited creative experimentation and problem-solving. What innovations might colleges keep through the summer and even into the fall?

Courtesy of Heather White
A student at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston shows her project during a Zoom class. Heather White, professor in the jewelry and metals department, mailed tool kits to her students so they could complete art assignments from home.

If there is anything that Camille Sokk learned this spring, it’s that she can practice pliés and rond de jambes in the kitchen. 

The dance major at San Jose State University simply cleared off a spot on the counter to use as her ballet barre when classes transitioned online. There were other adjustments, too: Checking her technique without looking in a dance studio mirror, and turning in a choreographed video using TikTok – the app popular among teens – as a final exam. 

“I was just so flabbergasted by the idea of having a TikTok final,” says the rising senior from her home in San Jose, California. 

The coronavirus may have cut short college semesters across the United States – forcing arts majors to continue their classes from home without access to tools, studio spaces, or performance halls. But many students and professors found this kind of experimentation opened up new ways of learning and problem-solving they hope to continue through the summer and even into the fall.

San Jose State’s School of Music and Dance told its students to plan on a hybrid teaching model for the fall that will incorporate both in-person and remote instruction, as well as an outdoor studio. Other schools have figured out how to provide art supplies and training materials to students off campus. And some performing arts professors now want to permanently incorporate video recording as a learning tool.

“I mean that’s our life as artists. … Can you adapt? Can you stay creative? Can you stay connected?” says Kim Perlak, chair of the guitar department at Berklee School of Music in Boston. “Everybody right now in 2020, we all proved it, that’s true. You know, if that’s going to be our legacy of this [time], I’ll take it.”

Working alone at home may be the norm for experienced artists, but for students still on a learning curve, it presents a new set of challenges. In some disciplines, such as dance or music, stepping back from training feels like a race against time, some students say. If you go days without jumping, turning, practicing scales, flexing the muscles and technique you’ve honed for years preparing for a career, those hard-won skills can regress. 

“I do think I’ve learned more about choreographers and dance history. But when it comes down to the actual technique, I don’t think I’ve progressed as much as I’d want to,” say Ms. Sokk.

Amanda Kenner, a dance student at the University of Cincinnati, agrees. “You work all the time for, like, 10 minutes on stage,” says Ms. Kenner, who transformed her living room in Connecticut into both studio and stage.

Her university ordered extra rubber dance flooring that local students could pick up to use at home for pointe work, she says. She spent the spring semester recording herself following pre-recorded ballet barre combinations and submitted the videos to her professors, along with written assignments. But the biggest disappointment was the cancellation of “Serenade,” a classical ballet choreographed by George Balanchine in which she had been cast for a leading role.

“It was the biggest opportunity I’ve ever had in my life – probably ever will. It was a dream role,” she says.

For many of these developing artists, the pandemic lockdown has forced not only new ways of practicing their craft but also moments of reflection. Amid all the uncertainty – gallery openings, concerts, and performances are all still on hold – disciplined practice has become an act of hope. 

“I now look at performances with a different meaning, because I didn’t know that my last performance was going to be my last one for a time,” says Anna Gasanova, a viola student at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music in New York. “What’s been keeping me going is that one day we will be able to perform again in person.”

But until art students and professors are reunited, educators have to find ways to keep students on track.

This spring, art professors mailed art supplies to home addresses, adapted theater scenes to be acted out via Zoom calls, and reviewed hours of student-made videos. For media-based arts, such as fiber and jewelry, maintaining students’ access to raw materials proved key. Heather White – a professor of fine art, metalsmithing, and jewelry at Massachusetts College of Art and Design (MassArt) in Boston – arranged for tool kits to be mailed to students directly from suppliers. She made bench pens and shipped wax and carving tools to her students to use in their home workspaces. 

Once the classes transitioned online, Ms. White came up with a unique assignment: “Carve a ring that is directly informed by your current living environment, your ‘new normal’ surroundings.” Ms. White said students rose to the challenge, “reaching out to every resource to be creative.”

For music students, however, remote learning at times proved problematic. Ensemble rehearsals over video calls would sometimes freeze or the audio would lag. 

But some students discovered that video can boost solo practice in useful ways. Coby Schoolman, a French horn student at the Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, recorded himself this spring practicing three- to four-minute exercises at home in Raleigh, North Carolina, and sent them to his teacher for evaluation. Now he is reviewing the videos himself to measure his progress – a point of reference he didn’t have from in-person lessons. He says he plans to continue this practice even when he is allowed to return to campus. 

Ms. Gasanova, who graduated this spring, says the pandemic gave her a new perspective on the purpose of day-to-day practice. 

“It does make me think, have we been practicing for the wrong reason? Have we only been practicing because we had a performance scheduled?” she says. “Maybe as musicians we should be practicing … just to be the best musicians that we can be. That has been really eye-opening for me.”

Arts professors say some aspects of distance learning will be valuable to keep in curriculums moving forward. Robert Colby, chair of performing arts at Emerson College in Boston, says practicing the skill of self-taped auditions, a new exercise introduced in online classes, will become a permanent part of the curriculum. 

“If we do decide to do or continue this remote learning, I think it will be important to embrace that as an opportunity and to talk about how we can achieve the goals of the courses in this parallel environment rather than adopting a mindset that we just can’t do this as well,” Mr. Colby says. “What we’ll do is do it differently, but we can reach many of our goals is our hope. I think we found that already in this experiment this spring.”

Karen Hampton, a 3D fine arts professor at MassArt, now wants to incorporate more natural dyes into her fibers lab class after her students used blueberries, chili powder, and teas to create block print on dresses, curtains, and other fabrics at home.

“The work that they’ve been turning out has been really great,” she says, reflecting on the spring semester. “It’s not what we would be doing if we were in the classroom, but I think that what they are learning in the long run, what they’ll take with them into the work that they produce in the future, I think that it’s setting a lot of foundations.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, the Monitor has removed the paywall for all our coronavirus coverage. It’s free.

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