By Patti Roberts
Performing arts such as theatre, orchestra and dance usually take place in front of live audiences – and often based on a wide range of collaborations.
Many performers and their production teams begin to hone their craft at the college level, having face-to-face interactions with professors and other artists as they pitch performances for grateful audiences.
So what happens to teaching and attending performing arts classes when all of that collaboration is suddenly cut off? What will be the impact of decisions made two years ago when COVID shut down everything?
SN&R reached out to Los Rios Community Colleges, California State University, Sacramento, and University of California, Davis to find out how professional arts faculty and students handled this unique situation. There have been disappointments, including cancellations and a lack of opportunities, but there have also been innovations and creative solutions along the way.
Interviews with faculty and students give voice to the ups and downs of the strange rollercoaster they’ve been on, from distance teaching and learning to imaginative approaches to stage performance.
This is the first in a three-part series, divided into three performing arts programs at different colleges and universities, which gives us a glimpse of what they’ve been through.
The first part is for orchestra lessons at the University of California, Davis, the second part is for drama lessons at Los Rios community colleges, and the third part is for dance lessons at California State University Sacramento.
Students in higher-level music programs typically learn not only to play their instruments, but also to play collaboratively with other musicians in bands and orchestras. So when individual and group classroom learning was abruptly shut down due to COVID in the spring of 2020, there was a scramble to figure out how to continue.
For Professor Christian Baldini, Music Director and Conductor of the University of California Davis Symphony Orchestra, there has been a sudden learning curve on how to teach from a distance, how to keep an orchestra together and how to keep students motivated.
“We had to become very flexible,” Baldini said. “Trying to make music remotely is next to impossible. But we can indeed find ways to engage, inspire and continue to foster curiosity and awareness in our students.”
Baldini created an online course where orchestral students could experience what he calls the “conductor’s kitchen,” a place to introduce them to the world of opera. He invited world-renowned guests to participate, including opera director Francesca Zambello, superstar Michelle DeYoung, composers Jimmy Lopez-Bellido, Oscar Strasnoy, as well as concertmasters and musicians from various international orchestras and performances alone.
Baldini is also a composer and a member of the Camellia Symphony Orchestra in Sacramento, which has also had an impact on his professional career.
“For all of us, performers and composers, the lockdown has been devastating due to cancellations of performances, trips, premieres and tours,” he acknowledged. “Nothing can replace the power and beauty of a live performance. But as a teacher and conductor, I try to find ways to motivate, inspire and continue to promote curiosity and awareness in our students.
Baldini also created “remote orchestra” projects which included an online performance by Mahler Urlichtwith ballet dancers from Buenos Aires, Sacramento and Davis (https://youtu.be/13pzK_LkWkQ), and a “hybrid” online concert with a few students playing in the orchestra hall while most played remotely from at their home
For Jonathan Minnick, bass trombonist with the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra and PhD student in musicology, the closure of classrooms due to COVID has been brutal. Minnick is expected to graduate this spring.
“At first I was shocked,” Minnik recalls. “I actually stopped training for a little while. All in all, I think I lost a bit of “purpose” during the stoppage. At first, practice didn’t seem necessary to me, except for my own benefit, because there were no performance opportunities or plans.
But then Minnick started recording his own game, as he was stuck at home all day and found himself learning new technology in Zoom recording and presentations.
“The learning process took me a bit of time to adjust,” Minnik said. “Everyone was trying to learn Zoom and how to communicate virtually, and the music was really difficult at first. The lessons were next to impossible, although we could have discussions and watch videos of performances, which was informative and entertaining.
The practice and his increasing knowledge of technology made online performance smoother.
As the technology improved, everything became easier and faster and it seemed as ‘normal’ as possible, given the circumstances,” Minnik explained.
But what he missed playing in person were “the subtle gestures, the sounds, the sensations of playing live with others that you’ll never experience with the zoom.”
Recently, musicians from the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra started playing together again at the same venue.
“Everyone was a little nervous but overall excited to start performing live again,” Minnik said. “While we wear masks and take preventive measures, we are playing again. I was quickly reminded how playing with other humans in a live setting is almost irreplaceable.
“We effectively lost an entire year of performance, which is a lot bigger than it looks,” he continued. “What I’ve learned, however, are strong recording technology skills and a tremendous appreciation for live music.”
Minnik plans to continue her music career after graduating. “Although the jobs aren’t ideal for us in the music business, I still plan to train and perform in every capacity I can handle,” he said. “If I can land a teaching position, that would be fantastic! But, after all these years of learning and practicing, there’s no way I could ever completely give up on music and performance.