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Students and professors get creative to keep arts classes going from a distance

Some lectures may move online easily, but ballet and piano classes are a different story. 

With remote learning now in full swing, most visual and performing arts classes are moving online either as live Zoom classes or pre-recorded lessons. Dance, painting and music may not be quite the same when they’re taught through a computer screen, but students and instructors are still doing their best to make online arts classes work.

Ingrid Byerly, senior lecturing fellow of the Thompson Writing Program, is using Zoom to teach her public speaking course remotely. She said that the smooth transition to online classes can be attributed to the extended spring break, during which faculty were given comprehensive instruction on how to use the videoconferencing service. 

“By the time we had classes, everything was up and running,” Byerly said. “All I had to do was sign in.”

She explained that the only adjustment she’s had to make is changing the times for a few classes, since she is teaching one student in India and another in South Korea and didn’t want them to have to wake up in the early morning for class.

Instructor of Music Elizabeth Linnartz is also continuing to hold live Zoom lessons for her students in the vocal course she currently teaches. However, because a live piano accompanist was always present during in-person classes, Linnartz is providing recorded sound files for students to have for practice purposes.

Similarly, senior SarahAnne Perel said that her ballet class has opted for recorded lessons. Her instructor, Tyler Walters, associate professor of the practice in dance, uploads lessons online for students to watch and practice when they're free.

Perel said that students in online classes can view lessons multiple times and have more opportunities to practice the routines. 

“It’s more available than if I were just doing Tuesday-Thursday classes,” she said.

Losing interpersonal connections

Despite the advantages of online courses, students still miss the person-to-person connection of having professors and other students in the same room.

A critical part of many art classes is having other students physically present, especially for performance arts like dance. For example, Perel explained that arranging dancers in geometric shapes and symmetries is often essential to ballet, but it will be lost through distance learning. She also noted the value of having an audience or an imagined audience, which becomes much less feasible when dancing alone in her own house. 

“Working on technique is great, but breaking the glass, going beyond the technique is really what we’re striving for,” she said.

Sophomore Carly VanDewark, a student in a classical piano course, said she thinks the personal relationship with instructors will be most hindered from the transition, and that learning piano can also be more difficult online. 

“Usually we’re pointing to notes on the page, or my professor’s demonstrating some movement or technique in person,” she said, adding that her first online lesson required a lot more verbal communication than usual.

Similarly, junior Pavel Pivarshev, a student in an intermediate painting course, said that his class will lose the value of an artist being there in person. 

“There’s something really valuable about being in the space with the professor herself while she’s watching and going around and giving critiques,” he said.

Getting materials is tough

The shift to remote learning has also complicated courses that rely on extensive materials, including painting classes.

Pivarshev said that he’s fortunate to still be in Durham and was able to grab his art materials from Smith Warehouse, but that he sympathizes with non-local students who may struggle to get supplies. 

“This is just a minor hiccup for me,” he said.

Pivarshev added that the price of necessary materials might make the situation more difficult. 

“It’s tough because for this class specifically, [my professor] told us to get all these specific colors of paint and in total they cost about $100,” he said. “And that’s just from the local art store, so prices will vary.”

To help with the costs and availability, Beverly McIver, professor of the practice of art, art history and visual studies, who teaches Pivarshev’s painting class, is trying to get funding to mail materials to students’ homes.

Pivarshev wrote in an email that McIver sent a follow-up email to the class, asking students to finish up their paintings if possible, but otherwise “to use this time to do something helpful that ultimately makes this world a better place,” according to the revised syllabus that McIver emailed to her students.

Meanwhile, Perel is using bedposts and the kitchen counter as the wooden barre for her ballet class. 

“It’s really tough to find something that supports the body in that way, but I think [Walters] is open to finding whatever options that work,” she said.

Instructor of Music Susan Greenberg is working to make sure all her students in her piano courses can participate in some way. In an email, she wrote that two of her 20 enrolled undergraduates were unable to find a piano or keyboard to work with. For those two students, her plan is to discuss pieces of music, Greenberg wrote. 

The show must go on?

On campus, many art classes would have had a live event component to allow students to perform—a component that has had to be modified.

Perel explained that her ballet class is no longer having a final dance showcase—an adjustment she found understandable yet disappointing, especially as a senior. She said that many seniors don’t know whether they will dance professionally after graduation, and Duke might be their last opportunity to perform.

However, the new remote learning format can have its benefits as well. Byerly said that moving her public speaking class to Zoom actually served as an unexpected introduction to on-screen presenting for students, who can now explore speaking in a radio or studio setting.

Linnartz’s vocal class called Class Voice initially required students to attend three classical concerts, which is no longer an option. Instead, Linnartz decided to change the assignment to streaming one opera from the Metropolitan Opera, which can be found online at Duke’s music library website. 

She has also chosen to reduce and streamline other assignments to assist students who might have difficulty with the new transition. 

“This is the best way to be fair, not burdensome, and still to achieve the goals that we wanted,” Linnartz said.

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