The label “performing arts” that is used to encompass NFHS activities such as music, speech, debate and theatre implies a visual and/or auditory display of a creative human skill(s). Arts, while subjective, are judged by experts and performed in front of an audience – for it is this collective participation that creates an authentic and organic experience for both the artist(s) and the observers.
The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted these events and created an opportunity for educators and students to find creative ways using technology to continue practicing and competing in their crafts.
Across the country schools are operating in many different formats based on local restrictions and district decisions. Virtual, in-person and hybrid models can be found in every state. While students learn independently in core classes like English and math, music ensembles rely on group instruction to find that same cohesion that any good athletic team needs to achieve success.
“Student musicians have to all be present to learn to blend, balance, tune and synchronize with the other members of their band, choir, orchestra, etc,” said John Strube, executive director of the Kentucky Music Educators Association (KMEA). “In response to the circumstances, whether holding class through Zoom or Google Meet, or in person with only portions of their students present at once, teachers are focusing more on individual skills—tone production, rhythm reading skills, technique, articulation and style— rather than the ensemble skills mentioned before. They are doing the best they can for their students within the limitations they are presented with.”
Music solo and ensemble events in many states have moved to online virtual events. The KMEA is accepting submissions through online platforms that allow students to record their performances for judging without the need for in-person events.
“This project is in the last stage of planning at this time, and we can’t say how well it will serve the needs of the participants; in no way do we believe it is an adequate substitute for in-person performances, since in-person human interaction is reduced dramatically, but it is a safe way to provide helpful feedback to teachers and students on their musical achievement,” Stroube said.
Music students in Kentucky will not have a typical performance season and educators have not had a typical year of instruction. The goals this year shifted for many music educators.
“Despite the diminished or complete lack of in-person instruction, we don’t want students’ skills to atrophy, which they will do if not exercised and coached,” Stroube said. “We hope to provide a challenge to reach a musical goal for the students involved in our virtual assessments, a goal that we trust in turn will inspire structured study of and practice toward performing selected music. For most people this year, one of the most elusive elements of a healthy life has been motivation, and the offer of virtual assessment may at least partially fill that gap, in which case the association’s objective for providing the service will have been met.”
Theatre is another preforming art that relies heavily on in-person interaction. Again, COVID-19 restrictions took that reliable and immensely important element away from directors and student-actors. While some schools in some states were able to bring together small casts in front of small audiences, this was not the case for everyone.
The Minnesota High School League (MSHSL) decided early to host its 2021 One Act Play through a video format in February. Schools could either submit a recording of an in-person production (following specific COVID-19 guidelines) with no audience or record a videoconference performance through a platform such as Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams or WebEx.
“Our concerns with trying to do it in-person were what if a school is hosting a section tournament, and the day before they have an outbreak and their district says we’re not bringing anybody in,” said MSHSL Assistant Director Amy Doherty. “Or one or more students on a cast is quarantined and now they can’t participate. Or some schools would allow their kids to participate and others might not – then it’s just not equitable at all.”
The MSHSL and the MSHSL One Act Play Advisory Committee worked together to develop a virtual format that conformed to state health department guidelines while allowing students to perform and compete. Those guidelines attempted to provide some equity by not allowing post-production editing and emphasizing to judges that location (stage, cafeteria, gymnasium or videoconference) should not be considered.
“For one act play we came up with an addendum – a whole page of here are new things to consider this year, here’s what to worry about, here’s what not to worry about,” Doherty said. “We really, really, really wanted to stress that it was not a film production. We didn’t want judges to judge based on video skills, because we have schools that have fancy video studios and others who used their phone. The judges did a good job following it.”
Again, the purpose of participation and even competition shifted this year as it did with music programs in Kentucky.
“The goal wasn’t to create award-winning theatre, to be honest with you, it was just to give the kids an opportunity to participate in an activity they love and connect with directors and each other and stay safe doing it,” Doherty said.
While music and theatre utilized existing virtual assessment tools for culminating events, debate in Minnesota conducted a season of virtual events led by determined debate educators who developed a system that was turnkey by the time the MSHSL was ready to host the state debate tournament.
“There are a lot of Minnesota debate coaches on the national circuit which goes all the time, so when some of the tournaments last spring were going virtual some of our coaches were part of planning those tournaments,” Doherty said. “They were really experienced by the time our state tournament rolled around.”
Instead of playing the waiting game and hoping that infection rates would decrease in time for an in-person tournament, the MSHSL moved forward with the Minnesota Debate Teachers Association (MDTA) plan for a virtual event.
“I think they didn’t want to mess with the unknown, and they knew that they could make it happen virtually no matter what,” Doherty said. “And they were just determined to have a virtual state tournament.”
While technology has provided the platform for competition in the performing arts, it has been the dedicated educators and administrators who have truly created these opportunities. The goals shifting from creating the best experience for the participants to just simply providing an experience – some sense of normalcy in such abnormal reality.
Lindsey Atkinson is director of sports/communications associate at the National Federation of State High School Associations.