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    • Students in Concert Choir connect before warming up in class. Photo by Orly Baum ’22

    • A poster for the newly launched Execution of Justice podcast, designed by Director of Communication John Galayda. Poster by John Galayda

Performing Arts at Hopkins Tackle Zoom Learning

Zach Williamson ’22 Lead Arts Editor
With the recent move to online learning through Zoom, the Arts Department faces a unique challenge.
With courses heavily reliant on collaborative and hands-on work, Arts faculty members are working hard to usher their classes into this unprecedented new format.

One of the more significant complications with Zoom is the prevalence of audio latency: in meetings over Zoom, audio isn’t broadcast in exact real-time, and each student’s device can have a different amount of audio lag. This poses a unique challenge for musical ensembles. With up to 49 students per class and with every student having a different level of delay, the audio does not line up correctly as students play their instruments or sing their parts. Director of Choral Music Erika Schroth described the challenge that ensemble courses face: “It’s a really challenging situation, particularly for a music ensemble. There’s no way to recreate the rehearsal environment that we all love so much.” Art Department Chair and Director of Instrumental Music Robert Smith cited similar difficulties faced by his courses: “It’s tricky because they’re performance classes, and Zoom isn’t really set up for good streaming video and audio, especially to happen all at the same time and to sync.”

Zoom also has its fair share of upsides for arts courses. Both Schroth and Smith emphasized the new opportunities the format is giving their students. Schroth commented, “Time outside of class for students can be really tailored to what their interests and passions are and, in a way, we can make use of this time to try some things we wouldn’t have been able to do before. We have four programs that we’re using to begin with: a music theory program, UTheory, a sight-reading program, Sight Reading Factory, and then an online notation program and an online recording program, Flat and Soundtrap, that are both cloud-based. This means they can be used collaboratively by students in different locations, which I think is kind of essential for what we’re doing here.”

Director of Jazz Band Chris DeVona described some of the many possibilities offered to students by these programs: “We’re getting a lot of practice with recording, which is something that we started doing earlier in the year. We’re really digging in a lot more than we thought we were going to! We can work more with mixing and mastering and can start exploring different arranging and production elements.” Smith commented that though Zoom “pulls away from the experience” of in-person class, the current situation is “a fertile ground for imagination and creativity, when it comes to both learning and group art.”

For Ian Melchinger, who oversees Hopkins’ Video Production classes, online learning also allows his students to pursue work independently: “The AdVidPro [Advanced Video Production] students are being awesome about the adjustment. The Tech Department has been essential and wonderful, providing Adobe Premiere licenses to the students so they can edit at home what they shoot with their phones.” Advanced VidPro student Margaret Toft ’21 reinforced Melchinger’s sentiments, stressing how her class is making the most of the situation: “My classmates don’t hesitate to collaborate or pitch in when others need help in this remote learning setting. While some of our movies hint at the current situation with the pandemic, it hasn’t stopped us from producing projects that are personal and entertaining. We’re going to have some wonderful pieces to share with the Hopkins community come the end of the term!” 

The dramatic arts face a different set of complications with the use of Zoom. For drama courses, the software “allows communication through only two of our senses: sight and sound,” said Mike Calderone, who teaches drama and directs shows for the Hopkins Drama Association (HDA) along with Hope Hartup. Calderone continued: “I believe there are more subtle means of communication going on between people beyond the five senses; it feels different not to be in the same room together. Zoom doesn’t allow for the proper manipulation of sight and sound to make drama as effective as it can be.” 

Perhaps the greatest shift the move to Zoom has prompted involves HDA’s spring production of Emily Mann’s Execution of Justice, directed by Calderone. The show, a courtroom drama focusing on the 1979 trial of former San Francisco City Supervisor Dan White (played by Sawyer Maloney ’21) for the murder of fellow Supervisor Harvey Milk and then-acting Mayor of San Francisco, George Moscone, was scheduled for April 23 to 25, but is now being published online in podcast form. Calderone outlined some of the difficulties of the change: “This play was not meant to be done as a podcast and the script weaves many different stories together. Actors are learning how to bring their intention into their roles throughout the music of their speaking voice. We’ve discussed how, in the English language, emotion is delivered through vowels while information comes through consonants. If a lawyer character is appealing to the jury’s emotions, they lean on the vowels of their lines (take Elroy’s [Elizabeth Roy ’20] repetition of the word ‘why’ in a monologue that attempts to draw from the jury sympathy for the accused).”

Though the content of the show is quite heavy, the Execution of Justice team has worked carefully and diligently to deal with it. Calderone reflected: “I’m less concerned about coarse language in the script and more concerned about harsh intent. Kind and socially aware cast members have to say some very hurtful and socially insensitive things. Conversely, other students have to put themselves out there as members of the LGBTQ community, which even in an accepting place as Hopkins can still be emotionally/physically/socially dangerous. The cast and crew have had discussions about having each others' backs and I am confident that the administration does, too.”

The move from live production to pre-recorded podcast was not easy, but Calderone and the Execution of Justice cast were willing to make it. Calderone, who first saw the show as an undergraduate student at Rutgers, chose to carry on with the production despite the circumstances because of the important story it tells. He argued, “This show, like other varieties of art, resonates through the medium to affect the artists and the audience. So many of the issues in the play are not only relevant today but also ‘hot button’ issues: workplace violence, gun control, white privilege, homophobia, anti-LGBTQ violence. The play is also history: American history, LGBTQ history, and like your history classes, we need to review what we've been through so we can intelligently move forward.” 

Drew Slager ’21, who plays prosecuting attorney Thomas F. Norman, sees the shift to podcast form as “the perfect example of out-of-the-box thinking. It takes performing to the next level.” Roy expressed similar sentiments to Slager: “While we’d all rather be doing this show back on the Lovell stage, adapting all facets of life to quarantine has allowed for new and exciting performance options. I love getting to be on Zoom every day to see whoever is called. Having that little bit of contact and shared creativity is one of the best parts of my otherwise difficult days stuck at home. At the end of the day, just being able to do this show is such a lovely port to hold onto in the storm of the current crisis.” 

Overall, the Arts Department is persevering through the troubling current reality. From all corners of the department, students and teachers are working hard to keep art in their lives in quarantine, and are preparing exciting projects to share with the community. Whether it be HDA’s Execution of Justice podcast, which will likely be released in weekly episodes starting next month, the department’s new Instagram account (@arts_at_hop), or the upcoming “virtual-gallery-slash-performing-arts-center” for the presentation of student and faculty work (hopkinsarts.com) that Smith says is coming soon, the arts are continuing to thrive despite the circumstances. “We still want to have a presence,” Smith said, “and I think in a lot of ways we’re going to have even more participation, and the work that students are doing is going to be celebrated.”
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