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Rob McGlothin, Alec Chase, Colin Murray cater lessons to improve individual skills in virtual setting

PMG FILE PHOTO: BRITTANY ALLEN - In the past the SHS choral, band and theater departments have worked together to produce at least one musical every spring, such as The Wizard of Oz in 2019. In "normal" times, many students tend to rely on arts programs for relief and a needed form of expression, whether it's through acting, playing an instrument or singing. Now, with the COVID-19 crisis and mandated distanced learning in place, that need seems to have only grown, and teachers at Sandy High are working to provide the best arts education experience possible — virtually.

Missed collaboration

"I think students use arts classes as coping even when we're not in a pandemic," choral instructor Alec Chase explained. "That's a family they get to experience because they don't have that at home. If anything, that (need now) is just magnified."

Chase is currently teaching three classes — two choral courses and one guitar class. He says the guitar class has been fairly successful even online, but he's had to really adapt his choral groups for virtual learning.

"Guitar transferred best to virtual learning," Chase said. "I can just demonstrate the skills, and most of what those students need is time to practice, and they have that. While I'm talking and explaining concepts, they can just be practicing."

Chase treats his choral classes in a similar way. The biggest change is while most choir classes before would be mainly group rehearsals for planned performances, now it's more of an individual learning experience.

"When it comes to art, I think kids just miss collaborating in a performance-based way," Chase said. His choral classes have become very theory-based and students follow along to his demonstrations of songs and vocal techniques while on mute so they can all practice together but separately.

Band director and instructor Rob McGlothin has taken a similar approach. While his instrumentalists can't meet and play together, they can learn or improve on individual skills like music theory and technique while schooling from home.

McGlothin's only instrumental class this term is jazz band, which looks much different from usual.

"We're kind of changing it from jazz band to jazz studies. Individual skills and improvisation," McGlothin said. "We're taking a deep dive into individual tunes. We wouldn't have done that pre-COVID because we had a busy performance schedule. But now we're looking at individual choices made by well-known musicians, the goal being that they'll have gone through about 20 songs and be comfortable with them by the end of the term. We're taking this time to make us stronger as individual players and apply that to the group when we can get back together."

Theater instructor Colin Murray said he also took a more individualized approach in the spring when teachers, students and parents were unexpectedly thrown into distanced learning and offering supplemental education. Now he's been focused on how he can allow the students to work together in his theater and speech classes, even if it's virtually.

"While we may not have the opportunity to be in the same room, I've been trying to find ways to collaborate," Murray said. "I'm trying as much as I can to make sure that aspect of the program — that safe space — is also still present."

Part of that has been creating separate breakout rooms via Google Meets so groups of students can work on an assignment together then come back to a main video meeting and present to the class.

He's also been using interactive tools so students can throw ideas up anonymously on a virtual bulletin board so the class can brainstorm together.

"The entire class with everyone feels very impersonal and I've found there's not a lot of work going on when we're having those big class discussions," Murray added. "I'm trying to recapture some of the collaborative work. In my acting classes, I'm already hearing that this is working better for the creative part of what we're doing. Students are less put on the spot. I try in my teaching to put people less on the spot [when] possible. I've found it helps creativity. It's not perfect by any means, but it allows some of that creative group work that I was missing from my live classes in a modified way."

Feedback on the process

All three instructors said while students have voiced a yearning for returning to in-person collaboration, most have offered positive feedback on the classes thus far.

"The grieving in the spring was mighty. It was the best wind ensemble I ever had and it was over. For them not to be able to continue was terrible," McGlothin said. "I think the kids have a profound sense of loss about that right now. And I think it'll be a couple of years before we're able to rebuild. I think their attitudes are really good about this fall. We've had the discussion that spring was really only crisis learning. For right now, we just have to stop thinking about it as a band program and start thinking of it as a music program. We're teaching it more to individuals. They are going to grow hugely as individuals."

COURTESY PHOTO: ROB MCGLOTHIN - Rob McGlothin leads demonstrations in his virtual jazz studies class, which students follow along with independently while muted."It's been fun actually to try and supplement and find some new perspectives we can explore that we don't normally get to," Chase added. "It's nice to have a class where students can learn a new skill. I think my classes are entertainment as much as they are educational. The main feedback (I've received) is it's very difficult for students to be sitting in one spot staring at computers or phones all day. These classes feel long and they're difficult to keep your attention on. I have talked about how important it is to stand up and stretch and move in between classes. I think the major challenge has less to do with the coursework but is to be taking on learning in that way. (To the students I say:) It's OK to feel how you're feeling in these situations. Ask for help if you need it."

Senior Molly Izer is currently participating in McGlothin's jazz studies class and said while it's not the same experience, she appreciates all the arts teachers are doing to help provide continued arts education.

"I've been in the arts since sixth grade," Izer explained. "The arts classes I've taken have been hugely invaluable creative outlets. COVID has completely transformed what the arts look like. While our teachers have done a lot to move arts online, we've definitely lost a really valuable part of what it means to be a performer and what it means to be on stage and work with other performers."

Izer added she appreciates the lessons in theory, since as a percussionist she doesn't have a lot of background in those basics.

"We can kind of take our own paths based on the resources we have at home and our skill levels," Izer said. "I'm excited we're learning the basics and origins of the music we're playing."

As a senior, Izer has come to terms with the fact that she may not return to in-person band classes in high school, but she wanted to let younger students know "it won't be like this forever."

"The best you can do for yourself is continue to learn in whatever way you can," she said. "We're really fortunate to have a group of arts teachers who genuinely care about their students. They genuinely care about cultivating our passions. I also think if we're able to resume with in-person, everyone will now appreciate [it] so much more."

Hopes and 'silver linings'

"This is going to be a really hard time for our students. They will be getting as many services as we can provide," Chase added. "If anybody is ever looking for something to do, find a way to support a student or a student's family. We're still here. It just looks different and is different. Everyone in the district is still working hard to keep school happening. Something I really admire with the Sandy High (staff) is when this started on March 1 there was this general attitude of 'Let's get it done.' I don't think the teachers care so much about making sure all the content is the same; I think we all are making sure the students are taken care of first."

Murray added that while he still prefers the mainly in-person classroom, there are silver linings to this virtual, individualized situation.

"It has pushed me to develop other aspects of teaching," Murray said. "In the past I looked at a lot of these things as creating distance between us. Now I'm starting to see a real positive in ways we can adapt what we're doing. We'll eventually move out of this, but I think there are entire industries being revolutionized out of this because of seeing how things can work from home. Even after this isn't a requirement, this will be a positive in learning certain tools and how to make (situations) work."

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