At the holidays during COVID-19, schools find ways for the shows to go on
The big school winter concerts, the traveling Christmas carolers and the holiday assemblies are on hold this season, victims of COVID-19 safety guidelines.
But not even a pandemic can stop the music.
School districts across Long Island are creating and delivering performances in ways no one could have imagined a year ago. Digital tools are allowing music and drama teachers to bypass the dangers of human contact to achieve a touch of normalcy, they say.
"My biggest takeaway is, where there’s a will, there’s a way," said Sameerah Cassidy, a music teacher at Wantagh High School, whose students performed, recorded and edited a video of holiday songs. It would be viewed in 23 local nursing homes and assisted living facilities where, this year, no in-person caroling was allowed.
"Music teachers all over the country are fighting for ways to perform with their students and keep the love of music alive in their schools and communities," she said. "This is what brings joy to people."
Music and arts departments have assembled concert videos by separately recording small groups of masked singers and socially distanced musicians, and of students performing at home. They are using digital platforms to meet, rehearse, record, edit and distribute the results. And they’ve found new ways to deliver those performances, from a livestreamed radio broadcast of "It’s a Wonderful Life" to a taped concert video viewed drive-in style in a high school parking lot.
"Our vision was to create a holiday greeting for the community," said North Babylon’s music and art director Kim Lowenborg-Coyne of the drive-in concert. "When we perform, the auditoriums are simply packed. We thought we could pack the house, but this time outdoors."
A large screen will capture live performances and a video of all the musical ensembles grades 7-12, dressed in ugly sweaters and holiday hats, for three showings, each with an audience of about 140 carloads of family members.
"We have a lot of front-line workers in this community, very brave individuals," Lowenborg-Coyne said. "That’s part of the reason we wanted to do this film … the kids sang for their parents."
Plunged into a new realm
The move to remote instruction last spring plunged teachers into the digital realm and forced them to quickly learn new skills.
Maureen Edwards, a music teacher in Northport, said this year’s fourth- and fifth-grade musical show at Norwood Avenue Elementary School was "a new adventure for both the students and the directors in a virtual theatrical world we had never explored before, but it still brought us joy and meaning."
Never in 15 years of producing the shows had she and collaborator Denise Lardi put together a dance number by combining 25 separate recordings of students dancing to "Footloose," most in front of a bare wall. Students were "thrilled" when they saw the final product, she said.
Diana Minerva, a music teacher at Cornwell Avenue Elementary School in the West Hempstead school district, used the programs Flipgrid, GarageBand, Screencastify and Wondershare Filmora to create a video of the school’s Winter Showcase. It features 130 students in three third-grade and two special education classes who never actually sang together in the same room, she said. It will be shown this week in each classroom.
"It was the kids who wanted this, and if it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have been as willing to put in the extra work," she said. "Their interest was the driving force behind doing this."
In the Plainview-Old Bethpage district, Michael Rodgers, the director of music and performing arts, said that in addition to ensemble videos, they have found other creative ways to make music. One of his favorites, he said, is an elementary school version of "Masked Singer Holiday Edition," with parents, custodians and teachers recording themselves singing "with an emoji over their face, and the kids have to guess who it is."
"It’s hard to forget we’re in a pandemic right now, but for a few minutes when kids are focusing on the music, they do," he said. "They’re able to have a little reprieve from the stress."
Adapting in 'a challenging time'
The loss of actual physical performances, however, has been unsettling for many in music departments.
"It’s a challenging time," said Joseph Owens, supervisor of fine and performing arts in the Mineola school district. "For music teachers, our concerts and performances are really part of our identity. We’re used to having hundreds of people in the audience where we can all be celebrated."
This year, the district commissioned a new work of music from a college choral director who worked with students. "We’re going to record and release it," Owens said. "It’s called ‘Little Windows, Dark Rooms.’ It pays homage to the world of Zoom."
In some districts, theater kids, too, are getting a digitally enabled shot at restoring some semblance of community.
Lindenhurst’s usual spring play turned into a holiday "radio broadcast" of "It’s a Wonderful Life," said drama teacher Michael Smith — an actual live performance streamed via a website called Anywhereseat.com.
The student actors performed separately from their own homes, as 50 drawings modeled on them illustrated the action on screen. "In theater, the show must go on no matter what," Smith said. "We’re making that happen. It’s been a challenge, but it’s been a lot of fun."
Pierson High School in Sag Harbor is staging a humorous series of monologues called "That’s How I Survived the Pandemic," said its producer, retired district teacher Melissa Luppi. Film of a live performance before a small audience in the school auditorium will stream Monday and Tuesday evenings via the new ShowShare feature of the Broadway on Demand website.
Seniors Gaylin Davey, 18, and Ryan Brown, 17, both of Sag Harbor, said it felt like a step toward normal to be back onstage and among theater friends. "At the end of last year, we’d already been practicing for a musical and then it got canceled," Davey said. "That was the most devastating thing for me because theater is my second home."
Brown said his mood is lifted by "being back in the community we are used to" — and pleased the larger community could "see there is some normal activity going on at Pierson."
The Uniondale district also is celebrating with local community groups, planning to share a video of its show choir and jazz band — performing masked and socially distanced — with groups like the Uniondale Community Council, said fine and performing arts director Kelvin Jenkins.
Yet schools have clung where they could to the analog holiday traditions. Floral Park’s John Lewis Childs School put together a digital concert but also carried on with its annual toy drive and its Day of Giving, when the elementary school classes will decorate bags of food for a food pantry and bowls for an animal shelter, Principal Susan Fazio said.
"We’re trying to keep the spirit of the season alive by — I hate to use the word normal — but to keep it as normal and festive as possible," she said.
Safety guidelines require flexibility, so at the Three Village school district, where videos are being produced of every musical ensemble in grades 7-12 and the two junior high musicals, caroling also will look different this year. Instead of traveling to district elementary schools, the orchestra and choir will livestream to them from the high school, music director Anthony J. Pollera said.
"I keep saying Three Village finds a way. Music has found a way to keep going," he said.
Despite the challenges, Michael Salzman, Syosset's coordinator of fine and performing arts, said students there were proud of their videos, including a wind ensemble rendition of "Sleigh Bells" put together by music teacher Paul Caputo.
"It’s a great video," Salzman said. "What is missing is the opportunity to collaborate as one large ensemble and make music together."
He added, "We all very much look forward to putting this pandemic behind us and getting our music classes back in the same room all together."