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Many school districts are taking a leave of absence from the performing arts this year, but not The Harley School. Thanks to a dedicated and persevering faculty, the show is, indeed, “going on!”

Summertime Homework
Kristy Houston, Harley’s band instructor, spent her summer researching the best methods for teaching performing arts during Covid-19.

Drawing upon data (lots and lots of data!) and studies from the University of Colorado at Boulder*, where some of the country’s leading aerosol researchers are hosted, Kristy was able to review findings regarding recommendations for teaching music. Additionally, the music education committee attended five webinars on the topic—who knew there was so much to say about the tiny droplets we expel from our mouths…

The University of Cincinnati, Public Health Department of Cincinnati, and the Cincinnati Music Conservatory also contributed to how the Harley Performing Arts department structured their safety measures to reduce aerosol spread of the virus. For example, many of the instruments use bell covers, and students are sitting far apart—there are no stand partners this year!

* UC Boulder conducted the main study for the National Federation of State High School Associations, with funding from virtually all of the major music education organizations. Their study is pointed us toward bell covers, masked singing (and sometimes playing), appropriate distancing and the importance of ventilation.

Cohorts, Cohorts, Cohorts!

Cohorting within the grades has forced the department to do a lot of problem-solving; such as creating smaller bands that meet less frequently to ensure less time in contact with each other.

Putting together smaller cohort groups requires finding new arrangements from composers. Not all cohorts contain students that play brass, woodwinds, and strings. Because of this composers have been responding to the needs by putting together new compositions that allow for these “odd combinations” of orchestras.

Students are adapting very well and are excited to practice together. Several performances throughout the year will be pre-recorded for streaming online for their audiences—near and far—to enjoy.

String’s the Thing

Each Orchestra was split into four smaller groups of 2-6 string players this year and have had the opportunity to perform a few pieces in the main Gallery space so far this year. The goal is to video record the performers later in the year. 

Kelly Stevenson, our strings and orchestra teacher, shares: Some of the groups are “easy” to teach in this new way: for example, all Grade 7 violins are together and learning from the Suzuki Method books. Others are more difficult, “What to choose for a viola/cello/electric guitar group?” (hint: They started with a rock/bluegrass mashup!)

All string groups are using Method Books now, which is new for most students at Harley, but it is working really well. Class time is focused more on individual techniques (like bowing) rather than large ensemble techniques (like uniformity).

One benefit this year is, more than ever before, students are in specialized groups based on their experience levels, so they are more uniquely and individually challenged.

Beautiful Sounds: Choirs Reconfigured

Performing Arts Department Chair and Choir Director, Ben Burroughs, is a driven individual. He was determined to come up with a plan for his choir students to be able to continue doing what they love this year. To maintain safety this has meant some major retooling of our choir program.

Students are wearing special masks for when they are singing; they are also more than twelve feet apart; and, because our normal piano accompanist is staying home with her children this year, this means Ben is up onstage nearly fifty feet away from some of the performers.

Students are responsible for their own music; there is no storing and sharing from a central cabinet. Each of the choirs has vastly reduced numbers this year and freshmen are not able to participate. There is also no Middle School choir; instead they are all learning the ukulele. A creative choice as a substitute!

The choirs are currently working on how to manage an online performance. Right now the path being explored involves pre-recording voices, then performing via Zoom as the students lip-sync to their own sound. This is a new method being used nationally as the technology to stitch together video clips of students singing is much more difficult. They are also working on how to put together a program for Candlelight to be viewed via streaming.

Ben said, “Everyone’s been doing a great job of rolling with it this year as we explore this new experience.”

An “Out of the Box” Experience

Upper School theater teacher, Maria Scipione, spent her summer diving into history and looking at how theater was performed during the 1918 flu pandemic; as well as what is being done in Europe to create outdoor physical structures in order to socially distance. This research informed her decision to go outside for teaching and performing. 

Outside the Box Theater Is Born

Utilizing Harley’s enclosed, outdoor courtyard students perform on the small stage in groups of two or three before a limited audience of no more than twenty people from within Harley’s “bubble” who are separated by homemade ‘mannequins’ to space people six feet apart.

After a great deal of research to discover short plays with few characters that could be performed socially distanced without compromising the stories to observe safety protocols, it was time to put together the “Out of the Box” Theater Festival. As far as we know this is one of the only live theater performances in the area right now in front of an audience. 

To keep everyone safe, our performers are more than 12’ apart from each other and the audience at all times when unmasked and audience members sit six feet apart from each other and remain masked themselves.

Behind the scenes, every performer has their own table in the Dining Hall as their Green Room and there is no sharing of props. The stage crew is dressed up in hazmat suits to perform contact cleanliness between each play to add theatrical flair to their work.

This opportunity allows the students to learn about technology related to performing outside as well as for a live streaming audience. Alum Max Bednarcyk returned to help with the outside technical set up so the sound was strong for people watching at home (over 1,300 the first week!).

Middle School Drama Adapts

Our Middle School drama program is taught by Linda Foster who has established many safety protocols for our students. 

Students are using special masks just for drama; they are ASTM Level 3 to reduce the risk of aerosols; and students are spaced between 6-12 feet apart. The classroom moved upstairs to the barn which has more space and better ventilation. Although, as long as possible, classes will be held outside.

Most of the curriculum has been adaptable and is continuing close to “normal.” But, safety can mean things take longer, so there has been a larger focus on mindfulness and exploration of new ways to use creativity. Patience is key!

Students are performing monologues while keeping a positive attitude and enjoying the fun release that comes with drama!

Performing Arts Are Important to Students and Community

During this time when so many performing arts groups are closed or regrouping, we are excited to be able to keep the flame burning bright for our students involved in the performing arts. They are learning new skills and we benefit by attending performances via live stream or, when allowed, in person.