Fine arts programs adapt to COVID precautions

Eastern Mennonite University music professor Ben Bergey, right, and a group of student volunteers test equipment for choral practice in front of Lehman Auditorium. The singers wore masks, were positioned 12 feet apart, and used wireless microphones. Eastern Mennonite University music professor Ben Bergey, right, and a group of student volunteers test equipment for choral practice in front of Lehman Auditorium. The singers wore masks, were positioned 12 feet apart, and used wireless microphones. — Lauren Jefferson/EMU

Colleges and universities that return to in-person classes are finding ways to apply COVID-19 social distancing precautions to fine arts activities.

Eastern Mennonite University music professor Benjamin Bergey spent time over the summer reading about aerosolization and the role speaking and singing have in viral transmission. As director of EMU’s University Choir and Chamber Singers, he gathered some student volunteers over the summer in front of Lehman Auditorium in Harrisonburg, Va., to test how physically distanced singers can work with each other and technology.

The 13 masked singers were spread 12 feet apart with wireless microphones to experiment with ways of hearing each other.

EMU plans to hold choir rehearsals in some way this fall, as do other colleges and universities.

Bethel College in North Newton, Kan., is working out how to ensure safety in vocal and instrumental rehearsals.

“The college requested that singing be present on campus” this year, said William Eash, director of choral activities. “Our programs will happen in limited ways.”

Theater instructor Karen Robu is preparing to rehearse the fall play with masks and then film it without them.

“What we have decided to do for the fall production at Bethel is an original play that I wrote about Antoinette Brown Blackwell, the first female ordained minister in the United States, and her involvement in the [women’s] suffrage movement,” she said. “This is a timely piece, [not only because] we are celebrating the 100-year anniversary of women getting the right to vote and it is an election year, but because we do not need to worry about copyright [to] film the play.”

Goshen (Ind.) College acknowledges large-group singing cannot be undertaken at this point in the pandemic, but there will be possibilities for smaller music ensembles. Choirs will begin online rehearsing on Zoom and may record some pieces for a virtual concert. Some small groups may meet outdoors with physical distancing before winter.

Orchestra strings will rehearse in person with face coverings and without wind and brass players, who may cluster in chamber ensembles that rehearse together or online.

Some recitals can take place streaming online, with the eventual possibility of small audiences. Piano and string private lessons will take place in person with face coverings, and other lessons will be online with four practice rooms set up for Zoom lessons.

The theater department will present an online performance for fall homecoming.

Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kan., will require face shields or in some cases masks for singing and acting rehearsals in small groups with at least eight feet of distancing. Some rehearsals will be outdoors as weather permits.

Instrumentalists will only rehearse in larger rooms when indoors, with frequent reminders to wash hands. Voice lessons will take place in larger rooms instead of faculty offices.

Performances will take place in Richert Auditorium and a maximum of 200 guests, who will be asked to wear a mask while in the facility.

Hesston (Kan.) College plans to conduct music lessons in rooms where six feet or more of distancing can be maintained. Practice rooms can only be used by music students, who must schedule usage.

Chapel attendees will be divided into 10 “chapel houses” of 25 people in each group for community worship and spiritual formation activities.

Many in-person public events at Bluffton (Ohio) University are canceled this fall, including forum presentations and performing arts events. The music department will record performances in place of welcoming live audiences.

Leah Bowman, a Bluffton University first-year music and social work double major from Lancaster, Pa., takes voice lessons with music professor Crystal Sellers Battle. They are connected via Zoom visually but the audio is transmitted through a special speaker. — Bluffton University
Leah Bowman, a Bluffton University first-year music and social work double major from Lancaster, Pa., takes voice lessons with music professor Crystal Sellers Battle. They are connected via Zoom visually but the audio is transmitted through a special speaker. — Bluffton University

Theater and communication professor Melissa Friesen is planning to undertake five or six 10-minute plays using scripts written for Zoom.

“I’m also considering offering a series of online workshops on playwriting and other theater topics to encourage broader participation and maybe generate original scripts through a contest for the festival,” she said.

Band and vocal groups have been reduced in size so smaller groups can rehearse and perform together. The Concert Band is now a collection of four- and five-person ensembles. Rehearsals are shorter and held in larger space or outdoors.

Air purifiers have been installed in Mosiman Hall and ­Yoder Recital Hall. Singers will wear masks or face shields designed for use with singing.

While these are challenging times for the arts, William Eash of Bethel holds room for optimism as well.

“There has already been a lamentation of the loss of music [that is] created in community,” he said. “Perhaps there will be a revitalization in seeking performances in community” when the pandemic is over.

Tim Huber

Tim Huber

Tim Huber is associate editor at Anabaptist World. He worked at Mennonite World Review since 2011. A graduate of Tabor College, he and his wife Heidi Huber served with Mennonite Central Committee in Germany, where the first of their three children were born. His family attends Shalom Mennonite Church in Newton,

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