The show must go on

Skyline College performing arts faculty and students share how they bested hindrances of remote learning


Michelle Hawkins

Soundscape making “hearts” with their classmates on Zoom.

Under normal circumstances, the performing arts students would end the semester orchestrating productions such as concerts, plays, or musical ensembles. The Skyline College Theater would be crowded with fans, supporters, friends, and classmates of our student performers who care enough to intend to witness the event with their comrades showcasing their talents and artistic repertoire.

The fall 2020 semester, however, begged to differ.

The 500-seat auditorium of the Skyline College theater remains empty this semester — lifeless, still consumed by the pitch-black darkness. There are no backdrops and props for a makeshift setting. Until further notice, there will be no spotlights to transform this into a vibrant, happy place it used to often be.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic halting most gatherings, particularly prohibiting live performances people can regale themselves to, the show must go on. This didn’t stop being true for the performing arts instructors and students of Skyline College as they study their craft remotely.

Music professor Michelle Hawkins did everything in her power to best serve her students this semester. Specializing in vocal jazz, Hawkins teaches music appreciation along with three performance-based applied classes namely: voice class, studio lessons, and vocal jazz ensemble.

This semester was particularly difficult especially for the vocal jazz ensemble. The challenge with Zoom unable to sync-in sounds simultaneously made it difficult for the class to do productions. Moreover, the threat of unreliable internet was also another story.

“So, one of the things that we’ve done is that I asked for Ethernet cables to send out to all the members of the choir,” Hawkins said. “And with an Ethernet connection … We’re able to connect to an app called Jamulus. And so, we’re able to sing together through that app.”

Since last semester, Hawkins and the vocal jazz ensemble Soundscape came up with a way to produce music. She provided students with green screens that they use for video filming. And with the help of PnoteMedia, a media production Hawkins’ husband works on, they were able to produce virtual choir videos.

The first choir video, “Together Again”, was produced by the end of the spring 2020 semester. The idea stemmed way back before COVID-19 hits and local governments enforced a stay-at-home ordinance.

“Before (the pandemic), the students were freestyling, rapping and beatboxing and having a great time, and I said, ‘Oh, that’s really cool — We need to do that at a concert,’” Hawkins remarked. “And so when (COVID-19) happened, I said that we should do something like that again, because I know we have beatboxers, we’ve got rappers, we’ve got riffers, we’ve got all the things.”

“Nearness of You” was the second virtual choir that was produced at the beginning of the fall 2020 semester. Using the green screens, the students recorded themselves from head to toe, while Hawkins secured permission to take pictures of the Skyline College Theater. They were able to produce a video with the students virtually performing on stage.

Lastly, “Higher Ground” is a choir video originally derived from the American singer-songwriter Stevie Wonder. The video was Soundscape’s response to “current events and current social issues that (the world is) facing”, reflecting the lyrics, which speak of “wanting to be better, wanting to do better, and reaching a higher ground”.

Prosperously, Professor Hawkins and Soundscape Vocal Jazz Ensemble successfully achieved something on a higher level as they participated at the Cuesta College Vocal Jazz Festival. The vocal jazz group presented their videos and received feedback from Anders Edenroth, who is a member of the world-renowned and critically acclaimed a capella ensemble The Real Group.

Professor Christopher Motter found teaching music this semester difficult, especially for his Introduction to Music Technology class.

“When we were forced to transition at home, we had to deal with the limitations of students’ home computers, which was a challenge,” Motter said. “And we had to change the software, we were using mid semester, which was, of course, not ideal. … (During) in-person (classes), we used Logic Pro. But because that is only for Mac, I wanted to allow as many people as possible to join the class in the online version of the class where people are coming with maybe just a PC at home, we are now using Ableton Live.”

Aside from this class, Motter also taught guitar classes as well as the guitar ensemble class, which, according to him, is being audited by a long-standing group of retirees, professionals, and older students. He calls them “the auditors”.

The Guitar Ensemble rehearsing before their concert in fall 2019. (Christopher Motter)

He said that “the auditors” have always been part of the guitar ensemble class ever since the former guitar professor was teaching in the college.

“(Frank Markovich) had a group of students that have been with him taking this guitar ensemble class for a long time,” Motter said. “And the way it is with these performance classes — just like any class — is that you can’t take it more than four times before you start to have to audit it.”

Motter found the performance class fascinating, especially as he witnessed the effort his students put in — particularly the retirees, who took upon themselves to learn the necessary technology for the class, such as GarageBand and other digital audio workstations.

For Professor Erin Gilley, this was not how she imagined she would be teaching drama at Skyline College for the first time. She handled theory of acting and advanced acting classes.

“I’d love to be in the theater with students, with actors and (people), just being in that space on that stage is so exciting, and it’s wonderful,” Gilley said. “… You get close to your students. And so, just being in the theater and kind of communing in that space is the thing that I look forward to the most. … I think the hardest part for me was to figure out how to give feedback — constructive feedback — as a group, because when you’re in a room together, you can have a lot more nuance, and you can feel the support for a group conversation, and feedback and critique are really important (in acting).”

On Dec. 9, students from Gilley’s classes did an “Acting Showcase”, presenting scenes and monologues students have worked on throughout the semester.

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“There are a lot of different theories and techniques, but it’s really a very individual process,” Gilley said. “You have to learn (acting) on your feet.”

Film major Kieffer Manalang said that everyone in his class did a great job towards the end of the semester.

“I think we managed to give out our best performances, even though we only have a small square on Zoom to be able to perform,” Manalang said.

Nevertheless, Gilley found her first semester teaching drama in Skyline College “amazing”.

“I’ve taught a lot of acting classes, but I’ve never done one on Zoom before,” she said. “But everyone showed up and they worked really hard — They were present, and they stuck with it.”

Students from the drama department debriefing after their virtual Acting Showcase last Dec. 9 through Zoom. (Erin Gilley)

One of her students, psychology and drama major Kaitlyn Marcic, is exceptionally thankful that drama courses were offered this semester.

“I’m just super grateful that (Skyline College) still offered the ability to have a performing arts class and drama, especially because I know that it was up in the air for a little bit before (Gilley) came along,” Marcic said. “I don’t know that there was going to be a drama class this semester.”

Despite the great success of the faculty and students this semester, Professor Hawkins worries the future of the performing arts.

“I’m really really really concerned for the performing arts, not just at Skyline college, but globally because production companies, theaters, choirs, orchestras, ballet companies, and Broadway are dark,” Hawkins said. “They will continue to be dark through the spring into the summer — We don’t know who’s going to survive and who’s going to be able to come back.”