Upper School performing arts department adjusts to COVID-19 procedures


Photo credit Abby Marr

With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Westminster has implemented changes in almost every aspect of student life. The Upper School performing arts department (USPAD) has experienced some of the greatest impacts out of all of Westminster’s subject divisions. With limited resources, the department has adapted standard class and concert procedures in order to safely continue to create music.

USPAD faculty member Scott Stewart teaches orchestra and band classes and has been working with the other USPAD faculty to create safer learning spaces for their students. 

“The Upper School performing arts departments not only have no dedicated arts facilities, but they also share communal practice spaces,” said Stewart. “This, combined with the hazards of air projection, made for less-than-ideal conditions.” 

In order to safely continue teaching, the instructors of each performing arts class have had to make changes to their class procedures.

“In continuing performing arts, we’ve had to move all band and choir classes outdoors and have all string instrument players play front-facing, distanced, and masked indoors,” said Stewart. “The problem with moving band and choir outside is that they face many more logistical problems than expected.” 

Band and chorus classes now take place outdoors underneath large white tents. Each tent requires weather protections, bell covers for instruments, music clips, fans, and stand lights. Additionally, the seating chart allows for ample room between students.

While moving class outdoors has had its challenges, it also has offered a number of benefits.

“It’s strange singing outdoors because the acoustics and environment is so different than singing inside McCain or in the chorale room, especially with the noise of the fans and sometimes construction. Sometimes it’s harder for me to concentrate and listen when there are so many distractions,” said sophomore Sarabeth Gump. “However, I think this pandemic has also allowed us to bond more. We get to sing in some funky spots on campus, like in the new parking deck, and I think it was super cool sharing that experience together.”

Orchestra, while still indoors, has also adjusted to new COVID-19 protocols, with socially distanced music stands, front-facing chairs, and mask wearing required at all times. Although the pandemic has changed so many aspects of school, students still express their love for performing arts.

“Before the pandemic, we would have stand partners and practice on stage,” said senior Connor Li. “Now, it’s not really possible for us to do any of that safely. We still practice in McCain but sometimes it’s hard to keep up when everyone is spread so far apart. Other than that, orchestra is still super fun and one of my favorite classes. I look forward to sixth period every week.”

Traditionally, each performing art hosts several concerts per year, and the orchestra and chorus perform in Messiah as well. While classes still conform to the school schedule, USPAD concerts will look quite different this year.

“Live concerts usually consist of a lot of people in the audience and on stage, packed into McCain chapel,” said Stewart. “Unfortunately, we can’t host live concerts anymore because we can’t follow social distancing guidelines. In order to eliminate having a large, in-person audience, the USPAD decided to switch to having pre-filmed, recorded concerts, which we might have to do for Messiah. In fact, the band and wind ensemble have already completed several recording sessions with WCAT.”

Plans for Messiah are still in the works, but a shortened performance or pre-recorded Messiah concert are a few of the possible options for Westminster’s traditional Christmas service.

“There’s not a lot of information about Messiah right now, and nothing is certain,” said Gump. “I do believe that the teachers are considering eliminating parts of Messiah as well as pre-recording certain sections.” 

Upcoming plans might be unsteady, but the USPAD faculty is prepared to take on whatever challenges the future throws at them. 

“Many schools have had to stop performing arts, but Westminster hasn’t,” said Stewart. “I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to continue to create music. It has brought our community together during this difficult time, and I think that having music has made adjusting to our new conditions easier. Now, it’s just important that we be adaptable, flexible, and learn to roll with the punches.”