Outdoor tents were used in all sorts of weather until the temperatures became cold enough to impact sound and damage instruments. Many students enjoyed it in pleasant weather conditions, and even rain wasn't always bad: “We played while it was raining one day, and for the particular song we were playing, the rain matched the feel of the song, so it felt immersive,” says Braedon Willis ’25, who plays saxophone.
It's easy to name the problems a certain respiratory virus has caused in the performing arts world.
Singing pushes air out of the body, increasing the number of particles a person releases with each breath. Brass and woodwind instruments can’t be played through standard face masks. Actors tell stories together on stage and convey emotion with their faces. Worldwide, many theatres and concert halls have yet to reopen after going dark in March 2020 when COVID-19 began its global spread.
“Some of the institutions we looked to as lighthouses have shut down. We’re also aware, in our own community and worldwide, of people who have lost their jobs and orchestras that have gone bankrupt,” says Dr. Scott Stewart, an Upper School band and orchestra teacher.
But even in bleak times, music, film, television, and the like have played a vital role in keeping humanity connected in a chaotic world. If you’ve texted your friends about a Netflix special or smiled watching a Broadway cast in a Brady Bunch-style on-screen chorus, you’ve seen how the arts can connect people and lift our spirits.
The question at Westminster was never if students would continue their artistic pursuits amid COVID-19. The question of how, though, was a big one.
But with collaboration, creative thinking, and a lot of grit, Wildcats found a way.
General music classes in Lower School used all kinds of new techniques for teaching music without singing as a group! Stu- dents each used individual music-making kits each including a drum, an egg shaker, rhythm sticks, a ball, a scarf, and a cup to improvise instruments and practice the elements of music. Dancing, all done individually, also played a role in music education!
“OKAY, WE MIGHT BE ABLE TO MAKE THIS HAPPEN”
The core principle that emerged in back-to-school planning for performing arts was to get outside. And so, with large ensembles under tents and small groups utilizing a dozen overhangs and pavilions, live music provided a soundtrack for almost every walk through campus.
Stepping outside became a treat for the ears in the 2020-21 school year. You might hear the bass section of the Upper School Ensemble practicing the “Hallelujah” chorus in the parking lot behind Askew Hall or the flute section of the Middle School Concert Band playing “The Pioneer Spirit” as you step out of the Campus Store. The outdoor rehearsals that enabled safe practice amid COVID-19 connected our community through the beauty of music.
So, as campus staff prepared around the clock late last summer for students’ return, the Facilities Services department erected tents in several locations: Simons Patio outside Malone Dining Hall, Love Patio between Scott Hall and Broyles Arts Center, Zakas Courtyard near the lower entrance of Clarkson Hall, and the new Community Plaza between Hawkins Hall and Thompson Stadium.
Even with the tents in place, outdoor rehearsals seemed far-fetched.
“It was so far outside of anything we’d ever done, but the band looked at it and said, ‘This is better than what we did in spring. We can have sort of a normal band class,’” says senior Jonas Du, a clarinetist.
Middle School chorus teacher Adam Fry remembers finally feeling optimistic after testing and measuring one of the tents with fellow chorus teacher Linda Searles: “We set up all the chairs and the piano, and she stood at the front and conducted. That was the first moment when I really felt like, ‘okay, we might be able to make this happen.’”
Through weather ranging from 90-degree heat to 40-degree rain, Westminster musicians made the best of their outdoor environments. Low brass players cleared rainfall from the edges of tents before class so the rain wouldn’t puddle and fall unpredictably. And, after one too many students had to chase their sheet music across the quad, students took their teachers’ advice to always clip their music to their stands.
A renovated Thompson Stadium provided plenty of space to spread out and sing in a striking setting but didn't allow for choral voices to reverberate while recording Messiah. So, the Upper School Ensemble brought hats, gloves, and even blankets to the middle level of Westminster's new parking deck (inset) on a cold December morning to produce the stunning audio that can be heard in the final piece.
“NO MATTER WHAT, WE HAVE TO MAKE THE ARTS WORK”
Even in years with normal rehearsal schedules and locations, the logistic load of a robust performing arts program is enormous: Does the timpani need to move from McCain Chapel back into the practice room for the chorus concert? How many extra chairs are needed when the entire band rehearses together, and where do they all go? Are the proper amplifiers in place?
Lower School music teacher Jill McCarden recalls thinking about all the things she’d need for teaching under a carpool pavilion instead of in her classroom: distance markers, portable supplies, and even an electricity source and a projector. She also recalls IT Services and Facilities Services staff problem-solving to accommodate each of those needs. That kind of teamwork has marked the year every step of the way.
“I’m so grateful that I work at a school where people said, ‘No matter what, we have to make the arts work. We have to give this to the kids,’” Adam says. “Our administration saw how important the arts are to people and said, ‘We will make it happen.’ The arts are what bring joy to so many kids’ days. It’s where they can express themselves and create. Arts are so crucial for their happiness, their development, and their sense of community and connection.”
For the Westminster Players, a radio play and musical revue, Vintage Hitchcock and
Broadway Comes to Westminster!, took the place of a more traditional fall play.
Senior Christina Boye, like the other actors involved in the revue, learned choreography for solos, duets, and small group numbers alone at home, which she says was the most difficult part of the modified rehearsals. “Doing the revue gave us an opportunity to be musical, which is so hard during COVID, and I’m so grateful that Mrs. Morgens (Kate Morgens ’91, Upper School Performing Arts Department Chair) worked so hard to make sure it was safe and we got to express ourselves,” she says.
Even filmmaking was affected by the pandemic. In recent years, Westminster has offered film classes for Upper and Middle School students, and students have formed a filmmaking group, StudioW, which has already produced award-winning short films.
In early March, StudioW filmmakers shot a scene at Landmark Diner for their original screenplay, Disowned—one of their last before pandemic restrictions took hold.
When restrictions started easing in the early summer, the group moved quickly to submit the film, along with another, Marked, to the All-American High School Film Festival by July 1.
“We meticulously planned out how we could still get these films done in time,” Jonas Du says. “We had a really great team that put a lot of hours into revising the screenplay. That was one of the big highlights of the year, being able to get out and shoot these films.”
The group submitted both films to the now-virtual festival, where they were nominated for four awards including “Best of Fest” awards for direction and rising female artists.
“When we traveled to New York the previous year for the festival, we attended the ‘Best of Fest’ screening. We were blown away by the quality of those films, and we said we wanted to be on that screen the next year,” Jonas says. “Because of the films we created this year and despite the obstacles we faced, we made it to that screen this year.”
For Frozen, Jr., the Westminster Junior Players limited the on-stage ensemble to no more than 12 people at a time and pre-recorded all singing before a day of filming on the Kellett Theatre stage. “Usually when you finish a show, there’s a sense of exhilaration—you get a round of applause, you see your parents, you go around hugging and high-fiving your friends. With Frozen, we filmed in a six-hour time period on a Saturday. When we finally finished, it was more of a feeling of relief,” says Ethan Mattingly ’25, who played the role of Kristoff. “Then watching it together as a cast (spaced out in the seats of Kellett Theatre with the show projected above the stage) was lots of fun.”
“WE WANTED TO DO SOMETHING FUN FOR THE SCHOOL COMMUNITY”
Tents enabled student performers to gather for rehearsal. But what about performing? With no visitors allowed on campus and strict limits on the number of people gathering for any purpose, in-per- son events were all but out of the question at the start of the year.
“We shifted our entire operation to being record- ing artists,” Scott says. “With the help of WCAT and StudioW, along with some other students and alumni who are active videographers, we were able to produce a number of filmed concert experiences.”
Ultimately, a concert or performance is evidence of learning. With live events off the table, students and teachers thought creatively of other ways to show how they’ve progressed musically. The change in routine, coupled with the difficulties of outdoor rehearsal, has meant a slower pace.
“In a way, it has been kind of refreshing not to have the same level of pressure around our next performance,” Adam Fry says. “It has allowed us to experiment with some things and try new ways of learning music.”
Music videos have been one way students have shown their learning while having a little bit of friendly competition.
“The students had such a fun time with it, and it let them touch many different skill sets, from singing to audio recording to filmmaking to video editing, and more. That’s been a lot of fun,” Adam says.
Even teachers learned new skills. Adam used his daily commute time to take an audio engineering course through LinkedIn Learning: “For two or three months, every day on the way to and from school, I was learning audio engineering: microphone placement, types of microphones, mixing, mastering, all types of different skills. I didn’t even know what a compressor was at the beginning of the semester, and I was shopping for one online by the end.”
Even outside of class, students found creative ways to share music with the rest of the School community.
Jonas and a friend had always wanted to play an arrangement of Earth, Wind & Fire's “September” on clarinet but never had because the version they liked required about a dozen different players.
“We wanted to do something fun for the school community, so we decided we wanted to perform at school on the 21st night of September,” Jonas explains. “We put together a backing track, brought our clarinets to school, and performed during the lunch period. It was really fun to perform music that we could see our class enjoying.”
Actors tried many new kinds of performances: a radio show with a separate microphone for each cast member, ensemble numbers with pre-recorded audio and blocking designed to keep everyone distanced, and a variety of individual and small-group work.
“THERE WAS SOME DISAPPOINTMENT, AND NOW THEY HAVE NEW FAVORITES”
In addition to performances, several other traditions and favorite events, ranging from games in Lower School music classes to ensemble retreats in Upper School, had to be reimagined.
“The students came in so excited to play their favorite game from last year, but we had to talk about why we couldn’t play that game,” Jill says. “There was some disappointment, but we thought of new games to play, and now they have some new favorites! In the beginning, there was a sad cloud hanging over us because we couldn’t do those things, but that’s been swept away by some new happy sunshine they’ve discovered in their ability to be flexible.”
Across the school, the changes in performing arts have given students time to explore other parts of music and performance they might not have other- wise. Singers in Middle School used ukeleles and choir chimes when they couldn’t sing outside to learn concepts like music theory and chord progression.
Outdoor rehearsal enabled students to keep pursuing artistic endeavors. “I honestly had no idea what band was going to look like. I thought it might just be small groups, but I think it ended up working out great, and I’m really happy it did,” says Stan Watkins ’25, a trombone player.
“ENSEMBLE MEANS ‘TOGETHER’ IN FRENCH”
The almost-unanimous favorite part of returning to in-person music instruction was the opportunity to play music together in community.
“It had been months and months of practicing alone at home,” Jonas remembers. “To be able to play with other people in the band, even if a lot of people hadn’t practiced very much going into the school year, even though it wasn’t the most amazing band in the world considering the circumstances, it still felt like a breath of fresh air.”
For faculty, too, in-person classes opened up opportunities that had been missing during the remote spring. “It gives our students opportunities to learn, in a safe place, how to be part of an ensemble. Those teamwork skills can be applied to so many life situa- tions. You’re not always the person who has to be in charge or be the center of attention,” Jill says.
Individual performance, small-group performance, and large-group performance are all intertwined into the music curriculum in a typical year, and each of these aspects develops particular skills the others do not.
“Ensemble means ‘together’ in French. The reason, honestly, that most of our students are in music at this point in their lives is because they love the social aspect of making music in a large group. When that is taken away, you're left with that one component of making music by yourself,” Scott says.
Remote learners used a variety of apps to learn music and play alongside those attending school in person. Creative videography and video editing helped audiences see the remote musicians!
"I'M JUST GLAD WE GOT THE OPPORTUNITY"
It was clear from the beginning of the year that Wildcats would find a way to put on the Lower School Christmas Pageant as well as the Upper School performance of Handel’s Messiah. With more all-hands-on-deck thinking, both premiered via recorded video in December.
For the pageant, students learned songs at home from recorded videos by their teachers. In November, it was time to record the performance without having ever sung the pieces together as a group.
“We took the kids outside, one grade level at a time, hoping they had watched the videos we’d made and practiced at home,” says Lower School music teacher Sonya Peebles. “The feat those students accomplished is pretty remarkable when you know they hadn’t had any vocal instruction all year.” Using the Stembler Amphitheatre behind Clarkson Hall, students stood six feet away from one another on spots marked with masking tape to sing their group numbers while wearing the traditional pageant robes. Speakers stood on the stage of McCain Chapel one at a time and delivered spoken lines into a camera. Shepherds and wise men arrived at the scene in face masks and dared not approach the baby Jesus too closely.
New spaces proved key for recording Messiah. The new concrete stands of Thompson Stadium were the perfect location for singing large-group numbers, and the acoustics of a new parking deck heightened the audio quality. “In the end, it worked out really well, and I’m just grateful we got the opportunity to do Messiah in my senior year,” Christina Boye says.
The Christmas Pageant combined video of more than 400 performers. Jaina Alexander '28 describes being in the orchestra from home: "We all recorded audio of ourselves playing, then we recorded ourselves in a Zoom meeting, but muted. A videographer combined it all together, and it was really beautiful."
"I'M REALLY GLAD WE DIDN'T GIVE UP ON THIS YEAR"
Grit. Adaptability. Dedication. These are among the words applied over and over again to the ways people have persevered through the pandemic. In the case of our performing arts department, they are also the very traits the program develops in students over many years.
“I’m really glad that we didn’t give up on this year and we continued creating: creating music, creating films. Not only did it help the Westminster community, it helped us as creators,” Jonas says.
And when you hear the music drifting through campus, watch recordings of performances, and see students with a new spring in their step after a performing arts class, it’s clear that every tent, every specialized mask, every moment spent recording video was worth it.