Performers at Western Michigan University are facing all new challenges this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many art forms that utilize facial exposure are now unable to be executed as usual, as the use of masks obstructs the performer. Performance groups at WMU are finding alternative ways to continue performing while keeping students and staff safe.
The biggest adjustment to these programs has been the implementation of safety protocols in the rehearsal space. Groups are social distancing, wearing masks and increasing sanitization.
WMU’s Dance Program has begun sanitizing floors and ballet bars with isopropyl alcohol after each rehearsal, as well as remaining in ten square foot sized boxes to maintain distance. Additionally, the dancers wear masks at all times.
WMU’s Bands have also been exercising caution with special face masks designed with slits to insert the mouthpiece of one’s instrument. Additionally the bands are using specially designed bell covers and instrument bags to stop the spread of particles.
“The College Band Directors National Association commissioned a scientific study on wind instruments and how they may spread the disease and what steps we might take to mitigate the risk,” said Scott Boerma, a professor of music and the director of bands at WMU. “With a certain kind of 2 ply material, called adedeniered nylon, bell covers for the instruments would stop the risk by about 90% of these aerosol admissions.”
During practices, students are remaining eight to ten feet apart, depending on their instrument, and the conductor stays twelve feet in front of the band. Practices are also held in straight lines rather than the traditional arc formation of concert bands.
WMU’s Choir is practicing similarly by wearing masks and social distancing. Both the choirs and the bands are rehearsing outside when possible and allowing rooms to rest between practices which allows air particles to fall to the ground.
With these safety precautions in mind, performances are looking different this year. While there will be no traditional packed theatre performances on campus, groups at WMU are getting creative in the performance space to continue artistic expression.
The dance program is exploring virtual and socially distanced performances. Recently, the program hosted its annual Fall Showcase, in which senior dance students choreograph performances for first years.
Rather than in the theatre, these dances were choreographed for specific locations around WMU’s campus, where dancers performed in socially distanced groups with masks.
“We had an audience of about 200 people broken into seven different groups who were each led through the circuit around campus to watch these performances in their cite specific locations,” said Megan Slayter, acting associate director of the School of Theatre and Dance. “That one was amazingly successful.”
The WMU choir is performing virtually on their social media channels. These recorded performances are highlighting non-profit or charitable organizations. The group recently released a virtual performance for World Food Day, where they sang Abbie Betinis' 8-part canon, "Hunger of the World” in support of WMU's Invisible Need Project and Kalamazoo's Loaves & Fishes.
WMU Choirs will continue to release virtual performances centered on social and environmental issues such as clean water, women's empowerment and mental health.
WMU’s band programs are also planning to release some virtual performances on live streams, such as virtual concerts and student recitals this fall. Additionally, the Bronco Marching Band is hoping to perform a few pep tunes at the first home football game before winter break.
The WMU choir is also taking advantage of less group rehearsal time to study further the lyrical aspects of the pieces they’re performing.
“I'm hopeful it will lead to a more well-rounded educational model,” said Kimberly Adams, associate professor of the School of Music.
Bands are practicing in “chamber ensembles, which are made up of eight to twenty players. As a result, students must be more prepared than ever for practices, as an individual is often the only one playing his or her part.
“Our musicians are going to be more confident, independent musicians based on the realities of our situation,” Boerma said. “The students have handled it extraordinarily well and taken it with good humor.”
The dance program has also found inspiration in the challenges by continuing to engage creatively.
“There is always a way to share your art and that art always has value,” Slayter said. “If we look at how we are all trapped at home and what we’re doing, we’re engaging with the arts.”
The dance program is currently looking into virtual performances for the future. Stay tuned to WMUDance on Instagram and Facebook for future performances and dates.