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Art Students Continue to Learn Online During Crisis

Some budding dancers once practicing a kick ball change in the studio are learning from home through online video, while music students are being taught songs and scales by their teachers via computer.

by Amanda Christman, Standard-Speaker / May 19, 2020

(TNS) — The virtual world is keeping art alive during a time of social distancing.

Some budding dancers once practicing a kick ball change in the studio are learning from home through online video, while music students are being taught songs and scales by their teachers via computer.

Some students of the arts are taking a pause, too, practicing independently as the world around them slows to stop the spread of the new coronavirus.

Madeline Ashton of Conyngham came home from the Hazleton Area Academy of Sciences in Drums on a Friday in March unsure how COVID-19 would affect her — and unaware she wouldn’t return to the academy building for the rest of the school year.

“It was just crazy, like it was from a movie. Everything was getting canceled,” she said.

As the days progressed, the 15-year-old would learn that her piano lessons at Young Artists Music Academy and dance lessons at the Performing Arts Center would be held virtually.

It was a strange experience at first, but after doing both for about two months, it’s not so weird anymore.

“It’s nice to have a schedule,” said Ashton, who looks forward to seeing her friends in person when the pandemic ends. “I’m glad to have anything … do anything normal.” Her current normal comes from roughly 30-minute online piano and ballet and pointe classes.

Educators of the arts have had to learn teaching in a whole new environment.

The dancers

Tammy Heller of the Performing Arts Center, Sugarloaf Twp., still heads to her studio to teach classes, but it’s empty — until she fires up her computer. With a few punches of the keyboard, her students appear, attending lessons at no cost.

“I’m emotionally so full when I see them. I could spend an hour just talking to them,” she said.

Her students’ friends are joining in, too, and learning the art of dance during a time when just about every activity has been canceled.

At first, Heller said she expected a two- to three-week shutdown, but as time marched on it was apparent it would be much longer. The annual spring performance was threatened.

“It kinda took the wind out of our sails,” she said.

But artists rise to a challenge. She said she’ll find a special way to honor the hard work of her dancers, including the seniors.

Sherri O’Donnell of All That Dancin’ on South Church Street in Hazleton has been hosting classes from her Drums home over Zoom. Sometimes there’s a lag in the music, which disrupts timing, or other sporadic issues, but it’s been working well overall.

She chats with her students and they show off their pets and stuffed animals, and put on different outfits.

“It gives them a sense of normalcy,” she said ahead of a recent afternoon class.

Her older students lost their prom, graduation and national honor society inductions; they lost classroom camaraderie and sports. Younger students are still trying to understand why everyone is wearing a mask.

“I had to make sure they don’t lose dance. It’s more than just a lesson, it’s a bond between us,” O’Donnell said.

She doesn’t take payment for the classes right now either, knowing these are financially stressful times.

Her studio closed in mid March and a week later she jumped on Zoom to test it as a way to deliver her class.

“Our businesses are completely changing,” she said.

Her students are looking forward to a recital, which may not happen until Labor Day or later, but she has “full faith” it will happen.

The musicians

The DeMelfi School of Music did a virtual class test run ahead of the stay-at-home order and went full-time online on March 21 after sending notices to 50 to 60 students and teachers.

“It’s different; it gets the job done,” Daniel DeMelfi said. “Ten years ago we wouldn’t have been able to do this.”

Even with virtual classes, business is down about 30%, as some students decided against online participation. Also, some instructions are difficult to teach virtually, but vocal, piano and violin students continue to get lessons.

DeMelfi noticed something over the past few weeks. Not only did music instruction become routine again for students, they now have more time to develop their talents — and it shows in their lessons.

“In any crisis or tragedy, musicians always rise up,” he said. “Music is always there to sooth us. That comes with listening to music, playing music and teaching music. It takes your mind off the problems you have.”

Sheila Butkiewicz and a second teacher at Young Artists Music Academy in Sugarloaf Twp. reach out to students online, too. About 75% decided to continue classes. Parents were thankful to have an alternative, and so were students.

“That speaks to the interpersonal connection students have to their teacher,” Butkiewicz said.

Students are showing a magnified thirst for learning that can only be explained by their lives not being as busy, she said.

Teachers are challenged with online learning, however, having to put into words what they would typically demonstrate physically, Butkiewicz said. But that is re-igniting her teaching skills.

Saturdays her toddler classes meet for music class with a scarf and a shaker, and they are still having a recital this year. Though that, too, will be online, family and friends will be able to watch and celebrate the students’ progress.

Johnny Moratto, whose name adorns a music shop and teaching studio along Route 309 in Hazleton, said virtual schools are a “great substitute” but are no comparison to in-person learning. For example, a teacher can manipulate a student’s hands in person to show the correct way to play an instrument.

Most students have elected to wait until Pennsylvania’s stay-at-home order is lifted to continue lessons, and when they do they’ll likely find themselves in a large instruction room so social distancing guidelines can be honored, he said.

Though some of his guitar, piano and voice students are taking online instruction, “there’s a ton of students just not coming in.”

Piano teachers were giving lessons online before the pandemic hit, said Mary Jane Kotansky of Mary Jane’s Piano Studio, South Main Road, Mountain Top.

She knew it was possible. Throughout the years she’s offered lessons by video or phone in emergency situations.

Students needed a diversion from being forced inside, and Kotansky needed to keep her business alive.

“It was sink or swim,” she said. “It was a necessity. I didn’t want them to forget what they already know.”

Kotansky noted teachers have to hide their frustrations over not teaching in person; students will pick up on those emotions, she said.

“I have to do my job with the same care and insight as I always have, just remotely,” she said.

Time to breathe

In her three decades operating Faberge Follies, 339 W. Broad St., Hazleton, Miss Faberge,as she’s known to students, has never closed shop, so she, too, is reaching her dancers and gymnasts online.

But rather than filling their time with classes, she’s telling students to go outside, play and be kids. That will develop them into better artists, she said.

“This is an opportunity. An opportunity for creativity. A time to mature,” she said.

Rather than worrying if their pirouette is perfect, she’s been telling them to pick one aspect of the art form and get better at it, and find ways to enjoy not being so busy.

“In my whole life I never had time like this, and it may never happen in any of our lives again,” she said.

Faberge’s been telling students to read and let a story take them on an adventure, while offering them lessons on the history of dance.

She gently reminds them to be good to their parents and explore the world around them while finding beauty in uncommon places.

Dancers have been writing letters to nursing homes in lieu of their “Make Someone Happy Tour,” where they’d typically dance for residents.

Her students are also learning the responsibility of staying in shape, and getting practice sheets from instructor Brianna Romanchik.

Faberge hopes all this brings them to a higher state of awareness, one that will teach them to be grateful and to make good use of their time — a lesson Faberge’s mother taught her.

And while there’s much uncertainty at this time, one thing’s for certain: “We will dance again,” Faberge said.

©2020 the Standard-Speaker (Hazleton, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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