What Laurentians Do: St. Lawrence Performance Arts Persevere Through COVID-19 | St. Lawrence University

What Laurentians Do: St. Lawrence Performance Arts Persevere Through COVID-19

Hana Bushara ’21 is the president of the Laurentian Singers, the student chamber choir with a 74-year history at St. Lawrence. She recalls the moment she and her fellow singers had to transition to remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic last spring.

“It was devastating.” says Hana. “The Laurentian Singers were preparing to start our tour to San Francisco which obviously got scrapped, alongside our final performance scheduled for the end of the semester—our seniors took that really hard.”

For performing artists like Hana at St. Lawrence, the pandemic posed unique challenges. But once the disappointment of cancelled spring events subsided, students and dedicated faculty and staff members across campus did more than just accept the challenges in front of them—they confronted them with creativity and innovation to sustain a rich tradition of music and dance at St. Lawrence.

The Sound of Creativity

Despite their dismay, Hana and her fellow singers knew they had to move forward.

“For me, there’s always danger with the word ‘plan’—I mean look at what 2020 has been like for all of us,” Hana says. “It’s more about taking advantage of digital spaces.”

She credits the dedicated leadership of Laurentian Singers Director Barry Torres, Associate Professor and Chair of Music David Henderson, Lecturer in the First-Year Program Larry Boyette, Production Manager Terry DuBray, and Instructional Specialist Barbara Phillips-Farley for forging solutions during the transition to remote learning.

“It was all about, ‘How do we maintain our commitment to having high expectations and putting in the work, while also being cognizant and understanding COVID’s limitations on what we do?’” says Hana.

“In a normal semester, my focus is on the choir as a whole,” says Torres. “But by having the increase in time to work with students one-on-one, we were able to clearly identify what their strengths are as vocalists, identify what their weaknesses as vocalists are, and really individualize my support in ways I wouldn’t have been able to before the pandemic struck.” 

During these individual sessions, Hana even had the opportunity to collaborate with Torres on an arrangement for her original song, “To Love, but From Afar.”

Still, Torres says the main priority for the Laurentian Singers was determining how to regroup as a choir and figuring out ways to release content virtually before safely restarting in-person rehearsals and performances.

Torres explains that vocalists and musicians received “click-files,” electronic messages that help virtual vocalists understand the pitch and tempo that is crucial for vocal cohesion. A sound engineer then integrated the recordings of the individual vocals and musical instruments into a composite musical number.

While this method was a big success in the group’s first virtual performance of University songs during the virtual Laurentian Weekend, the creative thinking for Torres and the Laurentian Singers didn’t stop there.

“We actually ended up ordering dozens of silicon mouthpieces called ‘mask-brackets’ that provide a small space between the mouth and the mask. Essentially their purpose is for individuals who wish to wear lipstick or lip gloss without worrying about it smudging on the mask fabric,” explains Torres.

“But for us, it was perfect because it meant that the sound coming from our vocalists had more space to materialize, and it greatly decreased the muffling effect and mouth-sticking that made our socially-distanced rehearsals spread throughout the Gunnison Memorial Chapel sonically possible.”

When Hana reflects on the Laurentian Singers’ perseverance, she can’t help but smile. “I’ll be honest, we sounded better before the pandemic hit, that’s for sure,” she says, laughing. “But there’s a certain pride in the fact that we made it work, even doing performances virtually we still sound like a choir. The pandemic made us get really creative with the way we do things, and it’s allowed us to get even better as musicians.”

“We made it work. That’s what Laurentians do.”

Keeping the Groove

When the annual Spring Dance Concert was canceled in the spring, Visiting Assistant Professor of Performance and Communication Arts Kerri Canedy knew she couldn’t dwell too long on what could have been. Instead, she got to work, teaming up with Associate Professor and Chair of Performance and Communication Arts Jennifer Thomas, Technical Director Daniel Gallagher, and Associate Professor of Performance and Communication Arts Angela Sweigart-Gallagher to research practices in Broadway theaters and other professional performance centers.

“We, as artists, are trying our best to keep art alive,” said Canedy. “There’s no question that it has been difficult, but it forces us to get creative—that’s what we do.”

Canedy is cautiously optimistic about technology’s ability to solve challenges facing artistic performers during COVID-19, but she’s collaborating closely with colleagues and students on thoughtful solutions. Her creativity shines in plans for students in her “Techniques of Dance” course this spring. With the help of the Information Technology department, she acquired a wireless microphone and mastered a new computer program with sound mixing capabilities that she can incorporate in virtual remote learning.

Canedy has already completed the course at SUNY Potsdam with great success, successfully overcoming the inescapable hiccups that are synonymous with virtual remote learning.

“I have specific counts and words that I use when I teach dance technique that trigger actions,” Canedy says. “But with Zoom, there are always those few moments of lag or delay that vary from student to student, depending on their internet access. So what you get is something that almost resembles like a wave, where one student will throw their hands up and then another will and another… it’s a sight to see.”

The immense efforts of Canedy and her colleagues has fueled motivation for student-led dance groups as well. Sophia Alvarez ’21, president of St. Lawrence’s Graceful Movements dance group, believes there’s a path forward for performance groups to sustain their traditions.

She believes the toolbox of knowledge that a St. Lawrence education provides enables performing artists to overcome the unique challenges of the pandemic and dance together again.

“Our history and traditions are too important and rich to let die. It’ll take some creativity, but that’s what Laurentians are: creative, open-minded, determined,” Sophia says. “Whether it’s socially-distanced outdoor performances or choreographed Zoom performances, I know all of us can get it done.”