Art programs at Pitt adjust to remote learning

By Anna Ligorio, Staff Writer

Before spring break, virtual music lessons and online art class were few and far between at Pitt.

But due to the outbreak of COVID-19 and the University’s subsequent move to online classes, students and faculty are now facing unprecedented challenges. Arts programs at Pitt in particular are now grappling with how to teach studio arts, theater and music.

In the music department, an average of 11 musical ensembles play together each semester. The Heinz Chapel Choir, Men’s Glee Club and Women’s Choral Ensemble all had international events that were cancelled in response to the pandemic. According to Mathew Rosenblum, the chair of the music department at Pitt, one specific problem faced by music programs is that large musical ensembles cannot play together virtually.

“We came to the conclusion early on that it was going to be impossible to teach musical ensembles online — there’s no way the orchestra can have a Zoom meeting,” Rosenblum said. “Early on, we made the decision to cancel all of the ensembles, and obviously we cancelled all the spring concerts as well.”

Because of this, Rosenblum said, students in these ensembles will be graded based off of the work that they have done so far in their semester. For other large lectures like History of Jazz or for individual private lessons, most professors in the music department are using Zoom meetings to replicate an in-class experience. Rosenblum said the music department has been emphasizing the importance of communication over online learning platforms like Zoom.

“Since we are a music department, hearing is really important,” he said. “Having clear audio through Zoom is really important, so we’ve had people offer solutions that they’ve experimented with. It’s been very helpful to be able to talk to each other and share the challenges and come up with solutions as a group.”

Although meeting over Zoom has its limitations, music theory professor Marcelle Pierson said remote learning can open up opportunities for students who did not feel comfortable speaking in front of a large class when classes took place in person.

“I think of it as activating a subset of students that may not have been as comfortable with in-class participation,” Pierson said. “Same for Zoom class — it has certain obvious drawbacks, but also affords certain students opportunities to, say, chat a question privately to me that they may not have felt comfortable asking in front of everyone.”

The studio arts department also faces substantial challenges when it comes to remote learning. According to Barbara Weissberger, a senior lecturer in studio arts, one obvious limitation is that students no longer have access to the tools and materials that are available on campus.

Even though students no longer have access to the materials on campus, Weissberger said she believes her students will succeed and produce creative projects. According to her, artists almost always work with limitations, and these limitations can open up creative possibilities.

“A lot of art-making relies on inventiveness and experimentation,” Weissberger said. “Those skills which students have been developing all semester will come in handy as they complete end-of-semester projects without the support of the art studios at Pitt, specialized equipment and materials. Everyone has to make it up a bit and use what’s at hand.”

The theater arts program has also had to adjust its courses to remote learning in creative ways. Abby Dean, a first-year student studying biological sciences and theater arts, said the structure of some of her classes have completely changed due to the switch to remote learning and cancellation of many in-person events.

“In Enjoying Performances, we would watch Pitt performances and we would talk about different theories, but now we have moved to online discussion boards,” Dean said. “Since we can’t discuss current productions, like ‘Head Over Heels’ that was scheduled for April, my professor uploads different Broadway productions that we can watch and then write essays about.”

Although she thinks her professors have been as accommodating as possible, Dean said she is still nervous about the possibility that the lack of one-on-one contact with professors will negatively impact her learning.

“I’m an auditory learner, so everything that I learn best is from people talking to me and explaining things to me, and without that kind of communication and without being present in a classroom, I’m nervous that I’m gonna fall behind,” she said.

Regardless of how well students and faculty prepare, there may be unforeseen complications in the future that will have to be solved as the semester winds down. According to Rosenblum, new issues will need to be addressed as they emerge.

“It’s going to be challenging,” said Rosenblum. “We don’t know what all of the problems will be yet, so we’re trying to tackle them as they come in.”