Reading, MA – Ten months into the coronavirus pandemic, it’s easy to watch films that feature-packed concert halls and wonder if it’s a period piece. But live performance is not something of the past, although it may come in a different form. In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, performing arts teachers at Reading Memorial High School have grappled with how to continue to provide their students with creative outlets while also keeping themselves and their audience members safe.
“The idea actually came to us in the spring of last year. We wanted to do something because everything ended so abruptly. In March of last year, we started this process of rehearsing the groups through zoom, where students could play along with a backing track, and then they would record it, send it to us, and then we could edit it all together. Going through it last year and kind of figuring it out enabled us to have a little bit of a better idea of how to put it together this year,” said Joe Mulligan, Director of Bands at RMHS.
That trial and error in the spring allowed RMHS performing arts groups to approach the fall with a newfound optimism and a greater understanding of what they could do with virtual performances. What has emerged is four virtual performances, many of which will be premiering later this month.
“The drama club performance, which was called Act Up! Theatrical Activism from the Bard to Broadway, was a film that we did collaboratively with the RCTV teacher here at RMHS, Anna Cuevas, and it focused on theatrical activism. So it featured various songs and scenes that were all rehearsed over zoom and then recorded either outside socially distanced or individually at students’ homes. That premiered last Friday, but it is still available on YouTube until December 11th at midnight,” said Anna Wentlent, Fine and Performing Arts Head at the Reading Public Schools.
Act Up! tickets can be purchased on the RMHS Drama website until midnight on Friday, December 11th.
Looking ahead, many of the bands and choirs at the high school also have several performances coming up. The experience has allowed both the students and their teachers to learn more, not only about Zoom but also recording technology as a whole.
“For both Choir and Band, we’ve been doing primarily Zoom rehearsals for the last two months. How that works is I keep my microphone on, same with a Band Director, and I sit with my computer on top of my piano, so that I can lead over a regular rehearsal from the piano, but everyone at home mutes themselves, so that we don’t have the lag” said Wentlent.
Students then record their parts of a song via an audio program called Soundtrap, which allows people to collaborate on music files together. For students in band, the process is pretty much the same, with everyone playing along to a pre-recorded backing track of a song, and then recording their individual instrument’s section.
“This was a cool part of the experience because then the kids were able to learn more about recording technology, and how to get the best sound quality out of their homes,” said Wentlent.
“It takes us about a week or two to edit everything together for a concert like this. But it’s a good lesson for the kids because that’s almost how all music, other than live music, is put together nowadays. When you listen to any band recording, it’s musicians in a studio, putting it all together, layering everything on top of each other, and then putting it out,” said Mulligan.
In the spring, the majority of this editing was done by Chris Rodgers (RMHS 2018), an audio engineering student, who offered to help Mr. Mulligan and Ms. Wentlent. For this upcoming concert, this editing is a labor of love performed by Mr. Mulligan, Ms. Wentlent, Ms. Cuevas, as well as several students who have expressed an interest.
Although these concerts were a lot more work to create, Mulligan thinks that this added labor has given the students an added sense of achievement.
“It gives us a great portfolio of all that the kids have done this semester,” said Mulligan.
The upcoming concerts are as follows:
December 4th through 11th: Act Up! Theatrical Activism from the Bard to Broadway
December 14th at 7pm: Winter SongFest, featuring performances by the RMHS Choir
December 16th at 7pm: RMHS Band Concert, featuring the Symphonic Band, Jazz Band, and Jazz Combo
December 22nd at 7pm: RMHS Holiday Spectacular, featuring select holiday-themed performances by the Symphonic Band, Jazz Band, Jazz Combo, RMHS Choir, and RMHS Drama Club
All the Choir and Band concerts are free for the public and can be streamed at any time on or after the premiere date on the RMHS Choir Website.