West Virginia Wesleyan College / File photo

Spotlight: On one-year anniversary of COVID-19, WVWC’s Creative Arts get creative to bring back the sound of music

BUCKHANNON, WV – Late on Monday and Wednesday afternoons, the sound of tenors and altos, basses and sopranos echo through the Virginia Thompson Law Performing Arts Center on West Virginia Wesleyan’s campus. Inside, the stage sits dark, as it has for nearly a year since the COVID-19 global health pandemic began. Scattered across the nearly 400-person Culpepper Auditorium are 28 personalized booths, where students – lit by a small light, surrounded by polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipe and stage drape – peer at their instructor through clear vinyl often used on boats.

It’s the new normal in the Concert Chorale and Concentus Vocum ensembles taught by Dr. R. Daniel Hughes, Director of Choral Activities and Chair of the WVWC Music Department.

Just weeks before students returned to the Buckhannon-based campus in January 2021, Hughes and Keith Saine, Director of Technical Theatre at WVWC, got together to brainstorm how they could create an opportunity for the choral groups to come together – safely and in person – to continue their musical and creative arts studies. They reviewed a host of software and technological platforms and specially-designed masks for singing to no avail.

“Every option we came up with presented more problems than we started with,” Saine explained. “Barring having (students) in different zip codes, we figured we could take the general premise of what the mask does – it basically covers and mitigates those droplets – and we created a mask that effectively drapes over the entire person.”

Hughes echoed Saine’s assessment on how to best create an atmosphere where students could perform in a safe way.

“One of the concerns with singing is the aerosols and droplets that singers produce when expressing themselves,” Hughes said. “With these booths we’re not only able to control that spread, but we’re able to extend meeting times and have back-to-back rehearsals.”

According to Saine, over the last year, the performing arts community – from Buckhannon to Broadway – found it difficult to perform or even practice. Whether it was in person or as a collective group, performances, if any were held at all, were left to online platforms, such as Zoom.

“After trying to figure things out using all of this technology, we went the lowest tech-way possible,” Saine said. “It is PVC pipe just like you find at Lowe’s and then the vinyl in front is used to make windows on boats.”

The costs to create the booths topped out at about $1,500, according to Saine. Each booth, which is personalized for each student, consists of stage duvetyne (commonly known as drape), a clip-on light, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipe and vinyl that is used on boats. Each student uses a microphone to amplify their voice and to better hear their classmates as they sing collectively as a choir. To see a real-life video of the booths, click here.

During a ‘normal’ semester, Hughes’ choral classes are often held in Wesley Chapel, with students shoulder-to-shoulder in a choir loft-like set up. Serenity Anderson ‘21, an alto in the Concert Chorale class that meets on Monday and Wednesday afternoons, said that while the booths weren’t perfect for her choir class, it’s a welcome change from being online.

“It’s hard to not be around people, because you tend to listen to each other,” explained Anderson, a senior psychology major from Somerset, New Jersey. “It also makes you accountable; without your part then you can’t flourish.”

When asked about how it felt to sing alongside her classmates again, even in a booth designed as a human-sized mask, she said: “We were home last semester, so it was really hard. Being around everyone again is amazing.”