By Greg Welsh, Marketing & Communications Assistant at Perkiomen School
“The show must go on.”
If there was ever a year to question the validity of this timeless, show business expression, well, this was the one.
A global pandemic brought on by a disease that spreads primarily through respiratory droplets doesn’t exactly project well for a department reliant on spit-producing instruments and vocals.
Nevertheless, first-year Perkiomen School Director of Music, Ashley Higginbotham, was determined not to be deterred by the challenging circumstances facing the Fine & Performing Arts. While there is no doubt that the situation has been limiting in some regards, there have also been countless new opportunities presented.
“So much has changed, because it’s had to,” Higginbotham said. “It has given me a lot of freedom to explore what is best for our music program, and our music community, going forward,” Higginbotham said.
It may not look, feel, or even sound quite the same, but Higginbotham and her students have found a way to maximize their musical experience throughout the 2020-21 academic year.
Instead of the customary band and chorus sessions, this year’s classes have been more general.
As a result of smaller class sizes, Higginbotham has been able to personalize the curriculum to fit specific interests and experience levels.
Students have had the opportunity to survey an array of subjects, doing everything from experimenting with bucket drums and handbells, to creating a percussion ensemble, to exploring scholarly research in music.
“I would love to do band and chorus and have all those wonderful things, but I get to teach the kids things that I didn’t learn until I was in college,” Higginbotham said.
Recently, with the guidance of local piano serviceman, Derek Foster, students had the chance to help break down an old piano. The project allowed the group to learn about the instrument’s inner workings, as well as how it was made. Ultimately, the goal was for students to recycle the piano’s parts and use them to create new instruments.
Freshman Sabreyah Thompson, who has been a musician since she picked up a violin in first grade, especially enjoyed this different way of exploring music. She chose to build a lyre. “My favorite part was painting the finished lyre,” said Thompson. “Choosing the colors, I made it mine and special to me.”
Next, Thompson hopes to learn the lyre, adding it to the list of instruments she has played, including organ and trumpet.
Higginbotham has also found a way to engage those students who are learning virtually this year from a distance.
An online sheet music notation software called Noteflight, along with the digital audio workstation, Soundtrap, has offered a way for remote learners to compose their own instrumental works from anywhere across the globe.
“It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a guitar,” Higginbotham says. “The computer can take care of that. It’s [just] important that we get the musical idea out there.”
Adjusting class periods is one thing, yet, at its heart, music is still meant to be shared. Resolute in her wish for students to be able to showcase their skills and talents, Higginbotham shifted her philosophy from live performances to recordings.
This move allowed for traditions such as the Fall Concert, Vespers Service and even the Winter Theater Project to endure during a year in which much was forced to pause. The process was intricate, and even a bit onerous at times. Higginbotham set up a recording studio in the music room using an interface from her home.
One by one, students would come in to record vocals and instrumentals. They also taped socially distant music videos. After a little mixing and editing by Higginbotham, the songs were ready to be enjoyed, accessible to anyone with a Zoom link and an internet connection.
The Winter Theater Project was a particularly challenging endeavor. A traditional musical was an impossibility this year, so instead the group opted for an original, music-infused TV show entitled, “The Perks.” The students took the lead, creating their characters and designing the script.
Because of the need to record the music and dialogue while also leaving time for filming, the timeline was greatly accelerated compared to typical years. Adding to the challenge was the fact that the cast couldn’t sing together at all, so much of the rehearsal came from speaking the music in a distanced group setting.
While the electricity of performing in front of a live audience may be missing, there have actually been benefits to having recorded productions, such as the chance to do multiple takes and to make edits.
“With a performance, you have one shot,” Higginbotham said. “There’s this energy and it’s magical, but you have one shot. If you mess up, or someone near you messes up, or the sound cuts out, that’s part of the experience, but when you’re recording, ideally, you shouldn’t have any of those problems.”
The feelings that come with that full-house environment for performers were certainly missed, however. For Perkiomen senior Michael Gray, a dedicated art student throughout his time at the school, the absence of a crowd for his send-off show was definitely a disappointment.
Recognizing this, Higginbotham planned a surprise for Gray to give him the type of reception he deserved. Without Gray knowing, Higginbotham arranged for Gray’s family, friends, and teachers to come into the performing arts center in groups and fill the seats. She then filmed them all giving a standing ovation and inserted the footage into the show after Gray’s solo.
“When I saw it for the first time I was like, wait a minute, that’s not scripted,” Gray, who will attend Penn State University next year, said. “I looked around the audience and I was like, ‘I know those people’. That caught me by surprise. I went home happy that day.”
It is moments like these Higginbotham will look back on as she reflects on her introductory year at Perkiomen. That and the times when students came into the music room to tell her they just wrote a song.
“The thing I’m most excited about is hearing them [the students] begin to give themselves permission to make music,” Higginbotham said. “If we have a generation of empowered artists, that’s the answer. Even as we get back to normal, hopefully, all of the students always feel that this was the year they were able to really take charge and have an identity.”
Read more about the Arts at Perkiomen School, and remember, the show must go on!
Greg Welsh is a 2020 graduate of Villanova University, where he received a Bachelor of Arts in Communication. He has a background in journalism and is excited to be assisting Perkiomen School by working with the Office of Marketing & Communications.