Arts Students Confront Distance Learning Challenges

Sam Kim, third from the left, playing the bass guitar for his music class before distance learning began
Photo by Chunyi Xiao

When Sam Kim logged onto his first online performance class, he experienced immediate issues playing his bass guitar. 

“Because of the way that Zoom translates the audio from person to person, there wasn’t much of the low ends, like the low frequencies,” said Kim, a sophomore majoring in music. “It didn’t sound great, sometimes the audio would cut out as well.”

Kim is one of many performing and visual arts students at Hunter who are facing unique challenges after CUNY implemented distance learning for the rest of the semester. Online classes began on March 19. Students who previously met for music, dance, theater or art classes have had to adjust to new methods of instruction. Meeting through tools such as Blackboard Collaborate or Zoom differs from playing together in an orchestra or practicing group choreography in a dance studio. 

Kim said that for his jazz ensemble class, his professor Ryan Keberle places more emphasis on listening to and discussing music in class rather than playing it. However, Keberle expects students to practice music on their own time. For Kim’s jazz and pop combos class, which Keberle also oversees, students split themselves into groups of six or seven to perform. Instead of playing together in these groups, the professor will collect individual recordings and layer them on top of each other with editing software so the students can hear the whole song.

“It was definitely something that I needed to get used to, I think that can be said for everybody,” Kim said. “As much as me and my friends complained earlier in the semester about being physically in class, I would definitely prefer physical classes over this.”

At the end of the semester, Kim and other students in his individual performance class undergo juries, where three staff members from the department judge their abilities. The students must instead submit a video this semester, which Kim said will improve his recording skills for when he has to apply to graduate programs. Kim said he sees some benefits to staying at home, like more opportunities to practice.

“I got an email from the music department saying that artists in history who were quarantined produced their best works during that time, like Shakespeare,” Kim said. “I have a lot more free time. I could put so much time into my instrument, that if I do, I’ll come out this semester a better musician than if I had stayed at Hunter.”

While Kim plays his bass guitar at home, Vienna Cohn practices dance movements in her small Brooklyn apartment. For Cohn’s honors project, she and her friend started choreographing a group dance they planned to showcase at the end of May. They raised funds through Hunter’s performing arts grants and a GoFundMe to pay their dancers and book Dixon Place on the Lower East Side as their venue. Cohn said they can no longer access the funds from Hunter because the school no longer supports the performance as an honors project, but that will not deter her from producing the show.

“Everyone’s experiencing heartbreak for art now in so many ways,” said Cohn, a CUNY BA senior studying creative writing and choreography. “But also we spent two months, really, starting this whole thing and diving in, and I did not know what I was taking on before I went into it.” 

Instead of her honors adviser grading the performance, Cohn said she will give an oral presentation about the project and demonstrate some of the movements to her adviser. Cohn and her friend still plan on having the show when their dancers feel safe to gather for rehearsals. While Cohn feels some disappointment about the delayed performance, she said she witnessed the power of the arts amid the coronavirus. 

“Historically, art has always been incredibly important, especially in times like this,” Cohn said. “Instagram is an incredible resource right now for like eight million artists out there just coming together and putting everything online, and giving free classes, and still using their voice or their bodies to make art and to promote art and to reach out to other artists and encourage everybody to keep making art.” 

Nursing student Soon-Hee Shimizu dropped out of her sculpture class after starting distance learning. She said her three-and-a-half hour course shifted from discussion and studio time to only discussion. Students would produce work on their own time. After Hunter told students to vacate the Brookdale dorms last week, Shimizu decided to withdraw because she had to move to her brother’s apartment.

“It didn’t seem realistic to continue that here,” said Shimizu, a senior at Hunter. “I don’t want to bring art materials to my brother’s apartment. It’s just like inconvenient to be working on a project, not in a space that I own.”

Shimizu also said the in-person aspect played a large part in her decision to take a course outside of her major.

“I was like, ‘I’m only taking this class for fun,’ and the main reason was to utilize the space, like the studio space with all the tools and stuff,” Shimizu said. “But now that I don’t have access to it there’s like no point. My motivation for that class is gone.”

Students like Shimizu have found it difficult to adjust to online performing arts classes because of work-from-home policies and their specific circumstances, while others have tried to make it work for the sake of their coursework. Kim said that although his daily routine has changed, he does not plan to leave his house. 

“I would rather be at home and do my work here than go outside and perhaps risk not only my health, but my family’s health and everybody else that’s in the city right now,” Kim said.

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