During the COVID-19 Pandemic, all aspects of life were affected, and these changes impacted how people lived, collaborated, and even thought. The arts, particularly, took a hit that is unlike most other of these aspects of life, as arts are specific to self-expression and sharing energy with others. This includes all forms of art, from dance to painting.
Some college students who study the arts experienced a detrimental impact on their education and view of arts during the Pandemic, while others have found sanctuary or have discovered something new about their art form during this time. Then there are those who had setbacks but were also able to come out the other side looking at a bright future in their art form. At the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, I interviewed four students, each studying a form of art on the campus, about how COVID impacted their art form.
Emily Wooters, a student studying Dance Performance and Choreography, is a junior at UNCG. She started dancing when she was three years old, following in the footsteps of her sister. She says she fell in love with the art form of dance because she likes moving artistically and “manipulating the area around her.” Throughout her career as a dancer, she has met her best friends as well as mentors. But, she says, the most important relationship that has grown through dance has been with herself. Wooters states that she has learned things in dance that have helped her in the world beyond such as how to communicate better with others. Dance has helped her mentally and through difficult times in her life, making dance a way to express herself. She says, “I see the best version of myself when I dance.”
Due to Wooters’ many experiences with dance and how much the art form means to her, she has decided to become a dance educator. She said that during the Pandemic when she was trying to teach over Zoom. She said, “I was teaching seven-year-olds and it was really difficult.” She said not only is it already difficult teaching young children an art form as complex as dance, but that having to do it over Zoom brought a whole other level of difficulty: “There was a fourth wall, and that fourth wall became even more solid.” She said there were no in-person interactions and that it was difficult to feel the energy from the other dancers which is a key concept in all art forms. Wooters explained sadly, “Instead of closing art off from the world, it was more like closing ourselves off from art.” Art is something that can only be effective and experienced if the artist is feeling the art, and in a situation, as Wooters has described, there is not much room to feel the art from others or yourself. She explained that when they were in person for her school classes that each student was placed in a ten-foot square that was taped off on the floor. Wooters highlighted that she couldn’t feel the energy from the other dancers because they were locked in a space where they couldn’t move freely as they should. Although there were these hardships that Wooters had to face when participating in an art form that means so much to her, she has continued on with it and wants to continue to teach it and perform it.
Wooters believes that because of the Pandemic that a certain appreciation for the arts has risen across the world due to art’s amazing ability to express and bring together. She specifically talks about the impacts of online performances that have helped her and others. She says that her own point of view on dance now as the arts are starting to open back up is that her “ideas of dance haven’t really changed, they’ve been affirmed in a stronger way.” She says things are looking up for the dance program at UNCG, as the black box theater that they usually perform in is now open to 50 percent capacity and that the ten-foot squares are gone in the dance rooms! Wooters’ idea of dance is still that it is a language to raise feeling and emotion when words are not enough, and it has been more affirmed for her.
Cole Hairston is a UNCG Doctoral Student in the School of Music getting his degree in Conducting. He has been a high school band director for quite some time but has come back to school because he very simply just wanted to be better at his craft. He also teaches outside the university teaching clarinet and conducting lessons. Hairston also participates in his church choir with his wife.
Hairston states that he decided to be an educator in high school when he was in the band programs and was the drum major of his high school marching band. He says that his high school band director was like a father to him and is still close with him now. Hairston wanted to be like him when he was in high school, another reason that he went on to be an educator for music. But he says that the most important thing to him about music is not the music itself but “the people in the room, the relationships.” He describes this feeling: “It’s that moment in rehearsal where you look around and see the smiles or the excitement on people’s faces.” Hairston says that’s why he keeps coming back to teaching is because he loves to see people grow and love music.
Hairston says he has made many great friends throughout his experiences with music, notably his high school band director and a good friend from high school who also ended up at UNCG to pursue a doctoral degree. Hairston also describes a time when he was at a school in Wisconsin and he had a group of friends with whom he made music and said that they “explored music together.” Although he may never see them again and hasn’t since he still remembers the great times making music with them and the “beautiful interactions” he had while making such music. He says the biggest impact music has had on his life is that it has taught him how to have effective interactions with people and his communication skills.
The way Hairston approaches a band is how he approaches life. COVID, he said, impacted this part the most. He says that he missed the people, sitting in rehearsal, and seeing the smiles on their faces. He says amongst him and his colleagues it was human interactions that they were craving. This art form which has been so important to him, teaching him how to communicate better, love life, and where he has grown in his closest relationships has come to a standstill.
Hairston is not alone in this vast world of musicians who are not able to properly produce music as they want. Hairston says, “Art doesn’t mean much if it’s not making connections. Art becomes art through interpretation. If nobody’s there to interpret, it’s not worth much.” In his classes, there were many experiences he was not able to have as a doctoral student in conducting. He was not able to actually conduct very much, which is problematic considering that his degree is in conducting. Thankfully he has already had plenty of experience as a conductor, and the experience of conducting is coming back. But, he says, the biggest thing to look at now in the future as the arts are opening back up is for a job. He says he will be graduating soon and looking for a job will not be as easy as he would like. When he applies for jobs, committees will be looking at certain experiences that applicants have had, and due to the Pandemic, Hairston has some of these experiences missing from his resume. But, Hairston has a positive outlook and believes that he will find a job that fits his talents. Hairston advocated very much that “The focus of the art is not the music, the focus of the art is the people and how the people in the room feel is what matters.” He believes music has taken a hit in the Pandemic, as there has not been much live music, and that makes music not as powerful as it could be. But Hairston has hopes that in the near future, music will be back to its full potential.
Raven Sizemore is a Sophomore at UNCG as a Trombone Primary. In that, she studies heavily on trombone, has lessons with multiple professors a week on the instrument, participates in several trombone ensembles, and is in a music fraternity on campus. The first thing she said was that music is the act of “coming together and creating something beautiful.” Similar to Hairston and Wooters, Sizemore says that she loves the interactions that she has personally with other musicians and seeing those interactions take place amongst her peers. She says that she grew up in a household where both of her parents were musical, each playing multiple instruments and that her many fond childhood memories have given her the inspiration and grounding to pursue music as a career. She wants to teach music one day. She explains that many of her closest friends, including her two best friends, were from the marching band in high school where she also became close with her high school band director. Her high school band director also went to UNCG as a student studying trombone.
One of the most important aspects of musicianship to her is the healthy competition between peers. She says that this was a great motivator for her and that she just genuinely enjoyed it. Along with the healthy competition, Sizemore has learned other important things from being a part of a band. She says that she has learned personal things about herself that she never would have known had it not been for music: how to be a better person, how to be an effective member of a community, and how to have effective conversations and communication with others. She places emphasis on the idea that music has been an outlet for her and says that she has found relief in playing music and being a part of the music community.
But, with the Pandemic, she has felt that there have been barriers that have not allowed her to feel the music or express herself in the ways she has been effectively able to in the past. After a long break from not being able to play within a musical community or in large ensembles, she is relieved to be playing again but she is also scared. She feels that she is a little behind in the music world but she also feels that the Pandemic has helped her expand her personal inner development as a musician. She was able to attend some seminars on campus, mainly online, and was also able to reflect on herself as a musician and a person. Sizemore was able to see new paths that she could possibly go down in her pursuit of music as a career. Sizemore explained, “The Pandemic has created more independence in me to go and search for answers.” Although she is excited about finding these answers, she feels that there is a “veil of uncertainty” in entering into a world of more community. She is scared about “socializing after being isolated,” and says that it was very hard for her to make friends her freshman year because everything was shut down.
Throughout her whole life music has been there to guide her, comfort her and she was able to create relationships that have lasted through the present. Due to the Pandemic, new relationships were hard to come by and now with schools and arts opening back up again, such a thing can be very scary and difficult. But, she is starting to feel like UNCG is a little more like home, as she is making friends and enjoying her classes. Although the Pandemic has been hard for her as an artist and student, she plans to move forward and to try and keep what she’s learned through this time; the struggles that she has faced and overcome as well as the problems she continues to face, she wants to help and teach others. Her main goal moving forward is to go into higher administration in education and to use her newfound skills and wisdom to help students. She says that music is even more powerful than she had originally thought due to its continuing power through the Pandemic.
In this current world, the arts have become something different than they were before. The arts have always been for self-expression, but sometimes fame, fortune, competition, aesthetics, and stardom all get in the way of what it truly means to be an artist. The COVID-19 Pandemic stripped away all of these extra, needless things that bury the true nature of the arts. The arts are a way to feel, express, motivate, capture, connect, and understand. By stripping the world of the needless things, one is able to see art’s true nature.
Wooters, Hairston, and Sizemore are all just three students in a whole world full of many students in the arts who have gone through the same troubles and realizations. These particular students in the article mentioned a few key concepts that sum up the power of the arts and why they are still strong in the force of civilization. Human connection, interaction, and understanding seem to be the three biggest and most important components of participating in the arts. All three interviewees said that what they missed most during the Pandemic from their respective art forms was being with other humans, making art with them, and connecting with them as well as an audience. The arts are still strong in our society and have never been absent since the dawn of time. The arts are here to stay, even through pandemics.