Governor’s School for the Arts

Stella Feliberti, Staff Writer

By Stella Feliberti

Just thinking about switching music and theatre classes online seemed dreadful to Vikram Kolli. The arts are meant to be in person, so how was Governor’s School for the Arts (GSA), an advanced performing arts program, going to switch all of its class online for the remainder of the spring semester? He had just decided to take a hybrid of classes from the Instrumental Department and the Musical Theatre Department. The amount of classes he was able to take dropped significantly because there was no way to have group ensemble rehearsals, just personal practice sessions, theatre sessions, and dance classes.

While these sessions kept Vikram motivated a little bit through the remainder of the academic year, the summer was completely different. There was not an environment where he could feel the energy from his peers and their words of encouragement to push him to work more and more on his violin, his acting, his singing, and his dancing.

When he found out that both VBSchools and GSA were starting classes online, Vikram’s head filled with confusion. He was only going to be a second-year student at the school and was looking forward to the all the benefits of in-class teaching when all of that was stripped away due to COVID-19. The future seemed bleak since he wouldn’t be getting the full experience of GSA, which led to a difficult choice: to stay or to leave GSA.

Most students and teachers feel like GSA is not going to be the same for this upcoming year. Classes are going to start online and possibly continue, making it very difficult to teach all the art forms that are taught at GSA. Students are worried about how these changes will affect them, their art form, and their education.

While teachers and administrators at GSA have worked hard to iron out the details of all the classes and curriculums from students, both still have worries about the upcoming year. Todd Rosenlieb, Head Director of the Dance Department, says his biggest worry is “finding performance opportunities for students” with a close second of keeping “rigor and moving [students] forward physically and artistically.” All of the art forms at GSA have multiple showcases throughout the year for students to show-off their new skills and talents they’ve developed from their classes. Without the possibility to have human contact and face-to-face learning, Rosenlieb is worried about the struggles of choreographing dances through a screen so much of dance is based on “sweat, [breath], and human-contact” that allow dancers to keep up physical and artistic strength.

The other department heads find similar struggles. Steve Earle, Head Director of the Theatre and Film Department, and Liana Graham, Head Director of the Visual Arts Department, share hardships of the lack of group activities. Earle describes how most of the interactions in acting “come from your partner” by following their reactions and body movements to “create synergy,” which has become much more difficult with Zoom. Graham noted the lack of group critiques that help other students grow, reflect, and improve their arts that are no longer as insightful due to Zoom.

However, the directors have found new ways to make classes as insightful and beneficial as they were in person with adaptations and new opportunities. Amanda Gates, Head Director of the Instrumental Music Department, highlighted how she plans on changing classes to be more solo based since “we can perform as soloists and we often do.” Solo work is a beneficial way to adapt classes for most of the departments at GSA because it is important to allow for students to grow as artists and improve their skills. Solo work is the best option at this point because “the technology isn’t there yet to do group work.”

This pandemic has brought on some new opportunities for students at GSA: alumni of past GSA classes and other artists are coming back to teach and share their experiences with students. Shelly Milam-Ratliff, Head Director of the Vocal Music Department, talked about “the lack of limits with the alumni” because so many have asked to come back and share their experiences with others. This past spring, the Musical Theatre Department had the chance to learn from alumni and actor Grant Gustin, while the Instrumental Music students were able to work with artists such as Elizabeth Vonderhide, Assistant Principal Second Violin of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra and A.J. Nilles, a violist from the Berlin Philharmonic.

While teachers have found new adaptations and ways to cope with virtual classes, students still have worries over how their art forms are affected by the switch. Most students are worried about the lack of group work and performances that keep them engaged. Rising junior Bella Squatrito, third-year student in the Musical Theatre Department from Virginia Beach, describes this worry best: “It’s harder to stay engaged and motivated when I’m not surrounded by my peers in the same room. This does worry me because my motivation level needs to be at a high level in order for me to grow while taking classes virtually.”

Group work is a big part of GSA for all departments since it not only encourages socialization but helps motivate students. Kennedy Palmeira, a rising senior in the Dance Department from Suffolk, says, without group work “you are unable to feel the other dancer’s energy” that affects her ability to “practice musicality” because “classes aren’t in real time.”

Even though students have these worries, the department chairs believe that the new opportunities of alumni and artists that are able to attend zooms from anywhere will help students remain engaged. But to some students, that isn’t enough.

Throughout these “socially-distant” times, students have had time to reflect on what matters to them and what they want to continue. One of those things includes GSA to some students. Patrick Strangways, rising Junior in the Instrumental Department, says that “academics must always come first…if there were a dire conflict in between Governor’s School and [my home high school], I’d have to pick my home school as priority.”

Most students only see leaving GSA as a last resort option to leave since the environment is so special to students at this school. That’s why all the teachers, administrators, and department heads have tried to make new classes that will engage students. It’s been a struggle for them too since they also have struggled with motivation and loss of opportunities during this time.

Amanda Gates noted how her entire lifestyle “fell apart” as the pandemic hit because she used to play as Assistant Concertmaster in the Virginia Symphony Orchestra. Luckily, she “looked for the advantages” this pandemic brought her: a new opportunity at GSA. She was recently instituted as the new Department Head of Instrumental Music, which helped her regain motivation. She hopes she can use her experiences with lack of motivation and opportunities to encourage students to look for the good that has and will come.

This positive attitude is seen all across the GSA teachers and students when it comes to returning back to GSA, both virtually and in person. Rising senior in the Visual Arts Department fromVirginia Beach Caroline Foresta, says she believes that when classes resume her “motivation will improve… normal classes and assignments help me feel more inspired and give me more motivation. Being exposed to other art and having feedback on what I create is what inspires me to create more.”

Liana Graham feels very similarly. She says that this time will encourage “branching out to new outlets,” growth, and “versatility.” The rest of the department heads feel the same. They are excited to use this time to motivate students to reflect on themselves so that they can grow, explore, and blossom into better artists and people.

The future is full of unknowns for the GSA community, but there are positives that are coming up. Assistant Head Director of the Instrumental Department summarizes the feelings of hope among this community best, “There’s a silver lining to all this…see all of these things that are limitations and consider them strengths.”