Teaching … in the middle of a pandemic?
In early March of 2020, I was performing as a company member in the First National Touring production of Escape to Margaritaville. Traveling as a young-20’s actor/dancer was a completely enthralling experience and I got the chance to play 25 different cities for over 150 performances and experience so much of the US. By the end of March, though, I was at home in the suburbs of Pittsburgh teaching musical theatre and dance to students from all over the country via zoom. It is no understatement to say that my life completely shifted in a matter of 2 or 3 days. As soon as I got the official word that we were being sent home from the road due to COVID-19, I was in contact with a company called Young Artists of America, based in the greater Washington, D.C. area to discuss potential opportunities for expanding their programming into a virtual format. Collectively, we agreed that we needed to continue creating and training during the uncertainty of the times. Thankfully, I was able to call on previous experiences as a theatrical educator to really dive into this world and put my “teacher cap” on.
As we launched this new medium of learning, there were a lot of questions posed like “what classes would best translate to a virtual format?” and “how would the students actively progress as we hit that mid-pandemic mark of being “zoomed out?” -- a term that I’ve heard more times than not this past year. I curated and created a course called “Dancing Through Musical Theatre History” which blended the history of American Musical Theatre and Musical Theatre Dance styles. This class served students in every continental US time zone each Saturday from March of 2020 all the way until February 2021 when we had our last session. After a year of teaching this course, I’ve learned how to effectively communicate with students more than I ever knew I could. I try to maintain a rigorous classroom but one that also allows for the students to feel seen and appreciated during an extremely turbulent time for everyone’s growth. Learning to really hear my students’ needs but also push them to their highest potential is of the utmost importance especially because my goal is to re enforce that training is more important than anything else. As we like to say, Process > Product.
For me, I use the “Three C’s” - a method of teaching that I’ve been cultivating over the past year. I think about the words clarity, courage and confidence for my teaching. We have to be as clear as possible when leading a classroom while also being courageous enough to take risks and mess up in front of a group of learners, and finally having the confidence to know that the information you are giving is good and important. If you don’t believe in the work or exercises you are demonstrating, the barrier between teacher and student only grows larger. Between audio and visual issues like crashing WiFi and background noise, I decided it would be great for me to pre-record my warm-up so that my vocal prompts are already in the track. Therefore, I can focus on actually warming myself up properly and observing the students week to week in order to track progress and help with corrections, etc. Also, I find that when I am teaching a combo virtually it helps to break it down into three different ways to teach the steps: first is to speak aloud what move you are about to do to the students before even demonstrating. Especially when teaching virtually, movement and audio don’t always line up so having them prepared with what step is coming up is key. Then I share which foot I’ll be on or which side of my body is moving (note that if you are teaching facing the camera, you should be actually using the opposite of what you are saying out loud … confusing, I know!) and finally give them the counts or lyrics depending on style and what is clearest for the particular music you are using
As I just mentioned, the instructor actually has to flip in their brain which side they are moving because to teach via zoom it is best to mirror. For example, you are saying out loud “then the right arm hits up and down on counts 3, 4” while you are actually using your left. This has tripped me up many times throughout my teaching escapades, most recently being that I have had the fortune to be back in a live classroom with students thanks to being fully vaccinated. Because my body has gotten so used to using my left when saying right and vice versa, I have had multiple moments of doing the wrong thing at the front of the classroom. It makes for a silly joke, but definitely will take some retraining of my brain to get back into the habits of in-person teaching. There have been times throughout the past year where even myself has felt “fresh out” of ideas and inspiration but the thing that keeps me going is the consistency with which my students show up for me. It is a theatre and dance educator’s duty to be a safe space for those students who rely on these classrooms as their safe haven. Even though the “classroom” looks different these days, I think the sense of community we have built within each of the institutions for which I work is incredibly important and sets these places apart from others.
I’ve had the great fortune to teach for numerous companies throughout the pandemic including Gonzaga University, StudioDans, and Broadway Weekends at Home which serves students all over the world! Seeing various levels and teaching different styles have informed the way that I approach my classes in that the flow and structure stays the same from class to class but teaching a wide variety helps keep me on my toes and invested. I have three groups of students that I see weekly and their consistency from week to week is amazing! Being able to actively track the kids’ progress is absolutely amazing and their response has been incredible to the virtual world. I think the ultimate satisfaction comes from knowing I am a part of moving the needle forward when it comes to virtual theatre and dance education. I am endlessly grateful to everyone who trusts me to coach their students to greatness but especially during a time of so much uncertainty and hopelessness for so many artists. And, after all, Process > Product.
Trent Soyster is a Pittsburgh-raised, New York City-based Performer, Choreographer/Director, and Teacher. BFA in Musical Theatre with a Minor in Commercial Dance - Pace University. Full-time faculty member at Young Artists of America and OhLook Performing Arts Center as well as the Resident Choreographer for the YAA Jr performance group, recent performance credits include Escape to Margaritaville (First National Tour), Disney’s Newsies (PCLO), Grease (FLMTF/Merry-Go-Round Playhouse), Cats (Mr. Mistoffelees - Interlakes Theatre) and Pete(Her) Pan: a new musical (Michael Darling/Dance Captain - Pace New Musicals). Trent is signed with MSA Agency. See more at www.trentsoyster.com!