Music, theater classes get ready to go under the big tent


Music and theater classes and performance groups will be perfecting their art on the Cathedral of Learning lawn next to Fifth Avenue this year — using a big tent to be inside with as many outside features as possible.

The tent has a stage for the theater students as well as a PA system and electric piano for music groups; it may even have a Flex@Pitt computer set-up to allow some students to Zoom in for classes, said Department of Music head Mathew Rosenblum.

Most importantly, although the tent has its own ventilation system, the ceiling is high and the sides roll up, allowing for proper air circulation while choral groups perform, he said. Concerns were raised about singing group early in the pandemic after a church-choir practice led to an outbreak of COVID-19.

Under the roof of Pitt’s tent, three vocal ensemble classes — Heinz Chapel choir, men’s glee club and women’s choral ensemble, each with 30 to 50 students — as well as the bluegrass ensemble, an instrumental group in its second year, will practice.

Using American Choral Directors’ Association guidelines, each performer will maintain a 10-foot radius from each other, all singing through masks and facing in the same direction. They’ll be asked to wipe down music stands and chairs before and after each use and will be afforded 20-minute breaks between 30-minute singing sessions.

“It’s the best we can do and the safest way to go, based on the research,” Rosenblum said.

The bluegrass ensemble neither sings nor uses wind instruments, which require their own anti-COVID-19 modifications, he said. Some brass can get by with just a covering over the bell while the player wears a mask with a slit for the mouthpiece, but some woodwinds, such as a clarinet, require a bag to be placed over them to capture breath leaking from the finger holes. For those classes, a large space in the basement of the University Club has been secured for 10 or fewer instrumental players to spread out during a practice.

Not every choral class will be in the tent — some will still be remote, he said. But his department has purchased hundreds of computer-compatible microphones for ensembles and students taking private lessons.

Choral ensemble directors recently had the chance to walk through the tent and try out the equipment before they have their first rehearsal. While the music department has already received and approved the first choral group request to use the tent for classes, chair Annmarie Duggan in Theatre Arts says she is still awaiting further word from the administration before her department can definitely plan to employ the tent.

Duggan has what may be an even more complicated task — trying to bring tech courses and movement and voice classes to students who can’t get near each other to construct and shift scenery, let alone act together.

The fall production — the musical “Miss You Like Hell,” about a mother-daughter cross-country trip — has a relatively small cast, but figuring out how to rehearse and perform it has been a production in itself. “We’re still working through” the safety protocols, Duggan said.

Zoom doesn’t allow groups to practice singing together, since it is designed to feature one speaker at a time and effectively mute the rest. Learning parts in this musical will involve an instructor playing the music and each performer recording his or her part, which they can then review with the instructor one at a time.

Since no audience can see a live performance, instructors will need to film the actors at some distance from each other, with plexiglass between them, and then edit their performances together. For further safety, they plan to film scenes out of order — as film actors often do — to minimize and consolidate the times when certain actors and crew members need to be on hand. The end product will be streamed for viewing, Duggan said.

The tech crews who design and paint scenery will need to create it so that individuals, rather than teams, can decorate and haul each piece around.

“In hanging lighting, you’re climbing a ladder, and someone is handing lights to you,” normally, Duggan said. Not this year. “It’s been a big jigsaw puzzle for us in how we’re going to move this show forward.”

In the tent, “there’s a lot of potential for classes but we haven’t gotten there yet” — at least as of last week, she said. Voice and movement classes may fit in the tent, as well as tech classes and maybe even stage management, although some theater arts shops have been approved for student use. The department also may hold small cabarets in the tent, she says.

 “We want to make sure we’re meeting absolutely every protocol to keep the students safe,” Duggan said. “We’re ready. We’re excited that it is there,” she said of the tent. If the University advances to the less-restrictive “guarded” status, she said, “I think that the tent will be full every single minute.”

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-758-4859.


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