Musical Director Karla Robinson
Words by Louise Casini Hollis. Photos by Tony Robinson.
It may appear that the world has shut down, but the teaching artists of Hampton Roads have taken this opportunity to flourish online with a multitude of opportunities for students to stay connected during the pandemic. In an ongoing series, Spotlight HR is talking to artists and arts organizations around Hampton Roads about their experiences in engaging with students online.
Talking to Karla D. Robinson is like taking a master class in music direction, which is no surprise with her 25 years of teaching experience here in Hampton Roads. As the Director of Music at Young Musicians of Virginia, Music Director of A Chorus Line at the Generic Theatre, and as a private voice teacher, she stays busy. “Any situation you can learn from and you can choose to find the worst, or you can choose to look at all the upsides,” observes Karla, “I love learning new things and challenging ourselves.”
A Chorus Line was scheduled to hold auditions March 29th– 31st, but the shutdown didn’t deter Karla and Shon M. Stacy, the show’s director and Generic Theatre’s General Producer. Immediately they got to work and organized a way for actors to submit their auditions on-line. This will be the fourth show Karla and Shon have worked on together. “We both appreciate art, and the work that goes into it and behind it,” writes Shon of their collaboration, “as for our working together, there’s not a word out of her mouth that is not echoed from mine, and I know vice versa. We have that type of working relationship.”
Rehearsing a show online takes an incredible amount of organization, and the production team has responded by creating a comprehensive schedule utilizing Zoom. The rehearsal schedule consists of a Monday night meeting with the whole chorus; Tuesday evening acting and character building with individuals; and then Saturday’s meetings with the show’s four choreographers. They also utilize Zoom for individual work and to give notes. Karla uploads warm-ups, rehearsal tracks, and notes onto the production’s private Facebook page. “I give the cast an assignment on Monday night and they have till Friday at 4pm to video themselves or audio and email it or Drop-Box it back to me.” She then provides specific notes such as, “this cut off was wrong, sustain through the end of this phrase please, watch the vowel on this,” to further augment her, “critiques, corrections, recommendations,” for their work. “I told them ahead of time: Please don’t expect me to sugar coat everything because I just don’t have time for that.”
Karla has found one of the benefits in having actors record themselves is that they can listen and hear what they need to improve on. “People I feel are growing and learning more about their own instrument, rather than just ‘let’s get together and sing and do this,’” she observes. To further augment rehearsals, Karla has appointments during the week with various soloists to work specific sections.
The biggest obstacle to working online as a musician? Timing. “One of the problems with any interactive video such like Zoom or Facetime or Skype is that there is a sound delay. And I found that when I first started teaching,” Karla shares. “I got on Facetime and I would play warm-ups and they would sing them a beat and a half after I played them, which hurt my brain to no end. So, what I had to do is make recordings, give them the recordings, [and] they play the recordings on their end and sing it back to me because the time delay is just too much…They are literally a beat behind you.” For A Chorus Line, the cast is working with rehearsal tracks, so Karla has taken extensive rehearsal notes for the orchestra to help the transition from recorded to live music. She has also warned the actors that they must fit their dialogue into the vamps included on the rehearsal tracks.
If all goes according to plan, the cast of A Chorus Line will have 16 days together before the show opens on June 26th. “And I believe we can do it! We’ve got a very eager and hardworking cast,” boasts Karla. “We’re hoping to be the first show back up in the area. We’ve got to keep moving forward. We can’t just keep putting everybody’s life on hold” says Karla. “I really feel like not just the greater community needs shows to go for entertainment and to get away from things for a little while, but all these actor folks need a community.”
As a teacher, Karla has learned a great deal about online teaching as well. She had 2 days to prepare for all her Young Musicians of Virginia classes to move on line. She has used some of her Seniors as sounding boards to get a feel for what her students are experiencing using Google Classroom, and to make sure the assignments work with the distance and challenges of virtual teaching. The biggest challenge Karla has found is that she must compensate for the time delay. To adjust to it, she has recorded warm-ups and vocal exercises and uploaded the files in her Google Classroom. She then gave her individual students the option of warming up before their virtual lesson or during their virtual lesson. Most of her students have chosen to warm up ahead of time, allowing for more work on their pieces during the lesson. To further combat the time lag, she has her students pick from a selection of Broadway songs, and then they find an appropriate karaoke track so that the student can play it on their end.
“Sometimes the lessons run long because of working through time delays and technology issues,” says Karla, but she doesn’t mind putting in the extra time with her students. “I believe that it’s easier for instrumentalists to do this than it is for the voice, because with the voice there’s so much of the body you’re looking at. You’re watching their middle to see how the diaphragm is working, how they’re breathing. You’re watching their chest to make sure that’s not rising. You’re watching for the tension in their jaw. You can feel the resonance in the voice, the placement in the voice better when you’re in person and actually feel the sound.”
Since Karla’s students will not be able to do a jury performance at the end of the school year, Karla will have them do a final performance in front of their families so that they have the experience of singing in front of someone.
One top of working with private students, this dedicated teacher listens to each of her 42 choir students individually so that she can give them feedback on their voices. And to keep it fun, she has assigned them a, “March Madness like choral music listening bracket. There are links to each song for them to listen to and decide what their favorites are and then write a little bit about each of their top favorite songs.” She also, “put out a bingo card for them with activities such as a sing along with [their] favorite Broadway musical or sing a song with a family member or rap one of our choir songs or write a new vocal warmup.” “I’m trying to keep the kids engaged and interested,” adds Karla.
Engagement is the key to operative learning and, in the future, Karla says she will occasionally have her actors and students record themselves and listen to themselves before submitting the recording to her. This will give them the opportunity to hear the issues and bring her questions, and provide a context for what she is asking them to work on. Scott Anderson, Professor of Music at The University of Nebraska-Lincoln explains in the article Teaching Music Lessons in the Online Environment, “There are positives to this methodology. First, the student has control over the recording process and second, they are not dependent on internet speed or bandwidth to make or break the lesson.”
“I prefer to do it in person,” concludes Karla, but she is glad that if students move away, she can provide training remotely until they have the opportunity to find a local instructor.