Zooming into Auditions with Pinellas County Center for the Arts

March 23, 2021 | By Talia Fish

Details here

It’s safe to say that there is a lot going on in the world right now – for everyone. But the trials and tribulations of middle school students looking to prospective high schools this year is assuredly daunting.

Imagine learning how to tackle growth spurts, social cues and budding friendships in this ever-changing world of Zoom obscurity. What may be their saving grace during all of this, however, is the hope of honing their craft as they proceed into their last four years of secondary school.

At the Pinellas County Center for the Arts (PCCA) at Gibbs High School, students get the opportunity to hone their skills in the arts alongside academic and extracurricular work. Be it in dance, visual arts, instrumental or vocal music, musical or performance theatre, or technical theatre, students have the opportunity of rigorous and advanced training in their field to encourage and serve as a precursor to further study.

With historically talented and dedicated students training at the PCCA, it’s no wonder that many become professional artists after graduation. Calvin Royal III, a PCCA alumnus, is a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre of New York and is just one of many in a list of accomplished alumni.

A moving and spine-tingling look at last year by PCCA graduate Calvin Royal III,
now a principal dancer at NYC’s American Ballet Theatre

Knowing what teachers look for in an audition is undoubtedly the first question on any student’s mind – and that isn’t limited to middle or high schoolers. Many professionals wonder the same thing as they prepare a piece for an audition. 

“Each department is always searching for potential, and we never expect a degree of perfection in auditions. Some departments even work with the students for a minute or two to determine how receptive the applicant is to feedback,” says Derek Weston, the Program Director and Assistant Principal for PCCA. Modeling these auditions after classes and workshops, the faculty is mirroring what it is like to craft a piece of work in an academic setting, and to see if students can take direction and notes quickly.

Understanding that the students auditioning for PCCA are middle school or other high school transfer students, what is expected of them in this audition is very detailed and can be advanced in some ways depending on their experience. Age is in no way a hinderance, as passion and commitment to their artforms propel them into auditions this spring.

While PCCA’s audition process may seem daunting to an outsider, the focus is always on student potential, motivation and creativity foremost! Dustin Hinzman, the theatre department chair at PCCA, shares with me that, “We had to modify the audition requirements and make them a little more flexible. We really want to accept as many students as we can and try to find things in as many auditions as possible that we can use to accept a student into the program.”

Auditions are held throughout the year, but late applications for the 2021-2022 school year open on March 23.

I think it’s come into focus more now than ever that a student’s needs can vary, and arts students are not an outlier to this. PCCA works to provide students with one-on-one training, specialized curriculum based on their chosen artistic major, and extended class times to work to develop their craft and skillset. Where one challenge rises, the students at PCCA continue to rise to the occasion, and that includes the fearless students sending in auditions.

Many of the PCCA auditions take place in two phases – a technical audition where the student plays their instrument or performs, live or recorded, and an interview with a faculty member to help understand the student’s goals and thought process.

For Siobhan Archard, the design technology chair at PCCA, she believes that “it is important to understand a student’s thought process and not just see the end result of their artwork. Motivation and defense of choices is a major factor in any design field.”

Being able to understand where you were coming from and verbalize a concept is of the utmost importance in any field, audition, or interview. Whether a student proceeds into PCCA or not, they begin the lifelong lesson of learning how to communicate to others what goes on in their minds.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, PCCA auditions will be held online this year. Siobhan and her fellow PCCA faculty members have come to realize that there is an air of comfort in their online interviews with students.

“I have found that students are less nervous when interviewing online. I believe that being in a welcoming environment (home, hopefully) is less stressful for them and we see more of the student’s personality,” Siobhan shares.

Any audition or interview is bound to spark nerves but tuning into a Zoom audition room is far less intimidating than the in-person alternative we’re so used to. Siobhan brings up a wonderful point that online conversations allow students to open up more to professional adults who may be astoundingly intimidating otherwise.

PCCA vocalists make beautiful music together on Zoom

I remember walking into my first audition in the fifth grade as I prepared to enter a performing arts middle and high school, and the one thing that sticks out in my mind is the vulnerability I felt entering the audition room alone for the first time. It was a wonderful exercise and practice in what would become a frequent event for my career and academic life, but it was still unnerving.

What may be a workaround to keep both students and faculty safe right now may also serve as an interesting way to quell nerves in blossoming arts students. Not every performing arts or visual arts student is outgoing, and that variance is important to understand and welcome in any program. Luckily, the PCCA faculty anticipate variance and welcome diversity.

Any performer is going to come into an audition with nerves, and to quote my own high school theatre teacher, “if you’re not nervous, you’re from Mars.” Any audition guarantees nettles of nerves, a ball of excitement and a jumble of emotions at any given moment. Understanding that standard, and what many students and performers alike are used to, Zoom auditions and pre-recorded self-tapes come with an interesting flavor of nervousness. While I can’t say whether or not performance anxiety and nerves are completely eradicated with this type of audition, I think it is safe to assume that students come with a kind of ease if they are recording or auditioning from a comfortable space in their home.

That does come with some performance fatigue, however, if a student is on their eleventh take of the night and can’t seem to get their lines out right, or the feelings of the character across. In some ways, with pre-recording an audition piece, there comes another type of stress with getting that “perfect take.”

What’s most important to remember with these auditions is that while PCCA teachers are looking for specific qualities in prospective students, their expectations exceed accurate piano playing, perfect dance combinations, impeccably composed art pieces and well recited monologues. They are all looking for the small, intangible qualities that reveal a student’s character and creative potential. Any educator’s goal is never perfection, but the potential behind the effort a student puts forth.

A creative music major at Gibbs shares a day in the 2020-2021 school year

Taking a closer look at how PCCA has adapted to online auditions, I’d like to give insight as to what that looks like to anyone who isn’t familiar with online meetings. While we may be far removed from live performances now, imagine the ease of listening to an orchestra or musical number in person. Musicians take visual and audible cues as to when to start the next phrase, pianists feel the tension in the air to decide how and when to begin the music that leads into a song, and vocalists take those subtle cues within music to know when to begin to sing.

It’s something a lot of performers took for granted as they look back now, especially when compared to the workarounds they’ve had to adapt to with working on Zoom. Musical Theatre classes at universities like USF also look to Zoom for safe alternatives right now and often have to leave the music to the performer to avoid lags. For example, if the pianist were to be playing live during a Zoom meeting with the performer singing from their end of the online universe, there may be a small lag or difference in timing to anyone else on the call depending on the Wi-Fi strength at any given time.

Given that understandable frustration to performance, it’s easy to avoid the hard thing and let the performer play their own track. PCCA, however, is committed to training students and gauging how prospective students react to live music. Prospective vocal music students hold their auditions live on Zoom and perform their pieces with a school accompanist playing on the other end. Dealing with internet lags is sure to mount in frustration, but the payoff is well worth it to work with starry-eyed students with passion and hunger to learn.

Many teachers at PCCA have been teaching both in-person and online classes since this time last year, many of those overlapping and happening simultaneously. “In the performing arts, online education is incredibly difficult,” says Dustin, “and music educators all over the world researched this at great length in the early summer months in preparation for this school year.”

The transition from the arts education and learning that PCCA was used to was hard, but like in any performing arts class, both students and teachers had to get creative to find solutions and alternatives as they ran into the inevitable roadblocks. Few options end up working well when it comes to syncing up two live performers on a virtual platform, but creativity, which stands at the forefront of PCCA’s mission and goal, thrives when artists are faced with adversity. And keeping those students who are in the classroom safe also stands at the forefront of PCCA’s mind.

Last fall’s Sound and Light class show off the upgrade to the school’s theatre, 
where student are now using the same tech as Broadway shows. 

Teachers and faculty worked to adopt new guidelines for singing and playing musical instruments when particular instructions weren’t exactly specified in the School Board’s initial releases of safety procedures. What works for students who primarily learn from a desk with a teacher at a board may not work for arts students who rely on personalized, timely feedback on a ground plan or work in progress.

Teaching technical theatre and design technology online this past year has proved difficult, especially while maintaining the safety guidelines. It’s easy to wear a mask and keep the six feet distance between one another on paper, but when you get in the room, practicality becomes another problem entirely, especially when you think of the social nature of many high schoolers.

Looking at it from an educator’s perspective, Siobhan helps illustrate what it’s like in the classroom, “as an art and theater teacher, I need to be able to see the students’ work in progress. If they are drafting, I need to walk around and see if they are on track, check line weight, etc. For online students, they can share their screen and I can help them if the work is computer based but if it is desk or physical work, they send me images via email or text message. The upside to this is great documentation for process of creativity for college portfolios.”

Just like many of us have had to do over the past year, Siobhan has adapted to what her classroom looks like now, and shares that she, too, had to learn and become accustomed to many new programs and protocols. We see here the shared strife of both student and teacher.

PCCA Program Director Derek Weston takes you on a virtual tour of PCCA
and talks about the programs at Pinellas County Center for the Arts, filmed in December 2020

Working face-to-face or from screen-to-home, school can be difficult for any student during a time like this. “Some students who have decided to not return to face-to-face learning is for reasons other than fear of the virus,” Siobhan reminds me, “Two are living in Texas to be with their mother, one is being kept home to babysit a younger sibling, and most others who have returned to face-to-face learning return because of the social aspect which is important at this time of life.”

Understanding these factors is an invaluably important part of teaching students. If you can’t adapt to the different needs of students, you’re allowing disadvantage to take hold of your classroom. PCCA faculty and teachers are well prepared and poised for anything the world can throw at them, at this point.

After a year of adapting and learning, it’s interesting to look back at how we got to this point. What was it like for teachers to prepare for a year like this – a year that held so much uncertainty? “We have had to learn new platforms… Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Canvas (to name a few) which has been challenging. Having to sign in multiple times each class is a hassle, and keeping online students motivated and ‘in class’ the whole time is also a pain,” Siobhan confides.

The most important takeaway from this year is that “grading work is much easier,” and that teaching students the art and craft she loves takes precedence.

I keep reminding myself that the important thing is to end strong, no matter how a school year has battered you, or the hardships you’ve weathered, because you still come out whole on the other side.

For prospective students and teachers alike that enter these next few weeks of scheduling, teaching, curriculum and auditions, I hope the strength to push through and to persevere stands at the forefront of your mind. Because, at the end of it, we will be one step closer to experiencing art in the way we knew it best, once again.

. . .
Pinellas County Center for the Arts
at Gibbs High School is currently holding auditions in Dance, Instrumental Music, Vocal Music, Performance Theatre, Musical Theatre, Theatrical Design & Technology and Visual Art. Find the details here.
. . .

Explore our Arts Coast Journal feature where PCCA teachers shared
their favorite students who are now professional artists


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