Challenging times call for innovative measures. When composer Matt Conner’s plans to teach musical theater at summer day camp and continue giving private piano lessons were put in peril, he knew he had to figure out a way to do things differently, and fast. Not surprisingly, he turned to Zoom.
When quarantine became a thing in March, recalls Conner, he and husband Stephen Gregory Smith, a longtime local actor, were poised to teach spring break musical theater classes for kids at Creative Cauldron, a popular nonprofit professional theater in Falls Church, Va.
When classes moved online, Conner and Smith embarked on a crash course in videoconferencing, learning its precise features and discovering how best to use it as a teaching tool. They solicited the help of actor friends and friends’ children in test driving a musical theater curriculum of storytelling, guest artists, and puppets. It proved a success.
So, by the time Creative Cauldron’s interactive summer camp for children ages 5-12 kicked off in late June, the duo was prepared. They look forward to another session in August (for enrollment details go to Creativecauldon.org).
“Interactive camp is a very different experience,” says Conner. “In person, I might give campers an assignment and then take role or go for a drink of water, but with Zoom if you leave the screen for a second, the kids are like ‘what are you doing? Where’d you go?’ It requires complete and total concentration.”
Virtual piano lessons took some getting used to as well. Weekly 30-minute lessons that happened in Conner’s living room in Arlington, or children’s homes, instantly became a thing of the past.
When asked how he does it, Conner, who taught himself to play at eight, explains, “You use what you have and go from there. First, I had to let my students know that Zoom is like a tennis match. We can’t talk at the same time. We take turns.
“With this in mind, it’s very cool how we have developed brand new creative thinking as we go. For instance, I will play a note, and then my student will play the next. We take turns and together work out to create our own melody.” He also sends students video of his finger movements for pieces they’re working on.
During quarantine, the aspiring pianists have markedly improved. They’re more prepared and focused, he says. And consequently, the word is out. With 20 students, Conner has never been busier.
As many will attest, back-to-back Zoom sessions can be tiresome. But Conner never dreads time spent with kids and a piano. He says, “I think it’s because piano is my first voice. I can sit there with a cup of coffee and teach piano for hours.”
Married in 2013 (but together much longer), Conner and Smith met as students at Shenandoah University. Over the years, the talented pair have evolved into a prolific songwriting team. Their collaborations include five musicals in five years for Creative Cauldron’s $50,000 commissioning project, “Bold New Works for Intimate Stages,” as well as over a dozen children’s musicals.
A recent joint effort, “Cinderella’s Dream,” was in its final week of rehearsal when venues closed. Rather than shelve the project, Creative Cauldron made the children’s musical into a video with performers doing their parts from home. It’s now in postproduction and will be ready for streaming soon.
Also, from home, Conner and Smith are collaborating with Synetic Theater on a musical based on the women murdered by Jack the Ripper: “We won’t give Jack a voice. Instead we’ll let the women sing. They will tell their stories.” The piece’s working title is “Whitechapel,” named for the East London district where the grisly murders took place.
Looking forward to a post-pandemic world, Conner says he might teach piano via Zoom full-time with once-a-month house visits to check in. It’s an option. Time will tell.