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Show goes on even during a pandemic as local music school embraces online classes

Northern Arts Academy surviving COVID restrictions with remote instruction
20201116-NAA Intermediate Choir photo supplied
Northern Arts Academy (NAA) Intermediate Choir learning online. Photo supplied

In 2015, Paul Dingle, a pianist and piano teacher, with wife Agnes McCarthy, a voice instructor and choir director, established the Northern Arts Academy (NAA) in Sault Ste. Marie.

Things were going so well that they found a new home for NAA faculty (who teach music, voice, dancing and musical theatre) and students in a three-storey house in the downtown core.

Then the COVID-19 lockdown struck in March.

So how did they carry on teaching students performing arts?

Remotely and from home of course, via Zoom, having already produced a spring show online May 23 and preparing for a Christmas season show.

“It was very difficult at first,” said Skye Smith, NAA movement and acting coach, speaking to SooToday.

“So much of acting is being around people, so it was a lot of time spent making it work instead of ‘folding.’ (Remote learning and teaching) has kept me going and kept me connected with my art, with my craft,” Smith said.

“I echo that 100 per cent,” pianist Dingle said.

“The only option was to keep moving ahead or fold.”

The faculty and students have risen to the challenges of remote learning, and have even grown to enjoy those changes. 

“I had a student who had a sleepover at her uncle’s and she was still able to come into class, all she needed was the link and her laptop, and her attendance has been so good, she doesn’t want to miss it,” Smith said.

“A lot of our students go on to careers in the arts and we keep in touch,” Dingle said.

Some not only keep in touch, but have also become NAA faculty. Keiko Larocque and Darielle Chomyn, former NAA students, are now NAA voice instructors, able to teach remotely from the Kitchener-Waterloo area. 

NAA students, Dingle said, range in age “from six to sixty.”

“We miss having the kids here, but when health requirements change and once the vaccine is in circulation (we’ll be back at the NAA’s East Street location),” Dingle said.

Numbers of students, Dingle said, are down due to COVID’s economic impact, but he is confident of their return once things return to normal, with approximately 40 currently enrolled remotely in the NAA.

After online rehearsals, academy students get together to record one performance a month (socially distancing) at an outdoor location in the Sault.

“It (COVID) makes you re-evaluate the things you take for granted (such as contact with others). It’s been a blessing,” Dingle said.

He serves as the NAA’s co-director with McCarthy.

Dingle teaches piano at Algoma University and plays organ at Central United Church along with being an NAA instructor.

“Agnes and I moved here in 1992 from Montreal.”

Originally intending to move on after a couple of years and continue what he described as a ‘nomadic, artistic lifestyle,’ the couple is still here in the Sault, and happily so, 28 years later. 

“The community’s been wonderful. It’s been a wonderful place to make a living as a musician and we’ve met so many colleagues and friends. It’s a vibrant community we’re proud to be a part of.”

“The one thing I’ve learned (from online teaching, if nothing else) is to buy a comfortable office chair. Spare no expense,” Dingle exclaimed with a chuckle.

Darren Taylor

About the Author: Darren Taylor

Darren Taylor is a news reporter and photographer in Sault Ste Marie. He regularly covers community events, political announcements and numerous board meetings. With a background in broadcast journalism, Darren has worked in the media since 1996.
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