Mike Bell, director of the virtual arts program, directs students in the virtual choir on the opening day of the 2012-13 school year for the Floyd County school district.

Mike Bell, director of the virtual arts program, directs students in the virtual choir on the opening day of the 2012-13 school year for the Floyd County school district.
Photo by Pam Caudill/Floyd County school district

By Susan Riddell

A few years ago, Floyd County school district Superintendent Henry Webb attended a conference where he viewed Eric Whitacre’s virtual choir video and watched as the Grammy winner simultaneously directed 185 singers from 12 different countries.

“I was moved by what the composer was able to accomplish and thought of the talented kids in our district who could benefit from a performance platform such as this,” Webb said.

Luckily for Webb, teacher Mike Bell already was working in his district and was enthusiastic about bringing the concept to Floyd County

In its first year, more than 200 students in grades 4-12 joined the program and participated in a virtual choir performance of The Star Spangled Banner and My Old Kentucky Home.

This year, the virtual choir will be performing an arrangement of Wade in the Water, created by Betsy Layne High School band director Mike Cooley.

Bell – who has taught music and band in the district for 16 years – said the main goal of the program is simply to include any student with an interest in participating. Several students have commented to him that the virtual choir format has helped them overcome a fear of performing in public.

“The setting is more inviting and relaxing for the students to be free to perform,” he said. “They can rerecord as many times as they would like.”

Students must bring in a signed permission slip to participate. They then practice the music, and once the school teacher says the student is prepared, he or she can record the piece to be submitted to Bell. Once Bell has all the video solos, he combines the material into one piece.

Bell said the experience has greatly impacted his teaching practices and that it has reinforced the importance of giving students a platform to create and perform.

“As little children, didn’t we take every opportunity to perform for or show something to our parents or grandparents desiring their approval or excitement?” he asked. “Then we should provide the same opportunities for our students.

Every student has the right to be a part of a process that challenges, excites and provides a sense of accomplishment and fosters a desire to perform and create, regardless of skill level and without intimidation or fear of rejection.”

Webb, who said his current role with the program is simply as its biggest supporter, said the feedback he’s received from other teachers has been tremendous.

“They are amazed at the talent that’s been discovered,” he said. “Teachers always appreciate more ways for their students to shine.”

The use of technology also appealed to the educators.

“Kids are being introduced to new and exciting ways to utilize technology as a tool for learning,” Webb said.

The choir is only the first step in what the district is envisioning as a larger virtual arts program.

This month the program is expanding to include a virtual art museum. The completely online, virtual museum allows students in grades K-12 to browse galleries of paintings and drawings and get insight into the artists’ thoughts and inspirations with a click of a computer mouse.

The district hopes to add a drama element to the program during the 2013-14 school year, followed by dance in 2014-15.

Details still haven’t been finalized, but the overall concept for the drama and dance components will have students video record themselves acting out individual parts from their drama production or dancing a choreographed routine, Bell said.

The performances will be collected and edited together into one seamless performance for both genres.

Robert Duncan, arts and humanities consultant for the Kentucky Department of Education, said he isn’t aware of other school districts offering this virtual program for students.

“I like the idea of giving students a platform to display their work publicly,” Duncan said. “This is something other schools and districts could easily emulate with the right commitment and any necessary training.”

Mike Bell, mike.bell@floyd.kyschools.us, (606) 886-2354
Henry Webb, henry.webb@floyd.kyschools.us, (606) 886-2354