The Opportunity of NOW

The last year has been tough, with COVID disrupting just about every aspect of our lives. But might there be a gift in this moment for music and education?

This post is excerpted from a keynote address I offered for a Dec 2020 Summit sponsored by Yamaha.

Let me start with the obvious...

COVID sucks!

To date, it has claimed the lives of almost 2.5 million people worldwide. This pandemic has decimated parts of our economy, exacerbated social inequities, and torn families apart. Closer to home, in music education circles, COVID has completely disrupted the status quo.

I'm guessing most readers will agree, this has been a tough year.

Yet as a leader and creative artist, I have to wonder: Might there be another way to view this period? Could there be a silver lining?

What is the OPPORTUNITY of NOW?

Throughout history, we've seen great individuals and organizations find or rediscover their voice when confronting adversity. Meaningful, positive change often grows out of suddenly restrictive conditionssomething we clearly face now.

And it's not like everything was hunky-dory before COVID.

For years, even decades, thought leaders in higher education (myself included) have called for deep systemic change.

We have argued that programs must evolve to remain relevant and attractive. That the traditional approach to many things we dolessons, ensembles, theory, history, music education, faculty meetings, tenure & promotion—may not be in the best interest of students, communities, or even the sustainability of our programs.

To be sure, there has been progress. Many programs now place greater emphasis on issues like entrepreneurship, community engagement, and wellness. These are positive developments, and we should be proud of such evolution.

Yet we have not gone nearly far enough.

Here's an example. In January 2019, I directed Carolina/College Music Society Summit 2.0. This sold-out event was largely designed as a problem-solving GAME, where 250 music faculty and administrators were divided into interdisciplinary teams and challenged to reimagine undergraduate education.

Part of this event involved BIG Idea presentations (short TED-like talks), where invited leaders pitched bold innovations and fresh visions. Many were quite inspiring.

But I failed in at least one instance.

The goal was to identify a faculty member teaching a core subject (e.g. theory, history, applied, ensemble) who required/empowered students to create MUSIC VIDEOS.

After all, how can you possibly succeed as a 21st century performer or educator without video literacy and a digital footprint?

I searched far and wide, but could not find a single North American music educator who fit the description. (Actually, there was one applied teacher, but he wasn't available for the Summit. And nobody else...)

How is it possible that our entire industry overlooked one of the most fundamental survival skills?

This deficiency seems so obvious, you wouldn't believe it if seeing it in a dystopian movie. Yet that represented the reality of our profession in 2019.

And then COVID hit...

Overnight, everything hopped online.

Our seemingly impenetrable model changed in a heartbeat.

Interestingly, it wasn't the result of my problem-solving GAMEs. Nor was it an initiative imposed by top-down dean mandates (an approach unlikely to succeed in our culture of academic freedom.)

Instead, COVID helped us find the way. Music programs had no choice BUT to play by new rules or concede defeat.

In many cases, we stepped up and changed.

To continue the video example: Suddenly many programs began allowing, even encouraging, students to create fully produced recital videos in lieu of live performance. And they quickly discovered:

When you empower students to create unique, personal statements, many will far exceed expectations.

Through these videos, students now have a marketable product that can be used to build a fan base, differentiate their art, get gigs. They also have an avenue for producing uniquely creative artistic statements, even when music is performed authentically.

At the same time, programs emerge with meaningful, tangible artifacts that can be proudly shared when recruiting, approaching donors, and demonstrating our value in other ways.

Many more examples of breakthrough discovery occurred in direct response to the pandemic. I'm guessing you have your own stories. A common revelation today:

"You know, we should keep doing this after COVID..."

Yes, we should.

Music education has benefited from many unexpected innovations thanks to the GIFT of this moment.


Sometimes I hear people say, "We just need hold on until everyone is vaccinated. Then, we can finally return to the old model!"