Staying at Home Means Staying Together with Music

By Zach Compston, Director of Education and Community Engagement

May 9, 2020

How quickly we can go from, “How much more work can we do?” to “How do we do ANY work right now?”.

Two months ago, the Jazz Arts Group was moving full steam ahead, with nearly three-fourths of its 2019-20 season complete, thousands of audience members and students reached and many hours of work under its belt. Dare I say it, our small team was a well-oiled machine, full of talented individuals with the common goal of enriching our community with our beloved art form – jazz – carrying on the legacy of the founders and innovators of our organization’s past. As for our education programs, recent innovations and developments had us feeling as if we were making more impact than ever with students and teachers alike, and our roster of hard-working, dedicated teaching artists was bigger and better than ever.


Enter the “pandemic”. 


On the morning of March 12, myself and two of our teaching artists conducted what would be our final in-school program of the year at Champion Middle School. We walked away so inspired by our first visit there in a while, but quickly that excitement turned to panic as each evening of our Columbus Jazz Orchestra concerts that weekend were cancelled along with every in-school visit on the schedule at the time. By Monday, March 16th, the JAG staff was working from home, and we were wondering how to adapt to the chaotic developments. Worse yet, two weeks later our beloved CEO would be the first of our close-knit family members to be diagnosed with COVID-19 (He has since recovered fully, and is back to work, defying all odds and astounding us all.)

All we knew during that first week was that many students were now sitting at home with no clear plan in place for making music, an activity that so many young people have chosen as their personal form of expression. Our Youth Jazz team met that week to decide how we would alter our plans to continue to reach the nearly 100 students who had been joining us every Sunday since September 2019 at the Jazz Academy in downtown Columbus. The tenor of that meeting was sober at best. But, after a lengthy discussion, we agreed that we had to adapt to the new “normal” and be there for our students on Sundays.

We made a plan. We would have our regularly scheduled rehearsals online, via Zoom, on Sundays from 2-6pm. We would quickly assemble resources that students could use at home when practicing – playalong recordings, sheet music and practice sheets. We would create a way for students to submit their recordings to us for feedback, and we would each come up with lesson plans to keep students engaged. From listening assignments to short practice tips and open-ended discussions, we found 90 students waiting for us on that first “virtual” Sunday rehearsal. 

The assignments and instruction was as strong as ever. We were innovating every week with new ideas, new materials, and meetings with the directors to discuss the progress being made. Meanwhile, our education staff worked tirelessly to develop new lessons and conduct professional development sessions for in-school teachers. We even launched a new series for our general audience called “Offstage LIVE”, to keep the Jazz Arts Group audience engaged with our music and stories during this time. Once again, we were back to busy, doing everything we could to keep the ball rolling.

But, the biggest takeaway was right in front of us on that first Youth Jazz Sunday. It wasn’t the assignments, lesson plans or the online content that would move the music forward; it was the platform for students to come together and feel connected in a disconnected time. It was the conversations that we could continue to have during those times. It was the effort to maintain some aspect of normalcy during a time that none of us could have imagined. Yes, we’ve played and listened to music together, and we have watched students’ skills continue to develop during the Stay at Home order. But as much as this is a testament to our frantic work and “stress doing” (as our Youth Jazz director, Mark Donavan calls it), it is a testament to the students. It is a testament to their character and resilience, and to the collective hope that one day we will be back together again.

Undoubtedly, teachers and arts organizations are innovating at lightning speed. Their compassion for students is undeniable. We at the Jazz Arts Group are endlessly grateful for those who have dedicated their lives to shaping future generations through music. But, let’s tip our caps to the students. Let’s honor Ella, Alex, Eli, and Tommy, who have taken time out of their busy virtual school schedules to assist us in mentoring younger students. Let’s honor Joey, who is practicing for hours each day, staying focused on his passion for music during this crazy time. Let’s honor Fiona, who has taken her love of the piano to new heights in the last year and is now bravely sharing her gifts on social media. But most of all, let’s honor and acknowledge every student who is attempting to find themselves in a truly unprecedented time. 

On our final Youth Jazz rehearsal day, the directors took the time to acknowledge the senior musicians in our program and we all applauded their success and future plans. I was struck by how many of them will be studying music at incredible institutions next fall – Eastman School of Music, Oberlin College, Capital University, Ohio University, and Indiana University, among others. For our returning students, we took the time to let each student know how much growth we had witnessed in them during this season and how their strengths can carry them through the summer into the next season of Youth Jazz.

We can create scenarios for reopening and returning to normal, but we don’t truly know what the future holds for schools, businesses, the arts or any other aspect of daily life. One thing is certain – we at Jazz Arts Group are confident that music is in our students’ lives, whether they are playing or just listening, and we’ll be here along the way, as will every teacher, until we can be together again.