​Planning to Adapt: Educational Strategies for an Uncertain Time

Ryan Adamsons

In addition to his role as an Artist Advisor for Denis Wick’s Musician’s Advisory Studio in Chicago, Ryan Adamsons is an active performer, composer, and educator working with a wide variety of schools, arts organizations, and individuals.  This broad reach has put him at the forefront of countless discussions regarding both the immediate and long-term future presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, giving him a unique perspective on adapting existing programs and trying to plan ahead.  He offers the insights he’s gained through those experiences here with some basic guidelines to help you think through your own situation. 

Make sure your priorities are in order. 

First and foremost, things like public safety and the overall well-being of students and their families must be put ahead of anything related to music education.  This isn’t a change from any normal circumstance, but times of crisis bring those elements much closer to the forefront of any discussion and force us to remind ourselves of what that means.  

Second, thinking through what your fundamental goals are and their relative importance will make it much easier to make decisions.  If you are cancelling a concert, what were the students gaining from that and how best can you replace or re-imagine those skills and experiences?  If you are now doing all of your private lessons via video, what goals of the private lesson experience can actually be enhanced by the change in method?  How do each of those fit into your overall goals for your program?  The answers will be different for all of us, but asking the right questions and having a clear idea of the goals we’re trying to accomplish will always result in a better plan. 

Think broadly when identifying your resources.

 While there are obviously challenges and some common resources are currently unavailable, there are also unique opportunities presented by any situation.  Jazz bands can’t make music together in person, but the move to video platforms means your students have the same access to world class performers and educators as they do to you.  Marching bands will likely have less time to work on things as an ensemble, but recorded assignments make it possible to address individual performance level in a way that’s not normally feasible.  Additionally, everyone has some unique asset or opportunity whether it’s knowledge, experience, or friends in other fields; now is the perfect time to think about how to integrate and offer those for your students. 

Be aware of what you don’t know, but don’t be afraid to learn it by trying. 

The best example of this is a virtual performance, which everyone reading this has at least seen or considered doing.  These are a great idea, but only with the proper perspective and awareness of what needs to be done and what you personally can do.  If you and your students have never done any kind of recording project before, jumping in and assuming you can create a professional level product in a week is setting yourself up for a lot of frustration and probable failure.  That said, if you follow the advice of experts like Denis Wick Artist Christopher Bill (who has created some great free resources on how to coordinate such projects including this Denis Wick podcast), pick a simple piece, and make the goal of the project to learn about recording rather than a product for public consumption, the same idea can be a hugely positive and rewarding experience even for beginners. 

The lesson is that in the face of new experiences, make sure you set reasonable expectations and goals for your students but also for yourself.  It is also important to communicate these goals and expectations throughout the process, not only to your students and colleagues but to administration and anyone else planning on your behalf. 

Only create plans using what you know.

One of the primary questions that has come up in planning sessions is, “What are things going to look like in a month, or in the fall?”  While this is a completely reasonable question and some things are starting to become clearer, the real answer is that no one knows.  This is a profoundly unsatisfying answer, especially when we need information to create a plan, but pretending that something other than this is true is not the kind of information a successful plan can grow from.  However, this does not mean we can’t think ahead, simply that we must be realistic about what we know versus what we think or want.  Just like any good lesson plan or curriculum, any plan moving forward should provide a framework designed to reach your educational goals along with the flexibility to achieve those goals if circumstances change.  For most groups I have talked to, that has meant continuing on a familiar path until we get more real information and in the meantime creating a contingency plan for if the future looks like the present in terms of distance-learning.   

Continuing as if the fall will be open and normal may sound ludicrously hopeful to some, but it provides some useful normalcy for both you and your students at the same time that you all make yourselves as prepared as you can be if that ends up being the case.  Planning as though we will still be unable to meet in person come the fall may sound scary, but using the lessons we are currently learning and the time we have before then to create a plan will make us as successful as possible in that environment.  Most importantly, the act of doing both will best prepare us for how to move forward once we get concrete information about what our individual futures look like.

Lastly, it is worth recognizing that all of this is exactly the same advice I would give for planning in a normal circumstance.  The world will continue to change, but the same skills we’ve always used as educators and musicians will stand us in good stead and prepare us and our students for whatever the future holds.