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March 14, 2022

Lessons From a Pandemic: What we learned may surprise you

By Liz Schurgin, Executive Director

All smiles under those masks at our epic Spring 2021 outdoor concerts. (photo: Erica Baker)

This week marks the two-year anniversary of the start of the DC pandemic shutdown. Everything about how the DC Youth Orchestra Program operates changed overnight — and kept on changing. We taught online, created new community programming, presented digital performances, and later rehearsed and performed outdoors under large tents.

As challenging as that was, in many ways the transition was surprisingly smooth. With a deep set belief that young people should have access to the transformative power of music education and a commitment to fulfilling that obligation, we already had the tools we needed in our toolbox.

Here are some of the tools we have used since long before the pandemic started to achieve our mission and which helped us navigate the pandemic.

We challenge the status quo. DCYOP has a history of implementing changes long before they are common practice. For example, accepting all students into our program, starting at DCYOP’s inception, was ahead of its time. We have never seen exclusivity or elitism as necessary (or desirable) ingredients in creating excellence. Being an inclusive organization takes a lot of work and people’s needs are constantly evolving which requires our team to challenge the status quo. 

In March 2020, when everyone’s world turned upside down, we had to figure out how to meet our mission and promise to our students without meeting in person. Within a week, we moved all of our teaching online, far faster than most other arts and youth organizations. We designed creative alternatives to in-person concerts. Later, we found ways to meet together outside, and eventually inside, putting in place safety protocols, all while CDC guidance changed weekly, if not daily. We did not come to the task with expertise in online technology or education; we came with a habit of finding solutions that sometimes go against the expected flow.

We meet students where they are. Our Talent Development Program, now in its third year, removes financial barriers and ensures that students who are pursuing music at a high level get the support they need, from mentors to private lessons and other opportunities. We do not fit student-musicians into our vision; we adjust the program to meet the evolving needs of our student-musicians.

In the first year of the pandemic, we quickly understood that learning in a virtual environment, it would be hard to keep students (and faculty!) motivated. So we divided the usual semesters into trimesters, giving everyone end goals that could be achieved more quickly. This also allowed us to pivot to in-person programming outdoors once it was safe to do so.

We engage with our community differently in multiple different ways. Our families are an integral part of the DCYOP family. We don’t just know their names — we have relationships with them. We are in constant contact with our families, collecting informal and formal feedback. Parents know that we are invested in our students’ growth and progress all the time.

As a result, going into the pandemic, our families already knew and trusted us, so working together to ensure the safety of all the musicians while providing an excellent program was not only possible, but expected by and of everyone. 

In a challenging and ever-changing environment, that mutual trust and respect has allowed all of us to work as partners toward a common goal.

To be sure, March 13, 2020 was a difficult day and pivoting the way we serve our students was far from easy. We had to reinvent how we operated— from teaching orchestra online to rehearsing under tents to repackaging our after-school programs, not to mention the need to keep our organization thriving financially and otherwise. It was, and is, a challenge. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the tremendous added effort and grit of our staff that was needed to achieve all of that.

What also made it possible is that our beliefs and our mode of operation did not change with the pandemic — they are what have sustained us.