Like all forms of education, music education has been deeply affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the closure of physical campuses and the increased reliance on distance and online learning. How do music schools manage to do this? The Sarah McLachlan School of Music is such a success story in this regard, as Interim Executive Director, Jen Rose, relates in this interview with Douglas Nelson. Jen attributes their successful pivot to a culture of transparency, which pervades every aspect of the organization. Using the tools and resources that they have at their disposal, Jen and her team did not let the pandemic stop their passion for bringing music to the young people in their community.
Listen to the podcast here:
Sarah McLachlan School Of Music With Jen Rose
Our guest on the show is Jen Rose. She’s the Interim Executive Director of the Sarah McLachlan School of Music. We’re thrilled to have her on the show. Welcome, Jen.
Thank you. It’s an honor to be here.
Let’s get this out of the way. First thing, what is the Sarah McLachlan School of Music?
We are incorporated as a registered charity in 2011 and we are a community of artists, musicians and philanthropists who wholeheartedly believe in the transformational power of music as a tool to connect and enhance the lives of young people. We operate in Vancouver, Edmonton and Surrey. Our student numbers are about 1,000 as it stands now.
Who are these students? Are these students who are interested in music or are there other criteria for who gets to be a part of the school?
In 2002, Sarah began the project with Arts Umbrella as an outreach program. With the schools closing their music programs in 2002, Sarah saw an opportunity to give back to her community. She wanted to create opportunities for children who otherwise wouldn’t have access. Even since 2002, this population has changed dramatically given the neighborhoods we’re working in, but her focus was to provide completely free music programs for children and youth who otherwise would not have access. Primarily, we are supporting children and families who financially cannot afford music lessons, but we also see a bulk of our students are coming because they’re facing hardships in their lives other than socioeconomic circumstances.
How do you identify those students? Is there an application process for the school? Do you work with other partners on that?
We offer both in case there are families that aren’t connected with the amazing services that we see in the communities we serve. You are able to go online and apply on our website, but the bulk of our students, we find them through our partnerships with the school boards, with youth and family workers and with community members who are working with vulnerable populations. Through Ray-Cam Community Center and the Broadway Youth Resource Centre that is our partnership with those key individuals who are working with these kids. They help to identify the programs for the families and refer them.
That goes to the ethos that you were for the organization to work in partnership with other organizations, that your goal is not to be standalone. Is that right?
I’m happy to have the opportunity to clarify that we aren’t a music academy. It’s not an apply to become a pop star. Our kids are coming in and some of them have never played before. It’s great to clarify that, but we see ourselves as a unique organization. Through our years of operations, we’re able to prove that we’re a solid program that can partner with like-minded organizations. As we grow, we’re looking to include ourselves in the ecosystems in different provinces across the country to make sure that we’re fitting with what the community needs.
As we’ve all seen, what the community needs have changed dramatically. It did about the early part of March of 2020. You have 1,000 students involved in the program, the pandemic hits and what happens next? How did you know that something was going to change for the offering that the school was making?
For a couple of days, I went fairly silent. We were supposed to be running our spring break program on March 16th. That was the first thing that we were, we had to cancel. There was a moment of shock, I think, in the beginning. I feel fortunate. When I look at all of the people you’ve had on your show and in terms of I’m aspiring to become a transformational leader, but I have a long way to go. This was an incredible opportunity for me. I feel that it’s important to recognize that while the initial calls out to our leadership team, with my Zoom computer at my kitchen table and my daughter at home, what I saw our staff do to respond to what we were facing was incredible. It deserves to be recognized.
We started by rejigging our team. We set up five team leaders. A big part of our concern was to make sure that our staff felt connected and didn’t lose touch with the school. We wanted to make sure that every staff member had a go-to immediately so that they could express how they were feeling that was the first step. We didn’t know what we were planning for. Our staff members were not only dealing with their work life-changing incredibly with the school and the work they do with the school, but they were also facing a total change in their careers as musicians and artists. Right away, you started to see how music was going to get affected during this pandemic.
They had to face that as well. As we started, it only took us about five days to get re-situated and to start with the team meetings, to start talking about what we were going to do, and the brainstorming started to happen. What I saw was despite an amazing amount of fear and anxiety, everybody came together to show how much they cared about our kids. We very quickly developed a safe space for everybody to try things despite the deficiencies they might be facing at home. Say, they didn’t have the right microphone or they didn’t feel comfortable in that setting or they’ve never been on camera. Everybody showed up and we were able to start some initiatives within even the first three weeks. When I look back on now, I can’t believe how quickly we’ve managed to respond.
Our board also felt the same. One of the greatest initiatives that we started was a Thinkific platform at SarahSchoolOfMusic.Thinkific.com. This is a platform that’s available to anybody who would like to enroll. We made over 42 courses with over 300 videos and you can log into the platform to take your lessons online. This was something that despite all the hardship our staff was facing, they were able to pull this together with no resources that were added. We may be brought a few computers to their houses. I felt incredibly grateful to be spacing that scenario in a leadership role with sporty, beautiful, talented, empathetic artists that gave everything they had to the project.
Is there a story that jumps out at you when you think about the enormity of these 40 people coming together to take the whole school online, starting after five days to get sorted? Is there a story that jumps out that this represents the best of what the school can be?
We did get disconnected. What mattered most to our staff was taken away from them, which is that face to face connection with the kids. That was a big struggle for our staff because it’s one of the strongest aspects of our program. We work with our students to build the program with them. We don’t offer some prescripted curriculum. We meet with them, talk about what they’re interested in. Our staff are more like coaches and mentors rather than the traditional teaching paradigm. We were all very concerned about what that meant would we lose that connection as we went online. We had one student who has been with us for many years, who through all of the isolation actually posted on Facebook that he was facing so much depression and that he was going to end his life.
[bctt tweet=”The heart of our organization is our staff, and we’re going to do everything we can to take care of them.” via=”no”]
Within twenty minutes, an outpouring of support came from our students that were contacting all of our instructional staff. They were reaching out because they’d seen his post on Facebook. Within minutes, all the students were like, “We need to go to trusted adults. We need to connect.” They connected with myself and a few other key staff members. We were able to contact the family. Within two hours, I was on the phone with this student and he was okay. He was safe at home with his family. The family was grateful. Now we were able to reconnect with him and he’s working with us at the school. We have this incredible community despite the remote aspect. That was proven at that moment. It happened quickly. Everybody knew exactly how to manage in the remote community the way we would.
That shows that the connection that you built, both in-person and online among the students, is a powerful culture. That’s inspiring. What do you think contributes to a culture that is that strong, that allows something like that story to come to be?
Especially what happened at the beginning back when we look back to March 2020, one of the first moves that we made as an organization, and I remember distinctly the conversation with Sarah was, “What are we going to do about our staff? Are we going to have layoffs?” She didn’t even seem to pause. She said, “No, of course not. We’re taking care of our staff.” That messaging to go out to our staff in such a vulnerable time was proof that we’re there for our kids and that’s our main concern. We understand that the heart of our organization is our staff and we’re going to do everything we can to take care of them. It helped to solidify what was already a strong community. That was one thing.
Another thing that builds the culture that we have is the transparency that I’ve been driven to create. I feel we have a culture of communication that everybody is involved in coming to the decision making and everybody has a stake in what happens. A lot of people refer to us as a family and I do see those ties. It does come to a very trusting, safe environment where people are able to take risks and they understand that that’s not going to be punished in any way. Making mistakes is a good thing and trying and learning where we’re not going to have all the answers, but it’s a safe and trusting culture.
You have mentioned transparency a couple of times already in our conversation. In that many organizations that we talked to through the show and a lot of the work that we do through the Discovery Group is an organization saying, “We value transparency.” The next part of that sentence is, “We value transparency, but,” they say, “Here are the things we can’t share.” The transparency you’re talking about, I don’t sense that there’s a but following that with you. Why transparency? What does that contribute to the organization?
It does go back to our staff. The work that they’re doing and the work that I’ve seen them do over the years and more, even when I wasn’t there, but they are tasked with such incredible responsibility. In order for the staffing team to feel strong in what they’re doing, they need to have a clear understanding of where the organization is going, how the decisions are made. If they don’t have that, then it’s a little tougher for them to fully realize their full potential as educators, mentors, and trainers. There is no reason as a registered charity that there shouldn’t be a ‘but.’ The fundamental reason that we exist is to improve the lives of the kids that we’re reaching. As we transitioned from an outreach program into a registered charity in 2011, the growth we’ve seen from 2011 to now, we’ve definitely seen times where that transparency maybe wasn’t as present. We’ve worked hard to put our frontlines into decision making roles so that we have trust throughout the building.
Across the sector and across the world, we’ve had organizations that had these gut checks about what is it we’re going to do? What are we going to be able to do? On the show, we’ve had guests across the country who’ve talked about how their organizations have changed, what they realized about themselves both as leaders and as organizations. How have you been able to keep the focus on the mission with all of this change, with all of the logistics involved in the pivot that you’ve described?
I believe that this COVID-19 clarified our mission in a particular way. When I saw what happened to kids and how all of a sudden, it seemed to be one day and it wasn’t a large statement, but it was just, “We’re going to shut the schools.” That day, I remember thinking to myself, not only as a parent but in our organization, how quickly that happened and what was taken away from the kids. It clarified that programs like ours can flex and we do work well in change. It helped to focus on the fact that youth development programs are essential and we need to do all that we can to continue to provide the service. It becomes important to our kids in a landscape when schools can be shutting their doors.
Was there anything that surprised you in dealing with things that nobody anticipated and no one was ready for? Is there one part of this that said, “I didn’t see that coming, I’m surprised that this is what we’re dealing with?”
I’m not sure if there’s one thing that surprised me. The most surprising day was when they shut the schools. There were many kids in schools during the time, but it depended. You had to be either a particularly vulnerable youth or you were an essential service worker, like in a family of essential service workers. I didn’t think kids were being affected as much.
What happened? The school shut down, but you have 1,000 students enrolled. What happened to those students? Were they able to finish their projects? Were they able to continue their work?
One of the first projects that we started was to show us how you practice campaign. We didn’t try to say that we were going to continue playing music together. We knew that wasn’t going to be possible. What we pivoted to the importance of developing your own individual practice. We wanted to showcase that even five minutes a day on your instrument at home can have a profound impact on your life. We started a Show Us How You Practice Challenge on Instagram and our staff were nominating one another. Our program manager, Andrea Unrau, nominated Sarah. Sarah was now brought into the fold of including this coming into this challenge. It was beautiful. We had Jann Arden and Brandi Carlisle and it doubled our followers on Instagram. That was how we pivoted, working at home to develop your musical skillset rather than trying to pretend that we could play together.
One of the strongest initiatives we started was our virtual student lounge. The student lounge at the Sarah McLachlan School of Music is a place where you come through the front doors and then you’re greeted usually by one of our alumni. We have a donated snack program. You come in and sit down and have a snack and play games. Our program is of paramount importance to how the kids will connect for the day. We realized that we could bring that online. That was actually one of the most successful initiatives we launched. It’s allowing the kids the opportunity in a low barrier way to join into their online student lounge. Our staff would do all sorts of different activities and run games and chat, maybe sometimes check-in and ask them how they’re doing. That was another one of the successful initiatives.
That social connection could continue even if it wasn’t in person. That’s great. In all of that change and all of that creativity to support the kids and instructors as they’re dealing with the pandemic, what role did the board play in the conversation in terms of holding the organization together or driving this change that you needed to make?
They were incredibly supportive and we transitioned our meetings to Zoom and we kept in regular contact. They maintain their fundraising responsibilities. They understood that because they couldn’t come and visit to see what was happening firsthand, that they had to play a supportive role. I provided as much information as I can and they made sure that I was accountable. I felt extremely supported.
You’ve been with the organization for years. You’ve seen the growth and evolution. You’re relatively new as an interim executive director. How did you find that transition from being Jen the best employee to Jen the boss?
Definitely not the best employee. The transition wasn’t a loud one. It didn’t alter too much the role that I was playing. My focus leading up to that moment was building a strong team. For me, I don’t think it shifted for a lot of our team members my role in the organization and what I was there to do. It didn’t change my objectives. It wasn’t a dramatic shift. What is dramatic is that we had plans to change the leadership right before COVID hit. A lot of things may have happened that we weren’t able to happen given the transition. I’m still extraordinarily grateful and I’m excited to participate in any way I can because I believe wholeheartedly in the work that we’re doing.
That absolutely comes through in the way you talk about the organization and you talk about the people that make up the organization. As the leader, what has changed about how you’re trying to engage people and making sure that they are able to show up as their best selves when they come through the door to work with the kids?
Our first step was to make sure that we captured feedback from all of our team members in terms of what their experience was. Now when we look at planning, because no one has a crystal ball, we don’t know what’s going to happen, we need to be aware of where we are. That was the first step. We held Zoom meetings. We broke them down into smaller groups that every staff member would have an opportunity to contribute. We had coders go through all the meetings. We notate everything so that we could come up with three main themes of importance for the fall. That was the first step in terms of making sure that as I go into the budgeting period for the fall, that I have a very good understanding of what the main concerns were.
[bctt tweet=”No one has a crystal ball; we don’t know what’s going to happen. We need to be aware of where we are.” via=”no”]
The three main priorities that we heard from our instructional team were flexible access. We want to make sure that we provide a program no matter what happens in the fall that is flexible, that students can come to regardless. Knowing that we’re going to see attendance issues, knowing that we’re going to see a bunch of different circumstances, we want to have opportunities for flexible access. We to make sure that we don’t say we want to have a digital community, that we put some research over the summer into what that digital community is going to look like. There’s a lot of different software platforms out there, but none have an all in one solution for us. That was key for me. At this point, I’m doing individual check-ins with all of the staff to chat with them and find out how they’re feeling, where they see they can contribute most. Trying to share that it is an opportunity for you to bring your best. I can’t prescribe that for you. Let’s move forward and try to try to bring as many of your ideas to life as possible because they know best.
That speaks to transparency and trust that the culture that you’re trying to build. It’s great to hear how consistent that is as a theme for your leadership and what’s happening at the organization. One of the challenges many organizations are facing is one of receiving donations and the ability to keep raising money to support their operations. What have your conversations with donors been like since the big pivot here in the middle of March 2020?
We’re in a transition in terms of our organizational structure, so I don’t have a development position currently with us at the school. We’re all picking up pieces where we can. In terms of our donor communication, we sent out a beautiful email. Our annual report coincided with this time. I was able to send out our annual report along with sharing all of the initiatives that we’ve started. That was received well. It sparked a few conversations with donors. What I’ve found is that people are looking for a way to help and they want to do it strategically, and they want to make sure that their support is going to the actual program recipients and not being funneled through any bureaucracy.
In that sense, our donors understand that we’re a lean organization, but we’ve continued to receive our commitments. The Wolverton Family Foundation, which is our main supporter and the reason we exist on Main and 7th is they gifted our space to us at 16,000 square feet in 2011. I was speaking with Lisa Wolverton and she is actively raising awareness about our programming internationally with the work that she’s doing. I feel that we’re in a good position. We may be a little bit too lean and might be looking for some support in terms of our grant writing, but we have a solid argument for how our program necessary for young people.
What I know of the organization and what we’ve seen from Discovery Group is a truly lean organization dedicated to the mission. It is impressive. I appreciate you sharing that through our conversation. Before we wrap up the show, I’ve asked a lot of leaders this question. As the world’s been going through this crisis, what have you been doing to look after yourself to make sure that you’re able to show up as your best self is the leader?
I broke my finger during this whole thing. I had to have surgery and it was difficult to try to get back to work when I couldn’t use my right hand. In terms of self-care, it is a priority to me, but I’ve been putting a lot of my attention and efforts into work and also into taking care of my daughter. We’ve been home full-time. With that said, if I had to answer in one word, it would be reflecting on the gratitude that I have for where I am.
That does come through. Jen, I appreciate you making time to be a part of the show.
About Jen Rose
Jen Rose, Interim Executive Director, joined the Sarah McLachlan School of Music in July 2011. She was drawn to the School through a dual love of music and a desire to extend a hand to her community. Jen holds an Honours Degree from Kings College in Halifax Nova Scotia, where she studied political science and philosophy, and began her involvement with Students for Literacy, implementing volunteer programming across Halifax for underserved youth.