As an arts-focused organization, ZUMIX was in some ways uniquely suited to face a pandemic. Creativity, at its core, is adaptability.

“We’re the opposite of a conservatory,” said Jenny Shulman, director of operations. “We emphasize creative youth development. The importance is that kids have agency over what they’re learning.”

In normal times, that means a teacher might arrange the SpongeBob SquarePants theme song for trombone if that’s what it takes to engage a student on the autism spectrum. In a time of crisis, it means that teachers and students must reconceive of technical challenges as new possibilities.

Video conferencing makes playing music together more difficult, but it also opens new windows into students’ lives.

“This is an opportunity to see our students in a different environment. We’re doing lessons in their home, getting a glimpse that we don’t normally see,” Shulman said. “There have been heartwarming videos of parents cooking in background. One girl showed off her pets, then went back to playing the piano. It adds a new nuanced personal element to what we do.”

Screenshots of teens and their teachers on a video conferencing platform

To overcome video conferencing’s challenges around synchronicity (a crucial element in music-making), ZUMIX approached the makers of Acapella, a collaborative music app. The company donated 80 free downloads, which students use to record themselves playing or singing along to accompaniment tracks recorded by their teachers. (The recent viral video of Berklee students covering “What the World Needs Now” is an inspirational example of the kind of collaboration this technology enables.)

This is only one of many technological workarounds. Free ear training and rhythm training apps allow students to continue to hone their musical skills. For students without instruments at home, keyboard or ukulele apps provide a next-best substitute. (And, to a parent’s chagrin, virtually anything can be made into a drum.) Meanwhile, radio students are sharing audio clips with plans of creating a show, and video students are filming video diaries of their experiences during the pandemic.

Lessons are changing, perforce, too. One ZUMIX teacher has pivoted from leading a Latin ensemble to leading students in pro-social music appreciation. Each student submits a song that brings them joy, and a song that a parent/guardian enjoyed in their youth. The result is a Spotify playlist that students can explore, individually and collaboratively, to learn each song’s history, instrumentation, and the personal connections that create meaning.

Amidst these new operational approaches, ZUMIX has had to get creative with fundraising, as well. In its newly launched Sing a Song/Send a Song campaign, social media users play or sing a song for someone they miss, post the video, and tag three others. With each post, they are encouraged to make a small donation.

Nikala Pieroni, ZUMIX development and communications manager, says the campaign is not just a fundraiser, but also a way to spread much-needed joy.

“We’re seeing the negative economic impact of this pandemic within the arts, but also how much the rest of the world relies on them in these challenging times,” she said.

Exploring the visual

Artists for Humanity (AFH) students are taking on daily sketch challenges to keep their skills sharp. Each day, they are assigned a letter of the alphabet to re-interpret. Using either a stylus and tablet, or old-fashioned pen and paper, they draw their creations and share them with peers on a group text message.

Behold, the many lives of the letter B:










Or, the phases of P:







The ability to make a letter come alive is crucial to the teens’ commissioned work creating logos or visual identities for AFH clients. But it’s also about a wider resilience.

“The focus is for them to become avid observers of the world,” said Kelsey Arbona, AFH graphic design studio mentor and manager. “That’s what design is: You can see a problem in the world and solve it creatively. That’s something we hope we instill in them right now.”

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