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Welcome to the second installment of Navigating the New Normal: Nonprofit Lessons Learned in the Covid-19 Era, featuring insights from leaders at several of our community partner organizations. Click here to read last week's series introduction, penned by MMI's Director of Grantmaking and Capacity Building, Rychetta Watkins. 

Today, we're featuring an interview with Stephen Lee, founder and Executive Director at the Memphis Jazz Workshop. In addition to running the show at the Workshop, Steve also serves as one of our In-Schools program Fellows. MMI recently spoke with Steve about the challenges that come with online programming, the future of the Memphis Jazz Workshop, and why creativity and calm are essential in navigating a pandemic.


MMI: When did you found the Workshop

Steve: I founded the Jazz Workshop in 2016. We didn't start programming until 2017, but I got the nonprofit information sorted out in 2016. So it's been, wow, five years. 

MMI: And interesting years to do it. You had a couple of years of normal programming before the pandemic hit, but it's been a roller coaster I'm sure. Before the pandemic, what did programming look like at the Workshop?

Steve: We met with participants at different locations. At Hutchison school, which we're back at now, and Crosstown, Southwest University, and so on. During the summer of 2019, before the pandemic, we were really gaining some momentum. We were averaging about 30, 35 kids enrolled in the program.

Of course, we were also able to perform more before the pandemic. 

MMI: How did you, as the leader of the organization, respond when the pandemic started shutting things down? How quickly did you move online? 

Steve: Around the time that the pandemic hit, we were planning a fundraiser. That was scheduled for April 4. We pushed it back to April 20th, thinking that things would be somewhat reopened by that time, which, of course, they weren’t. April 20th came and May 1st came. Then we were like, Okay, we’ve got to try to think of something creative. We had already stopped all our in-person programming, but wanted to keep the students playing. I started asking students to film themselves playing their instrument along with a backing track. That was really fun. The students would submit their videos and I’d post them on social media. During the pandemic, that was one way I could really bolster our marketing efforts. 

We also started our masterclass series, where we’d bring in international artists to talk to the students over Zoom. That series helped us a lot—and, of course, really helped the students. 

MMI: So you didn't have the masterclass series before the pandemic?

Steve: No.

MMI: Those have been great. I sat in on one or two of them and it was awesome. Is that something you think you’ll keep doing after the pandemic? 

Steve: Thank you. That’s definitely something we plan to keep hosting. 

MMI: What kind of feedback did you get about that from students and parents about that series?

Steve: We got a lot of feedback from the kids. I mean, it was cool. You get a chance to meet one of your favorite musicians. We've hosted top artists like John Patitucci, Ron Carter. The students were really motivated, and that was very exciting.

MMI: It sounds like that has been one of the big wins that you had during the pandemic. Are there other things that you did during the pandemic that you found that you want to retain or things that you would consider wins?

Steve: Definitely. The masterclasses, of course, and our marketing strategy. Another change we implemented during the pandemic that I’d like to retain is hosting Board and staff meetings virtually. Now, we can meet on Zoom quickly and easily. I can be working with the students and then just hop online to talk to staff. So, that’s been great. It’s not something I did at all before the pandemic. 

MMI: It does give you more flexibility. What were the biggest challenges for you as you were trying to pivot the programming?

Steve: One of the biggest challenges is to try and keep the kids engaged. The thing is, jazz is a personal music and it really helps to learn this music with others in group combo rehearsals. You can teach private lessons, obviously, but the combo is very important. They get a chance to interact and play. And I knew the fact that they couldn't do that anymore was going to be a big challenge.

We looked into some software to facilitate them playing together, but it really didn't work out. It required everyone to have good wifi service, a good device, ethernet cable, and so on. It was just a lot. So we just continued to teach them online the best way we could.

MMI: So are you back to 100% in person lessons now?

Steve: Yes.

MMI: How has that been going so far?

Steve: Well, to be honest, Covid is not the problem. Really, we just need our own location because more students want to be part of the Workshop. We’re at Hutchison now, which is good, but we’ve got maybe four or five drum sets over at Crosstown. We can't use those drum sets because there’s nowhere to store them at Hutchison.

We're still adhering to all the CDC protocol—we’re social distancing, everybody has a mask, and we do temperature checks. But we’re in person, for sure. We started back in person last fall, actually. 

MMI: What does the future of the Workshop look like? What concerns, if any, do you have when it comes to navigating and planning future programming? 

Steve: The biggest change I’d like to see would be for us to have our own space. Like I said, we’re growing, and want to get more students involved. We have participants from all over the city. I’d love to have a location where we can bring in guest artists to do in-person masterclasses—our own building. Next summer will mark five years of Workshop programming, so it’s time we had our own space. 

MMI: It's great that you're continuing to have students who are interested in participating, that you're building that momentum. What lessons have you learned as the leader of a nonprofit over the last year and change? 

Steve: First, to be creative. As a jazz musician, you're always creative, so I’m already used to thinking about how I can be a better leader. I can take constructive criticism—you have to be able to. 

My other piece of advice is to not panic. Just stay focused, and have faith. 

MMI: Good advice for crazy times.

Steve: When you face challenges, try to think out of the box. Try to view the downtime as a positive and not a negative. 

MMI: Hopefully you've now been through the craziest thing that you will go through, having lived through this ongoing pandemic. Maybe it'll be smoother sailing from here on out.

Steve: Yeah, that's one way to look at it. [laughs]


Tune in next week for our final installment of Navigating the New Normal!