Entrepreneurial Projects in the Time of COVID: Innovation at the Yale School of Music

The COVID pandemic has taken its toll on higher education, with many universities pivoting to the virtual realm.  Notwithstanding the challenges of on-line education, the students in my graduate seminar at the Yale School of Music successfully designed and executed four innovative entrepreneurial projects.  These projects addressed the problem of how to ensure the place of classical music in the time of COVID.   In my last post, I discussed the process that my students used to generate and develop their project ideas. Here are the four entrepreneurial projects that resulted from our intense and rigorous process.

1. Art Making in Dialogue 

Our first entrepreneurial project targeted an audience of music lovers of all ages and all levels of experience who wanted to engage more deeply with the music.  To do so, our students designed and hosted a virtual interactive improvisation workshop where audience members co-created the musical experience with musicians from the Yale School of Music.


Improvisation is by its nature risky and unpredictable, particularly in an on-line format.  Therefore, the project group carefully prepared both the performers and the audience members prior to the actual event.

To make the audience members feel at ease, the group selected four Christmas themed pieces of music from different genres. They surveyed their audience members on their level of musical experience and followed up with personal emails. In addition, they created a downloadable glossary of musical terms for easy reference. On the performer side, the group prepared a “Performer Questions Guide” with sample prompt questions to facilitate the dialogue between the performer and the audience-participants.

The event

The event took place in early December by Zoom.  There were four group with one performer as the leader, one member of the workshop group as a facilitator, and 3-5 audience members.

To ease everyone into the experience, the event began with brief introductions and a fun ice breaker. The groups broke into breakout rooms for ten minutes to arrange the piece of music.  They then regrouped to share briefly about the experience.  Finally, the musicians gave a 20-minute concert of the improvised works.  To allow for more audience engagement, participants were invited to share their responses in the Zoom Chat.  Thereafter, participants and performers shared their enthusiastic responses by text and email.

This event successfully engaged the music-loving audience in the music-making process. The group was able to create a wonderful shared experience and meaningful connection between the performers and the audience members.   As a follow-up, the group encouraged their classmates to cultivate similar events both in the age of Zoom and afterward.

2. Hidden Gems Podcast

Our second entrepreneurial project group consisted of five students who were passionate about dismantling elitism in classical music. Their target audience consisted of music lovers who are put off by the traditional trappings of classical music.

The podcast project

The group decided to create a show featuring a genre-bending musician to talk about a “hidden gem”:  a musical work that is special to the guest and that more people need to know about.   The goal was to encourage audiences to listen, discover and connect through new musical offerings, thereby erasing the divide between classical music and other genres. The group wavered between doing a video and an audio version of the interview.  After conducting their audience interviews, they learned that many people were experiencing Zoom fatigue. As a result, the group’s entrepreneurial project became a podcast interview.

For their first podcast, they interviewed Chris Demetriou, a classically-trained percussionist and member of the Kracken Quartet.   This genre-bending quartet prides itself on merging elements of minimalism, math-rock, indie, post-rock, electronica, and the avant-garde to deliver highly energetic and engaging performances.

Two students in the group-violinist Beatrice Hsieh and percussionist and composer Kevin Zetina-served as co-moderators of the podcast. In a free-wheeling and informative discussion, Demetriou shared about his background in classical music and how he branched out to a more inclusive musical genre.  For his hidden gems, Demetriou chose two pieces: Monte by the French group Mermonte and No Matter How Fast You Run Today, You Will Never Catch Up to Tomorrow by the NY-based percussion group, Ensemble et al.

You can listen to these two hidden gems and more on the Spotify playlist that our students put together.  In addition, the group created a resource page to direct listeners to the podcast, the playlist and additional resources about the Kracken Quartet.

Leveraging group strengths

To produce this podcast, the group leveraged the strengths and experience of all five members of the group. The two moderators–Beatrice Hsieh and Kevin Zetina– were skilled at interviewing and facilitating interesting conversations. One group member, composer Soomin Kim, was in charge of graphic design.  Composer Sophia Pfleger did a magnificent job editing down two hours of interviews to a 40-minute podcast and violist Harris Bernstein served as producer.   The result was a professional, informative podcast that showcased how today’s audiences can discover new works of music and connect more effectively with the current musical scene.

Be sure to check out the podcast and resources and stay tuned for more!

3. Sprout Growth Mindset Workshop

Our third entrepreneurial project consisted of four students who focused on two challenges that high school music students are currently facing:

  • losing interest in music now that they were not able to perform together in a live setting due to the pandemic; and
  • adopting unhelpful practicing habits, with unrealistic expectations and too much pressure to perform “perfectly”.

This group’s solution was to introduce high school music students to the principles of the growth mindset that we studied in our class.

The growth mindset

The premise of the growth mindset is that you can grow your talent and intelligence through hard work, smart strategies, taking risks and learning from your mistakes and setbacks. The growth mindset overcomes the belief of many musicians that they only have a fixed amount of talent and that the only way to succeed is to be perfect.  This belief causes a lot of stress and sets up unrealistic expectations.

Using these principles, our students created a workshop to demonstrate to high school music students how to make the music learning process more enjoyable and more effective. The resulting entrepreneurial projects was an excellent 60-minute online workshop introducing students to growth mindset principles to inspire high school band students to enjoy music even during COVID.  Using a smart”  growth mindset strategy, one member of the group connected with his  high school band teacher who invited our students to present their workshop to this year’s online high school band class.  Through their audience interviews, the group learned that high school music students wanted to be entertained while they learned.

The workshop

Accordingly, my students created an informative and entertaining workshop with the following segments:

  • an introduction to the growth mindset,
  • a time management segment to make practicing more enjoyable and more productive,
  • a fun sight-reading exercise where students were encouraged to try things out without having to get do them perfectly, and
  • a series of videos that the group created to demonstrate effective practice techniques; and
  • breakout room sessions with the high schoolers to encourage their practice and learning process.

The workshop was a huge success!  More than 100 high school band students and music teachers signed on.  The band students quickly absorbed the message of the growth mindset to try things out and not worry about perfection but instead learning how to get better.  This group plans to roll out the workshop again in order to help change the mindsets of music students so that they enjoy their practicing and progress—and ultimately stay in the field.

4. Postcards from COVID

The fourth entrepreneurial project group learned a different lesson from this project experience: how to pivot from an original idea when your first venture no longer is viable.

Original project idea

This project also focused on high school music students.  The project group wanted to solve the problem of younger musicians who were feeling socially isolated during the COVID shutdown. Their goal was to inspire young musicians to connect emotionally with music in a fun, informal setting.

Through their brainstorming and development process, the group decided to host a series of “Choose Your Own Adventure” live performances.  The performances would be held in the backyards of a New Haven neighborhood for small groups of audience members. The musicians and audience members would meet and mingle around a fire pit. Audience members would wander through the neighborhood and choose what music they listened to.  The group also envisioned fun activities like mask-making. There would also be refreshments to go along with the music.  Above all, the group conducted research to insure that these performances would be COVID-compliant and safe for all participants.

Just as the group was moving ahead with its plan, Yale University imposed new COVID restrictions.  Henceforward, members of the Yale community were prohibited from having in-person gatherings with people outside of the Yale community. This restriction meant that the group could not stage their live event. As a result, they had to come up with a new idea.  It took considerable time to do so, both to overcome the disappointment of not being able to carry out the original idea as well as to generate a new project idea.

Second project idea

The group remained committed to the following goals:

  • Sharing an emotional experience of music in an informal setting;
  • Creating an intimate, personal connection showcasing individual experiences in a time when we are highly isolated from each other;
  • Building awareness of the musicians’ experience under Covid-19; and
  • Offering a collage of different responses to replicate the “choose your own adventure” idea.

These goals led to their second entrepreneurial project idea:   a series of videos where musicians would share their experiences in COVID by performing a short work, along with commentary on how they felt.  The group further proposed to share the videos with younger musicians and encourage them to post their own videos.  The group tested out the idea on their target audience of younger music lovers and decided to provide bite-size content for the Zoom era.

The result was a YouTube channel called “Postcards from COVID”. The initial roll-out included videos from the five group members and the group hopes to encourage more participation.

Through this experience, the group learned the valuable lesson of entrepreneurship: how to pivot to a new structure when your original idea does not work.  They further demonstrated how to bounce back and be resilient in the face of a major setback.  In fact, this lesson is critical to the success of new entrepreneurial ventures as our class advisors noted in their feedback sessions with our group. Finally, the Postcards are a valuable document of the experience in this difficult period of COVID shutdown.

Bottom line:

I commend my students for their hard work in creating successful projects during this COVID shutdown period.  It shows what is possible when creative students collaborate on a project that is meaningful to them and solves an important problem for an audience that they care about.