The Prout School's new music director is using his background in music and mathematics to navigate arts education in a COVID-19 world. Ryan Cox has taught math at Prout for two years, but also started the school's a capella group and
The Prout School’s new music director is using his background in music and mathematics to navigate arts education in a COVID-19 world.
Ryan Cox has taught math at Prout for two years, but also started the school’s a capella group and music directed several of the school’s musical productions. When previous music director Phillip Faraone, who worked part-time as music director and part-time as a theology teacher, decided to teach theology full-time, Cox switched from teaching math full-time to splitting his time between music and math.
Graduating from Providence College in 2018 with a double major in mathematics and piano performance, Cox says the two disciplines have much more in common than some may think. Both rely on patterns and problem solving in order to finish the equation or play the piece.
“I’ve always taken that more analytical approach to music, so I’ve always considered myself to be a much more technical musician,” Cox said. “But I think that kind of approach helps in directing really well because you have to pick apart the score, analyze the parts and explain it to the ensemble.”
Cox’s interest in music stems from his family: his mother is a violin and viola teacher, while his grandmother played the organ. Cox began taking piano lessons at 4 years old, and has been devoted to playing ever since. He also plays clarinet, guitar, organ and sing.
Teaching also came easily for Cox. Cox had considered teaching before, and also tutored multiple subjects in college.
“I always had teaching in the back of my mind, I’ve always liked school, but it was that tutoring experience that really solidified it,” Cox said.
Hailing from Warwick, Cox attended Warwick public schools from kindergarten to eighth grade before attending Bishop Hendricken High School.
“I credit the teachers in Warwick for really pushing me and really exploring every kind of aspect of learning,” Cox said. “I wouldn’t be singing at all if it wasn’t for the choir teacher at Hendricken, for example. Having them all foster that love of music has really helped me.”
When Cox came to Prout, he noticed the strength of its community. He described students and faculty as tight-knit, with people with varying interests and backgrounds coming together as friends. He said this is his favorite part about teaching at Prout.
Transitioning from full-time math teacher to part-time math and part-time music was easier than Cox expected. Since Faraone is still at Prout, albeit teaching solely theology, Cox said that he could still reach out to his predecessor for advice. Cox also said that the community has been supportive of him, and he was already familiar with many in the school.
“A lot of these students already know me, a lot of them have worked under me for a capella or the shows, or have had me for math, so I’m excited to get to know them on a different level,” Cox said. “If you have them in a class they are required to take versus a class they want to take, they seem like a totally different person.”
But with coronavirus transforming the education landscape, Cox knows that his first year as music teacher won’t be a typical one. According to the Prout School Principal Dave Estes, the school is planning to hold classes in-person to some extent, following guidelines set for public schools by the Rhode Island Department of Education.
Although Cox said that social distancing guidelines for traditional academic courses like math are straightforward, music courses have a bit more uncertainty. For example, singing with a mask on may muffle the sound, but singing without a mask can risk spreading the virus into the air. And if cases spike, holding music classes over Zoom may prove challenging. However, Cox said that Estes has been supportive, and has worked closely with him to adjust based on the pandemic’s future.
“The principal has been really committed to continuing the arts,” Cox said. “He’s been really supportive and wants to at least offer the classes and adjust it to make it work in the setting that we may have in the fall. There’s a lot of research showing that you can safely do these things in some capacity.”
Of course, Cox hopes that he will be able to teach classes in person again; according to him, there’s nothing like it.
“Overall, I’m just excited to see my students in person again,” Cox said. “I taught my classes asynchronously in the spring, so the only ones I really saw were the ones that needed extra help one-on-one.”
When Estes hired Cox to teach math, he sensed Cox would be a good fit for music direction as well.
“He impressed us from the very beginning,” Estes said. “Not only did he go to a Catholic college, but he graduated from a Catholic high school. Being a double math and music teacher would be great in the short and the long term. We knew that when there was an opening he would be a prime candidate for the position.”
Estes also said Cox was dedicated to helping others. For example, his a capella group held a concert to raise funds for the Meadowbrook Waldorf School, which was ravaged by a fire in 2018. The concert raised more than $1,500 for new instruments for the school, according to Estes.
“Innovative” was another word Estes used to describe Cox. He said Cox is in close contact with other music educators, and is also familiar with software for distance learning and editing. When this year’s spring musical “Brigadoon” was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Cox spliced videos of students singing songs and reciting scenes from the show in order to create an alternative experience.
“We have by no means finalized those plans, but I have no doubt that Ryan will do everything to educate our students, remotely or in-person,” Estes said.
Faraone said that he decided to step down because after 41 years of teaching music, eight of them at Prout, he felt that it was time for him to step down and have a younger person take over.
“The kids like him, he’s enthusiastic,” Faraone said of Cox. “You need that enthusiasm. Now he’s got to keep it all going, and I’m sure he will.”