Independent musicians have found new passions during the pandemic. Some do not return | Way of life


PITTSBURGH – America’s classical music organizations have been silent for a year, but many are in a decent financial position thanks to individual donors, foundations, administrative leaves, pay cuts for musicians, and federal funding like the program. payment protection.

While organizations like the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and the Pittsburgh Opera have come together in one piece, independent musicians from smaller orchestras and regional groups have suffered the brunt of the impact. Small sets could not continue to use them during the pandemic.

“All my performance income dried up like this,” said trumpeter Micah Holt, a 33-year-old South Side resident who performs in several regional orchestras including the Erie Philharmonic and West Virginia Symphony and teaches the trumpet. at Slippery Rock University. .

The life of a contract musician follows the typical holiday or famine patterns of the concert economy, so it is not uncommon for these musicians to choose side work. A few years ago, Holt started working part-time at the ASCEND climbing gym on the South Side. As a route planner, he draws the paths up to the climbing wall; the routes change and evolve regularly to stay fresh and stimulating for regular climbers.

“We’re like the heads of the climbing gym,” said Holt.

During the pandemic, he increased his hours at the gym to make up for lost performance income, sometimes working more than 20 hours a week there. He intends to keep or increase these hours while possibly reducing his trumpet concerts.

He is not alone. Dozens of musicians in the Pittsburgh area and across the country are adjusting their careers to include more stable side fuss in the aftermath of the pandemic or hanging up their instruments for good.

David and Goliath

Independent musicians and the bands many work for are tiny compared to America’s biggest orchestras, which have budgets of several million or tens of millions of dollars. Full-time salaried musicians employed by these orchestras typically retained all or most of their salaries during the pandemic, accepting concessions as needed. In April 2020, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra musicians and some staff saw their base salaries drop 10%, then 20% in July, and finally 25% for the 2020-21 season. The full base salary for the musicians was $ 101,180.

Paul Austin, president of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians and horn player of the Grand Rapids Symphony in Michigan, said industry experts were concerned about the financial fallout for performing arts groups, recalling the 2008 economic downturn. at the start of the pandemic. The big losses did not materialize thanks to public and private support and greatly reduced costs; organizing concerts is the biggest expense most ensembles face.

“The difference between the pandemic and the 2008 economic downturn was that in 2008 our donors hit their wallets tremendously,” Austin said. “But that didn’t happen this time. I look at my retirement accounts every day and they don’t seem to be falling apart.”

Regional orchestras and opera companies, which typically employ singers and instrumentalists on a contract basis, have been unable to continue paying their artists. Individuals felt the pressure, although there was some relief. Many contract musicians have applied for and received small grants or individual loans or unemployment benefit in the event of a pandemic.

Sebastian Vera, principal trombonist with the Pittsburgh Opera and other regional ensembles, said many of his colleagues were unemployed. “A lot of musicians were actually making more out of unemployment than they usually did.”

Vera, 38, teaches at Slippery Rock and Duquesne universities, which helped offset the loss in performance income. He also embarked on the co-creation of a podcast interviewing professional trombonists from across the country about their careers. After a year, the popular podcast “The Trombone Retreat” has been downloaded over 27,000 times in 80 countries.

Career intermission

Many independent musicians have taken on additional teaching responsibilities to increase their income, either privately or through academic positions. Some have produced and broadcast house concerts, started podcasts, or created other digital content, while others have started music-related projects to make money.

“I am now in charge of a 12-year-old group,” said opera soprano Leah Crocetto, 37, former resident artist of the Pittsburgh Opera and rising star of the opera world. She is currently based in West Virginia, where she teaches a girls rock camp.

Crocetto was rehearsing at the Virginia Opera when everyone was sent home last year. She increased her teaching load to 20-25 students per week, lowering her usual rates to recognize the limitations of a Zoom lesson.

“I try to be realistic, not pessimistic,” she said. “But at the moment, I don’t see a reality where I could subsist singing alone.”

Local bassist Jesica Sharp Crewe, 37, was involved in real estate transactions before the pandemic and began taking Alexander Technique classes in the summer of 2020. The Alexander Technique develops improved movement and posture and has become popular in as a form of physiotherapy in musicians. It takes three years to become a certified teacher, and she sees certification as “another piece of the puzzle” in her career portfolio.

Some orchestras continued to employ a small number of musicians to broadcast performances and recordings. Violist Maija Anstine, 32, said she performed once every three or four weeks during the pandemic, masked and left behind in a small group of players.

“I felt very lucky, but the strangest thing about it was having to stand up to receive applause when there was no one in the room,” she said. “It was dystopian.”

Anstine also works as a manager at Five Points Artisan Bake Shop in Squirrel Hill and significantly increased her hours during the pandemic to make up for lost income. She said she would cut back as needed now that her concerts with local orchestras and ensembles are back.

Curtains for the moment

Some musicians reduce their performances, either by economic pressure or by discovering a new passion. Ian Evans, 40, of Peters, had a decades-long career as a jazz drummer. He found a new outlet to satisfy his artistic desires: to cultivate and sell bonsai trees.

“I pretty much played until the pandemic, but then it was all wiped out,” he recalls.

Evans started growing bonsai in 2018. In 2021, his wife created Bebop Bonsai to start selling materials and trees on consignment at local farmers‘ markets and greenhouses like Chapon’s Greenhouse in the Borough of Baldwin. It aims to make the business a full time business.

“I see links between bonsai and music,” Evans said. “I can improvise smoothly on drums, and a bonsai tree presents similar challenges in that it is a puzzle, like improvising within the limits of what is possible given the tree species.”

He sees a growing demand, which he attributes in part to the popular show “Cobra Kai”. In it, adult Daniel (the villain from the 1984 film “Karate Kid”) hands out bonsai trees along with car purchases from his dealership.

“It’s a bit of a cultural moment,” he said. “There’s also a bit of a Bob Ross element … Who doesn’t love a happy tree?”

Other musicians have learned to code. Violinist Stefani Schore said she knows many musicians who have switched to coding because of the creativity involved. She decided to attend Tech Elevator coding boot camp in December, graduated in April, and landed a full-time job at PNC Bank a week later.

She intends to continue playing professionally, but having a stable full-time role will allow her to be more selective in choosing her opportunities, she said. Many freelancers feel pressured to say “yes” to every offer they get because of financial pressures. Schore, who is engaged to Holt, remembers having rehearsals, performances and lessons in three different states on the same day.

“It’s not a career change, it’s an identity change,” she said. “My professional aspiration was to be a full-time musician and I got there, but I love being in software development now. “

Violinist Juan Jamarillo, a native of Venezuela who performs with the Pittsburgh opera and ballet orchestras, said he has applied for numerous pandemic assistance grants for individual musicians through organizations like the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council after representation opportunities dried up.

Then over a beer with a neighbor, Jamarillo stumbled upon an opportunity with New York Life Insurance Co., focusing on retirement planning and investment protection. He became an agent in December and expanded the company’s presence with the Latin community of Pittsburgh.

“Income is definitely better than music. I have to say. I had been thinking about it for a while, and it was time to come to terms with reality.”

Jamarillo has said he will continue to play but plans to cut back.

“It’s disappointing not to do what I love to do full time, of course,” he said. “There are pros and cons, just like there are pros and cons in a musical career. I can’t wait to see where this new opportunity takes me.”

Once a musician

Thanks to the pandemic, many musicians are rebalancing their career portfolios with non-musical side activities or even secondary careers. This is nothing new; it is common for performing artists to have multiple jobs in different fields to make ends meet. But the pandemic has highlighted the instability of the ground.

Some have chosen to go away, especially after tasting a constant income outside of music or even through unemployment compensation. Music schools continue to produce more professional-level musicians than the current landscape can support. Maybe the pandemic will start to balance these scales.

Either way, the discipline and skill it takes to become a professional musician translates easily into many other fields and endeavors.

“Classical musicians are not to be underestimated,” said Austin, the Michigan musician. “You give us 15 months of unpaid leave and we’ll find something to do. We are resourceful people. “


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