It’s been more than a year since the coronavirus pandemic ushered in stay-at-home orders in California, shuttering some businesses and moving some work and schools online.
As the pandemic swept through the United States, taking 500,000 lives with it, routines were upended, events were canceled, and lockdowns waxed and waned to varying degrees across the country.
For musicians and artists who make their living from music, the pandemic’s effects were felt around the world. According to the Associated Press, the live events industry lost $30 billion due to the pandemic. The staggering figure also takes into account the loss of concession sales, merchandise, restaurants, hotels, and other revenue.
In the Sacramento Metropolitan Area alone, 15,810 creatives in all fields lost their jobs between April 2020 to July 2020, according to a report from the Brookings Institution. During the same time period, $674 million was lost in sales in creative industries in the region. Sacramento wasn’t the only California metropolitan area affected — Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego lost a combined total of over 330,000 creative jobs, leading to roughly $34.4 billion in lost revenue throughout the state.
Musicians worldwide have found themselves needing to adapt by performing through video conference systems, streaming platforms, and social media. As Americans pass the one-year mark of the coronavirus pandemic, we spoke with three musicians with ties to the Sacramento region about how they’ve adapted and changed over the past year.
The vocalist who found himself through remote work
Omari Tau considers himself a versatile singer, skilled in classical, musical theater, jazz, R&B, soul, or "Whatever, you know? I'm singing whatever comes my way pretty much," he says.
The Sacramento-native is a music professor at Cosumnes River College and the co-founder and Artistic Director of the Rogue Music Project. Tau said 2019 was a "busy, vibrant" year.
"It was a good year. Things have been good for me. Music opportunities have come my way," he said.
And with such a productive year, 2020 was shaping up to be successful for Tau. At the start of the pandemic, he thought coronavirus would quickly run its course.
"It didn't settle in that this was going to be a long-term proposition until well into it," he said. "I figured, 'well, let's get past a couple of weeks, let's do a little quarantining and put on our masks and do whatever it is we need,' and we'd be back into it."
Tau said it finally sank in when CRC told him not to come back to campus to teach. It was a "slow burn" of realizing that teaching wouldn't go back to normal in the fall either, so he decided to rearrange his entire apartment to support his new life.
"My home was my refuge. It was away from all of the things. [Before the pandemic] it was, get out of the house, go make art, go make music, sing at events," he said. "That's not the case anymore. Everything is here. I've got my keyboard here. I got my microphone here. I got everything here."
Like many other teachers and professors, Tau had to take his lessons online. Moving his work life into his home hasn't affected his artistic work but instead increased his opportunities in a new way.
"Well, I have some voiceover opportunities. I'm doing some narration for some projects," Tau said. "The teaching happens right here. This [room] is what the students see. We do warm-ups here and private lessons happen here," he said, gesturing to his computer and piano over a video call.
He's found himself connecting with more organizations with just phone calls, finding that it's been extremely successful.
"I have wanted to start a scholarship, and I did this year. I wanted to get other initiatives going for access for Black and Indigenous People of Color, etc., I've done that," Tau said. "The thing that I want to keep [as the U.S. slowly returns to pre-pandemic life] is that time, that consideration, sort of making sure that those things aren't side events, side projects, but our primary focus."
Through the pandemic, he has learned more about his innermost self and has found out that he can and should make more meaningful choices about his life, work, and art.
"My art for me is at its innermost place and that I don't have to let everybody into that innermost core. I get to make decisions about that, and I get to decide where the emphasis is going to be," Tau said. "I get to make a lot more decisions than I've allowed pre-quarantine … I want to keep that alive when we come out of this."
The pianist juggling gigs online and in-person
Jazz pianist Jim Martinez saw the effect the COVID-19 pandemic had on his fellow musicians once California started closing down restaurants and performance venues.
"I was on Facebook looking at all of the musicians saying 'I can't make a house payment,' and this one guy said he couldn't even feed his dog and cat, and it broke my heart, you know?" he said.
As a musician that often performs live, Martinez was out of work. To make matters worse, his wife lost her job as a school teacher when classrooms shuttered across the state. He knew that to keep paying his bills, he needed to pivot to online performances — but where would he find paying audiences to watch a concert through a video conference program?
As the Roseville Jazz Festival executive director, he decided to dive into the festival's mailing list.
"We had a thousand people on our mailing list that I was able to tap into because I'm the executive director. Why not?" Martinez said. From that list, he was able to get together enough guests to do online video recitals.
Except Martinez found live online concerts sometimes come with a lag, which can throw off professional musicians. To get around that, he got musicians to record their parts individually, send him the video files, where he then would assemble everything together and upload the final product as a performance.
He set up about "three or four" concerts and found that he was having trouble hiring musicians due to California's 2019 worker clarification law, AB 5, intertwining with the COVID-19 pandemic. So, he pivoted to mostly solo shows and outdoor performances, like at a restaurant in Lodi.
While he was happy to have the live gig work, he found himself playing outside while the wildfires were tearing through the area.
"The smoke was horrible. You couldn't be inside, and you had to wear masks because the smoke was just — ashes were falling on my keyboard, but people were still eating dinner," Martinez said. "They were supporting us. The tips were outstanding. The food was amazing. I got paid."
He bounced between gigs, including playing outdoors for a church or teaching part-time at a Rocklin university. "It's a different vibe, but at least it's still work."
While Martinez said he's adapted to this new way of performing, something has been missing.
"I really miss playing for an audience — whether it's 50 people to some of the symphony concerts for like 2,000 people. You're playing for an appreciative audience, and you can sell a truckload of CDs if you get the right crowd, and you make a bunch of money," he said. "I think this whole COVID thing showed me; it's not really about the money."
After living a year through the pandemic, Martinez just wants audiences and people to empathize with musicians and all artists alike. The industry is "a tough world to begin with," and the pandemic has exacerbated problems, especially for artists with no retirement savings or anything to fall back on when gigs dry up.
"I think 2020 showed us that life isn't always going to be this beautiful all the time. There's a lot of rough spots that are going to happen, and you better be tough enough to deal with them," he said. "If we just have our families, and we have our core values together, then we're going to be okay. And no matter what happens, we'll be strong and we can make it through it."
The music teacher who moved to a new state
Chipper soprano singer and music instructor Bernadette Mondok realized COVID-19 would be changing things once her church choir canceled its planned trip to England.
"So there was a big, big event that we were all looking forward to and singing in England. I have never been over the pond ever, so it was going to be my first time," Mondok said. "And it's really sad it didn't happen."
The coronavirus pandemic putting the kibosh on the overseas choir trip wasn't the only major adjustment — some bigger life plans were altered, too.
"My fiance had planned to propose to me in England or Italy or somewhere in Europe, and — it didn't happen that way," she said while casting her eyes to the floor during a video call. "It was still beautiful, but missing out on that and having to postpone my dream of finally going to Europe and make music there — that was hard."
The seriousness of the pandemic really sank in once many of her students at Music Stream Center in Davis started dropping out of their in-person music examinations. Soon, classes were moved online.
Mondok found herself needing to quickly figure out how to teach a skill that typically requires face-to-face instruction.
"As a voice teacher … I need to be able to see faces. I need to be able to see how your jaw is open and whether your tongue is overreacting, or your mouth shape, or aerosolizing," she said while gesturing her mouth and jaw.
Mondok and her fiance found themselves setting up microphones and cameras in their home, just like many other music instructors have done during the pandemic. Since they lived in an apartment, she fretted about bothering her neighbors and tried to keep the noise level down.
On a hot Northern California summer day, Mondok opened her window for a breeze, and despite her best efforts to keep quiet, a neighbor came to talk to her about the noise level.
"[She] came down and then knocked on our door, and she said that she has night shifts and that she has to earn a living and be sane," Mondok said.
She ended up apologizing.
"I felt compassion because we were all in a difficult time, and the truth is, I wasn't going to live there for very much longer," she said.
She and her fiance moved to Talent, Oregon, "sight unseen," to set up their lives after her partner found a new job as a music teacher in the area. Despite moving roughly 300 miles away and into a different state, Mondok has continued teaching her students — but now exclusively online.
"I have to consider that I'm very lucky because I didn't lose hardly any income," Mondok said. "In fact, I made a lot more money because there are more opportunities to teach students earlier in the day … their parents want them to do something enriching."
Since the "regular" schedules for millions of Americans changed, she can now teach classes in the afternoon, whereas before, her students would still be in school, and parents would be at work. She believes her boss likely wouldn't have considered letting her keep her job and teach online after moving to a new state, but the pandemic has caused people to reevaluate the way things always were.
She feels thankful for the chance to continue teaching virtually, even if it can be a little tricky. Online music lessons require some logistics, she explained. Part of teaching the students also means having to teach their parents how to set up a camera to point at a child's fingers while playing the piano or making sure that the audio and lighting are good quality.
But either way, she thinks it's still working out.
"It's a lot of growing pains, but I think we're making it," Mondok said.
Editor’s note: CapRadio classical hosts Kevin Doherty and Jennifer Reason are members of the Sacramento opera collective, Rogue Music Project with Omari Tau. CapRadio is a sponsor of the Roseville Jazz Festival.
Andrew Nixon produced the videos and interview
Megan Manata edited the interviews and wrote the text
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