Suppose musicians wanted to give a concert, but nobody came.
Or to paraphrase Don McLean from his classic song, “American Pie,” from mid-March 2020 to now, it has been the year that many music performances before a live audience died.
And most musicians, orchestra administrators and music teachers aren’t singing. They are sobbing because their worlds have been turned upside down.
“Our musicians have been devastated by the pandemic. Musicians — like athletes — have to keep in shape to do their job,” said Lora Unger, chief executive officer of the Pasadena Symphony. “There is no ‘to-go’ option for musicians. For them, in some ways, it has been a worse time than it has been for restaurant workers.”
The Pasadena Symphony — like most regional orchestras except the Los Angeles Philharmonic — uses freelance musicians who rely on a variety of gigs to piece together a living. Most of those employment doors slammed shut during the past year — including studio jobs.
While researching this column, I talked to musicians, music teachers, orchestra executives and people who help run music schools. All of them described the past year in pretty much the same ways: “weird, “strange” and/or “disorienting.”
“I have always appreciated having a career in the performing arts,” said Ryan Sweeney, cellist with the Pasadena Symphony. “COVID amplified the reality of how fragile all our lives are, and it made me appreciate all that much more how fortunate I am to be able to live a life focused around making music.
“As the saying goes, ‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder’ and now that we musicians are slowly beginning to perform together again, it really has proven true for all of us. Coming together with friends and colleagues to make music with each other is a unique privilege that we should not take for granted.”
It is the inability to come together and play before a live audience, or to teach to a class of students who should be sitting in front of them, that has been the most disorienting for everyone that I talked to.
Yes, there was online and it has been used in more creative ways since March 2020, but online only goes so far.
“Online concerts are not the same thing as live performances,” Unger said. “A live performance is inspiring, but nothing compares to 75-100 musicians playing a masterpiece.”
That plays true on the college and middle school level, too.
“The problem is communication. Teaching music has to be two-way communication. It was impossible to do. I tried everything,” said Rob Folsom, who grew up in South Pasadena and started the orchestra at the Huntington Middle School in San Marino 19 years ago.
Folsom started putting sections of his orchestra together in breakout rooms on a program called ‘Google-Meet,’ but it was a time-consuming process. Tuning string instruments, one at a time, might take a whole class period once every two weeks.
“There was a big learning curve and it was time-consuming. The first four months, I was working 80 hours a week, five days a week,” Folsom said. “It was crazy. Something was missing. They [the students] knew it. I could tell from their reactions. I could see it in their faces.”
Folsom put together online concerts by blending individual parts, but it could not replace the excitement of the three concerts the school annually performs in front of crowds of up to 400 for each performance.
And let me tell you, the performances are performances. The boys wear tuxedos and the girls wear long gowns. The top level of performers — the Chamber Orchestra — has played twice at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
But, playing online has been the go-to glue at all musical levels. The Pasadena Symphony did a series of concerts which were free on YouTube and also available by membership. During the pandemic, the symphony’s education department of teachers and coaches wrote a curriculum to reach an additional 9,000 students weekly above the usual 600 that were part of the program, prior to the pandemic.
The Early Music Department at USC Thornton School of Music began going online to present concerts by mixing individual parts. “While a group of people couldn’t play online at the same time together, we found ways of sharing sound and screen scores so that people could ‘play together’ online,” said Adam Gilbert, chairman of the department of the who lives in South Pasadena with his wife, Rotem Gilbert, a fellow department musician.
“People who said they would never do this became avid followers of these classics and they are continuing today,” he said. “Being together has really helped keep our sense of community.”
Gilbert, who took a long time to recover from COVID, said that the online process enabled the musicians to reach an international audience and send classes and online lectures to people as far away as China, Australia, Brazil and Israel.
Online has become the go-to process at the Art & Music Academy in South Pasadena, where lessons for favorite instruments such as piano, violin, guitar, ukulele, and songwriting are all currently being taught completely online.
“The online lessons have provided a bit of an escape — even if it is only for 30 minutes,” said an employee at the school, who asked that her name not be used for this article. “Students get to know their teachers and look forward to interacting with them.”
But there is some sweeter music to be heard in the not-too-distant future. The Arts & Music Academy has scheduled a soft opening in June for current students. Also, new students can begin coming in July.
The Pasadena Symphony is beginning its Pops Summer Series at the L.A. County Arboretum in Arcadia on July 10, and also has a schedule for its upcoming season at the Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena.
Both USC and the Huntington Middle School musicians are also looking forward to a future when they will once again be making music for live audiences.
“Music is always an important element of our life, and yes, has helped in keeping us going,” Gilbert said. “Every sound we make and everything we do resonates like harmony outward, so we all have to keep making music, whether singing or playing or just being human, no matter what happens.”
Editor’s note: For more information on the Early Music Program at USC, visit music.usc.edu. For information on the Arts and Music Academy, visit artsmusicacademy.com. For information on future concerts at the Pasadena Symphony, visit pasadenasymphony-pops.org. For information on the Huntington Middle School, visit hehms.us.
Pasadena Pops Summer Series Schedule
The Pasadena Pops Summer Series begins July 10 at the Los Angeles County Arboretum at 301 N. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia. Concerts begin at 7:30 p.m.
The series includes:
• July 10: Road to Motown
• July 24: Fleetwood Mac, A Tribute.
• Aug. 14: Michael Feinstein Sings Sinatra’s Songbook
• Aug. 28: Classical Mystery Tour-A Tribute to the Beatles
• Sept. 11: 100 Years of Broadway
For further information, visit pasadenasymphony-pops.org or call 626-793-7172. Dates and concerts for the upcoming Pasadena Symphony Season at Ambassador Auditorium are also available on the Pasadena Symphony website.