Freelance musicians have discovered new passions throughout 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 decent financial shape thanks to individual donors, foundations, administrative leave of absence, musician salary cuts, and federal funding like the Payment Protection Program.

While organizations like the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and the Pittsburgh Opera made it through in one piece, independent musicians from smaller regional orchestras and groups bore the brunt of the impact. They could no longer employ smaller ensembles during the pandemic.

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

The life of a contract musician follows the typical festive-or-hunger patterns of the gig economy, so it is not uncommon for these musicians to take up sideline jobs. Holt started working part-time at the climbing gym ASCEND on the South Side a few years ago. As a route planner, he designs the paths on the climbing wall; The routes change and evolve regularly to stay fresh and challenging for regular climbers.

“We are like the chefs in the climbing hall,” said Holt.

During the pandemic, he increased his hours in the gym to make up for lost performance income, sometimes working there more than 20 hours a week. 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 either adjusting their careers to take on more stable sideline jobs after the pandemic, or hanging their instruments up for good.

David and Goliath

Independent musicians and the groups many work for are tiny compared to America’s largest orchestras, which have budgets of millions or tens of millions of dollars. Full-time musicians employed by such orchestras generally kept all or most of their salaries during the pandemic and agreed to concessions when necessary. In April 2020, musicians from the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and some staff had to cut their base salaries by 10%, then by 20% in July and finally by 25% for the 2020/21 season. The full base salary for musicians was $ 101,180.

Paul Austin, president of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians and horn player at the Grand Rapids Symphony in Michigan, said industry experts were concerned about the financial consequences for art groups commemorating the 2008 economic downturn earlier in the year pandemic. The big losses did not materialize thanks to public and private support and drastically reduced costs; Organizing concerts is the greatest expense that most ensembles have.

“The difference between the pandemic and the 2008 economic downturn was that our donors made huge losses in their portfolios in 2008,” Austin said. “But that didn’t happen this time. I check my retirement accounts every day and they don’t seem to be losing the tubes.”

Regional orchestras and opera houses, which usually employ singers and instrumentalists on a contract basis, could no longer pay their artists. Individuals felt the pressure, although there was some relief. Many contract musicians applied for and received small individual grants or loans or pandemic unemployment benefits.

Sebastian Vera, principal trombonist with Pittsburgh Opera and other regional ensembles, said many of his colleagues are unemployed. “Many musicians even earned more than usual with unemployment.”

Vera, 38, teaches at both Slippery Rock and Duquesne Universities, which has helped make up for lost performance income. He also jumped into helping create a podcast interviewing professional trombonists across the country about their careers. After a year, the popular podcast “The Trombone Retreat” was downloaded more than 27,000 times in 80 countries.

Career break

Many freelance musicians took on additional teaching assignments to increase their income, either privately or through university positions. Some produced and streamed house concerts, started podcasts, or created other digital content, while others started music-related projects to raise some cash.

“I now lead a 12-year-old band,” said 37-year-old opera soprano Leah Crocetto, a former resident artist at Pittsburgh Opera and a rising star in the opera world. She currently lives in West Virginia teaching a rock camp for girls.

Crocetto was in the middle of rehearsals at Virginia Opera when everyone was sent home last year. She increased her classroom load to 20-25 students per week and lowered her usual rates to recognize the limitations of a Zoom lesson.

“I’m trying to be a realist, not a pessimist,” she said. “But right now I don’t see a reality in which I could live from singing alone.”

Local bassist Jesica Sharp Crewe, 37, made a side appearance to assist with real estate transactions prior to the pandemic and started taking Alexander Technique classes in the summer of 2020. The Alexander Technique develops improved movements and postures and is used as a form of physiotherapy among 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 continue to use a small number of musicians for streaming performances and recording. Violist Maija Anstine, 32, said she performed once every three or four weeks during the pandemic, masked and aloof in a small group of fellow players.

“I was very lucky, but the weirdest part was that I had to get up to get applause when no one was in the room,” she said. “It was dystopian.”

Anstine also works as a manager at the Five Points Artisan Bake Shop in Squirrel Hill and has increased her hours significantly during the pandemic to offset lost income. She said she will be backing out as needed now that her performances with local orchestras and ensembles are returning.

Curtains for now

Some musicians limit their performances, either due to economic pressure or to discover a new passion. Ian Evans, 40, of Peters, had a decade-long career as a jazz drummer. He found a new outlet to satisfy his artistic desires: growing and selling bonsai trees.

“I played a lot until the pandemic, but then everything was just wiped out,” he recalls.

Evans started growing bonsai in 2018. In 2021, his wife founded Bebop Bonsai to begin selling equipment and trees on commission at local farmers markets and greenhouses such as Chapon’s Greenhouse in Baldwin Borough. His goal is to grow the company into a full-time company.

“I see connections between bonsai and music,” said Evans. “I am fluent in improvising on the drums, and a bonsai presents similar challenges in that it is a puzzle to improvising as much as possible given the tree species.”

He sees increasing demand, which he attributes to the popular “Cobra Kai” show, among other things. In it, an adult Daniel (the villain of the 1984 film “Karate Kid”) hands out bonsai trees with car purchases from his dealership.

“It has a small cultural moment,” he said. “There’s a bit of a Bob Ross element to it too … who doesn’t like a happy tree?”

Other musicians have learned to program. Violinist Stefani Schore said that she knows many musicians who have switched to programming because of their creativity. She decided to take the Tech Elevator Coding Bootcamp in December, graduated in April, and started a full-time position at PNC Bank a week later.

She intends to continue playing professionally, but having a stable full-time position will allow her to be more selective in choosing her options, she said. Many freelancers feel compelled to say “yes” to every offer that comes their way due to financial constraints. Schore, who is engaged to Holt, recalls rehearsing, performing, and teaching in three different states on the same day.

“This is not a career change, it’s a change of identity,” she said. “My career aspiration was to become a full-time musician, and I achieved that, but now I enjoy working in software development.”

Violinist Juan Jamarillo, a Venezuelan native who performs with the Pittsburgh Opera and Ballet Orchestras, said he applied for many pandemic aid grants for individual musicians through organizations such as the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council after performance opportunities dried up.

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

“Income is definitely better than music. I have to say. I thought about it for a while and it was time to get into reality.”

Jamarillo said he will continue to perform but expects a reduction.

“It is of course disappointing not to do what I like to do full-time,” he said. “There are advantages and disadvantages, just like there are advantages and disadvantages in a musical career. I look forward to seeing where this new opportunity takes me.”

Once a musician

Thanks to the pandemic, many musicians are rebalancing their career portfolios with non-musical secondary occupations or even secondary careers. That’s not new; It has long been common for performing artists to have multiple jobs in different fields in order to make ends meet. But the pandemic has significantly eased the instability of the field.

Some have chosen to leave, especially after having a steady income outside of music or even from unemployment benefits. Music schools continue to produce more professional musicians than the current landscape can support. Perhaps the pandemic will begin to balance those scales.

However, the discipline and skill involved in becoming a professional musician can easily be carried over to many other areas and endeavors.

“Classical musicians are not to be underestimated,” says Austin, the Michigan musician. “They give us 15 months off without pay and we find something to do. We are resourceful people.”


(c) the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2021

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