Jazz bassist Bob Deboo was performing on an international tour, playing with a world renowned saxophonist who he had admired since high school. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, he had traveled halfway across the United States.
As he was getting off the plane in Cleveland, Ohio, he found out that the governor had just shut down all music venues. The only thing to do was to book another flight and go home.
With the exception of a few socially distanced outdoor performances, Deboo has since had to make music digitally from his house.
“Work has changed. I was doing a bunch of gigs, touring, teaching privately. I teach adjunct at a few different universities. All that is online,” Deboo said.
Deboo’s story is not unique. Since the COVID-19 outbreak has ravaged the United States, musicians have been forced out of their comfort zones, and many are rethinking the way they express their art form.
Some musicians are having a hard time finding a sufficient income altogether.
“I personally know musicians that have not adapted to going online, older musicians that were reliant upon gigs and that had gotten very comfortable just playing live,” Deboo explained.
In the realm of classical music, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra has taken steps to ensure musicians get paid, and a major factor in this is union advocacy.
“All major orchestras in the US are unionized… the union and the musicians have worked with symphony management to figure out a way for the orchestra to continue to be paid a portion of its salary and to allow certain other performances… so that the symphony can continue on its mission presenting concerts,” said Timothy Myers, principal trombonist of the SLSO, who is chair of the negotiating committee.
Many extra musicians affiliated with the orchestra are having a hard time finding work since live concerts have ended. Myers illustrated how “there are some musicians who are not members of the orchestra who get hired quite frequently, but are just dependent on whether they’re needed and they don’t have guaranteed income.”
Orchestra crew members are facing similar hardships. St. Louis Symphony crew members are all members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, or IATSE. Because of the pandemic, over 90% of IATSE members are unemployed.
The SLSO’s full time stage crew has been reduced to only two members who help set up recordings and pop up concerts, discovering what their projects will be on a weekly basis. “Given that the entertainment industry is an on call basis for a lot of people, some people do their best to prepare for the slim times, but this is a really really tough one” said Jason Pruzin, the SLSO stage manager. “I’m extremely grateful and lucky that I have a position where I can still work even though my hours have been reduced.”
As a musician that has to be isolated, it’s important to make phone calls, talk to people, write emails, check in. By doing that we help ourselves feel that sense of connection which I think is really integral to what we do as musicians.”
— Bob Deboo
Many unemployed workers look to government programs for support, but unemployment benefits vary state by state, and workers find that the typical amount is not enough. In Missouri, the maximum weekly unemployment benefit is $320, and the national government has ended the additional $600 benefit under the CARES Act.
“The entertainment industry as a whole seems to not get a lot of attention. We were all able to get through the summer on government programs… but since that’s been cut off, people in the industry are really struggling. As a union we fight to make sure that work is getting distributed to us, but there’s just not a lot out there,” Pruzin explained.
The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra has cancelled all regular season concerts through December; however, they have been arranging ways for musicians to perform.
“At this point, we’ve reimagined our entire season… Previously planned concerts are all being replaced with different types of digital programming and smaller live performances until we can gradually phase in live concerts as conditions and health and safety standards permit,” explained Cacia Meeks, the orchestra’s personnel manager.
Over the summer, the SLSO published a free digital series called Songs of America, featuring a number of soloists and small, distanced ensembles that performed a wide variety of American music. The symphony has also been arranging for small groups to play at socially distanced pop up concerts in outdoor settings. Many symphony musicians are giving masterclasses to students in the Youth Orchestra, which is also meeting online because of the virus.
However, the occasional recording or performing opportunity is nothing compared with the busy schedule most symphony musicians face during a typical season. In fact, some musicians have used the extra time to pursue their own musical interests.
Myers has used extra time to pursue his interest in musician injury prevention and ergonomics, expanding his studies of human anatomy. Over the summer, Myers became a Licensed Body Mapping Educator.
Bob Deboo has taken advantage of his additional time to focus on aspects of his career that were once tied down by more pertinent work. “Now I’m inspired to write a bunch, get my compositions organized and edited down with the goal of recording them,” Deboo said.
Over the summer, Deboo was hired by an online jazz education website called Open Studio, where he produced a course with six-time Grammy award winning bassist Christian McBride. Because a lot of recording is remote, Deboo has taken the opportunity to upgrade his home studio, and he has purchased new microphones and audio interfaces.
However, Deboo explains how music is a social endeavor, and even in a pandemic, musicians need to stay connected. “As a musician that has to be isolated, it’s important to make phone calls, talk to people, write emails, check in. By doing that we help ourselves feel that sense of connection which I think is really integral to what we do as musicians.”
And all musicians tend to agree that performing live is the most fun way to work. “Being a performer is tied up in our identities, so everybody wants to get back to playing concerts,” said Myers.
Ultimately, Deboo believes that flexibility is necessary, and for now, musicians have to continue reaching outside their comfort zone until the pandemic is over.
Deboo explains, “You have to be aware of what you’re comfortable with but still be flexible and try to rise to whatever occasion there is. But that’s not particular to being a musician, that’s being human. It’s the same thing.”