After 15 months of lockdowns and restrictions in California and many other parts of the country, upon reaching June 15th, the date when California’s year long mask mandate would be lifted, we had less than a 2% positivity rate throughout the state and could finally feel safe enough to gather with friends and hold a few long awaited weddings and other celebrations. At last, I felt a cautious optimism about the future. I wasn’t yet comfortable removing my mask indoors or attending parties, but I enjoyed meeting up with a few friends and family members I hadn’t seen in all this time and performing at a few outdoor weddings, some of which had been cancelled and rescheduled twice since the pandemic began.
Unfortunately, only a month later and cases are rising again. Maybe it’s just the last gasp (sorry, pun...) of COVID-19 before we’re finally beyond it’s grasp, but I can’t help but worry that we’re just as far from being able to truly return to “normal” as ever.
Where does this leave musicians? Mentally, financially, morally?
I finished my vaccine rounds in late May, making performing at a few outdoor events, especially while still wearing a mask and distancing, seem quite safe. How interesting to suddenly be surrounded by largely un-masked crowds, and people laughing and hugging as if nothing had happened. I’d forgotten how much perfume can waft through even outdoor spaces at such events! I found myself feeling a bit overdressed and self conscious as one of the only people continuing to mask. High school memories of concern about “fitting in” resurfaced. Was I being silly and overly cautious?
At the same time and especially with news of the more transmissible Delta variant quickly becoming predominant in the state, I wondered if I was as safe as I’d initially thought I’d be when I’d agreed to perform these events. Contrary to what seeing crowds of partying people might lead you to believe, the creators of these new vaccines have made it clear that they don’t actually prevent transmission. No vaccine can offer 100% protection. They do seem to make it harder to catch COVID and definitely seem to prevent developing a serious case, in most cases. That’s good news of course, but I wasn’t ready to live like it was 2019 again. Back then I was actually a few years into religiously wearing masks on planes in order to avoid catching colds on the way to tours (they do work!). Now in 2021, after cancelling so many concerts and tours, the pandemic effectively ending my performance career until further notice, and after having taken every effort to avoid getting or passing on this virus for so long, why would I risk ending up in a COVID ward or seeing a family member or friend end up there because of me?
My concern heightened about a week after one of the larger weddings I’d played of the season. I hadn’t felt a hint of illness since before COVID made it’s unfortunate debut in the US (one huge side-benefit of masks and lockdowns!), but something didn’t feel quite right that day. Was I getting a sore throat? I couldn’t quite tell, but it felt scratchy. I’m thankful to rarely get headaches, but I suddenly felt maybe the fifth headache of my life coming on. I was tired, a bit achy. I pounded immune herbs, vitamins, water and teas, and thankfully I felt better after a few hours and totally fine the next day.
Still, I couldn’t help but think back to the dozens of people who were laughing and talking loudly, un-masked and some just a few feet from me at the cocktail hour I’d played the week before on a quasi indoor/outdoor deck near a pool. I’d tried to move away from them, but they kept creeping towards me. I would reposition. They’d close in again. After a few rounds of this frustrating dance, the onboard mic I was using had gotten too close to the speakers and began feeding back. The squeals helped scatter my unwelcome fan club, but as I moved back to a safer zone for the electronics, the guests closed in on me again. Could I have caught something from them? The timing was certainly right.
I’ll never know if I had a very mild case of COVID or just a bit of an allergy or general fatigue that day, but I kind of hope it was the virus because that means the vaccine did its job well and I don’t seem to have any lingering after-effects. When news came earlier this week from a celebrated venue just 15 minutes away from my home of “nearly everyone” among the crew and performing at a recent indoor concert coming down with COVID, despite most being fully vaccinated, as well as some in attendance and working at the venue falling ill, I realized that the pandemic issues facing musicians as we try to carry on with our careers, are a stark mirror of the general pandemic issues we face. If we can find a way to host live music while keeping everyone safe, we can find a way to win against this disease.
Especially if COVID becomes endemic, as many epidemiologists suggest is likely, or if new, even more dangerous viruses threaten us in the future, how do we balance the need for community and the need for safety? Better yet, how do we find a way to make community the safe haven it should be? And how do we reconcile the very American need for autonomy and individuality with the need for teamwork and interdependence within a peaceful civilization?
As the local music scene processes the news of this event happening so close to home, a number of local venues, both indoors and out have cancelled their shows until further notice. The only two Dan and Laurel concerts booked for this year have now been cancelled: one that was outdoors has been cancelled by the venue out of an abundance of caution, the other, which would have been indoors later in the Fall, by us. We can’t with any conscience promote events if people might become ill after attending. Concerts are supposed to bring people together in joy and if the result may be heartbreak I just don’t want to be involved.
Felton Music Hall, the venue involved in the recent outbreak and a wonderful place I’ve performed at dozens of times over the years, is shuttered until its staff has been able to get tested and quarantine. The largely touring acts who were supposed to play there in the coming days are out of luck. Thereafter the venue plans to require masks for everyone attending a show. That’s all fine for now, but we seem stuck on a reactionary rollercoaster ride - opening up and removing all cautions when cases are down, then shutting down again when cases inevitably go back up. Can’t we find a solution that will work for musicians and art patrons long term? If not, music careers, especially touring ones, won’t be viable moving forward. We can’t carry on booking plane tickets, tour buses, and gigs that will likely be cancelled, or even worse, sporadically cancelled, due to outbreaks.
A couple weeks ago on a hike with Dan, I posed my sad suspicion that sometime in late July or August researchers would learn that vaccinated people are actually complicit in spreading more virus then people think and should continue to wear masks for the time being, at least indoors. I’m of course not a scientist or doctor, but common sense made the idea seem plausible. My reasoning was that if most cases are asymptomatic or mild due to the vaccine creating at least some level of immunity, most of the infected, fully vaccinated people wouldn’t think anything of a mild symptom and continue to carry on with daily life while actually spreading germs. Sure enough, a day or two after learning about the vaccinated band and crew getting sick, the CDC reversed its mask guidance, now suggesting that vaccinated people wear masks in higher risk areas. Apparently, vaccinated people can catch and transmit the virus. Since then they’ve also reversed course to suggest that vaccinated people who’ve been exposed should also get tested and take precautions like masking and quarantining until they know they are in the clear.
So then, why are we leaving compliance up to the individual in public spaces and where public health is concerned? I don’t necessarily think we can mandate vaccination because I do know people who legitimately can’t get the vaccine due to an allergy to some ingredient in it or immune complications, but I do think that individuals, businesses, schools, and yes, orchestras, bands, and venues, should not be afraid to be take a stand and say no to people who don’t fit their safety requirements. Concert going isn’t required in life. We make the choice to go out and enjoy some entertainment, and similarly, a choice can be made to set limits for the health of workers and patrons. Even if venues and promoters are hesitant to set restrictions in an industry with historically uncertain turnouts, musicians could take a stand and require them in their riders. Setting boundaries around a potentially life or death issue for peace of mind and public heath seems like the obvious choice, more necessary than needing artisan water and honey roasted nuts in the green room.
I can understand the issue from both sides though. I was myself an unvaccinated child. Having reacted to my first shot of the polio vaccine as an infant, my mom decided she didn’t want anything more to do with vaccines and I coasted through school on vaccine waivers. Was that the right decision? My parents felt so at the time and thankfully no disease came my way, or was spread by me to our knowledge. Polio, measles, mumps etc. just weren’t things we were hearing about. Why risk a vaccine reaction for something you’ll probably never get anyway?
COVID of course is different. It’s right in our faces, right now. I’ve watched three of my students and their families battle the illness and thankfully recover, though that road was not always quick or easy for them. I’ve listened to a close friend vent frustration about the devastating long-COVID effects for over a year now. Within my larger circle of acquaintance I’ve seen at least a dozen cases and heard about a few deaths. Most of us have experienced it’s devastation, either personally through illness or the loss of a family member or friend, financial upheaval, or simply the ways in which life has had to alter for all of us.
I support people having freedom, up to the point where what they like might harm someone else. We have speed limits and rules we must obey while driving on public roads. We can’t urinate or defecate on public sidewalks. Raping, stealing from, assaulting, and killing others is severely punished. It doesn’t seem like too much to ask to require that people at an outdoor concert or festival continue to distance and/or wear masks, and that people attending and performing at an indoor concert provide proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID test and continue to mask or distance until we know how to deal with the Delta variant (and probably others coming on its heels). Bay Area bars are sick of being shut down and hundreds are starting to require vaccination or negative COVID test proof. Why not concert halls, clubs, and festivals? Will some people be unhappy and stop attending shows? Absolutely, but just like seatbelts in the early 80s, most people will eventually get the idea that this is unfortunately how the show must go on. Concerts without RSVPs, where people could just wander in without tickets or a door person stamping hands, weren’t well compensated gigs pre-pandemic anyway. We can be serious. We can treat music like a business.
Especially in light of all this recent news, I’m proud that I stood my ground and said no to the handful of new local students who contacted me the week the mask mandates were lifted in California, inquiring about my availability and stating they only were interested in coming for in-person lessons. Between concern about catching or spreading the virus in my small studio space, the discomfort of wearing a mask while playing, the extra time it takes to get an in-person student in and out the door compared to an online student (I often need to book out the time of two online students for one coming in-person due to potential transport delays, unpacking and tuning etc.), and the fact that my teaching transitioned to being primarily online well over a decade ago, allowing me ample time to develop a method that works just as successfully this way, I may in fact never teach in-person again. Will I miss out on some students? Again, absolutely. But the ones who find me and want to take lessons, regardless of the medium, are the ones who I will love having as students for years to come. If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s the need for flexibility, and if the numbers of workers quitting and refusing to return to work in-person suggest, it’s also taught us that we all have the right to say no to things we aren’t comfortable with.
For centuries, the “starving musician” model has led us to believe that we should say yes to anything and everything or risk homelessness. Perhaps saying no to unsafe working conditions can be a first step towards us asking for reasonable compensation and the respect a similar level of training and discipline would garner in other industries. Boundaries create adjustment. Limitation fosters creativity. Listening leads to understanding. Why not make a future that is better than the “normal” we all wish to return to?
For now, I’ll continue to perform the outdoor weddings and events I have scheduled for the rest of the summer and year, but I’ll continuing to mask, distance, and hand wash despite being vaccinated. Come 2022 I may even consider a tour if we can ensure that everyone in attendance will be able to prove they are vaccinated or be otherwise COVID free. As restrictive and exclusive as that might seem, derailed tours from catching colds and losing my voice from sick passengers on planes or from guests “just getting over a cold” at concerts are not fond memories. I don’t need to play around with a virus that might be worse. Morally, musicians and promoters also have a responsibility to ensure that those attending concerts can be as relaxed and safe as possible. I think we can do this for our friends and neighbors, and maybe even for ourselves.