When I was in college, there was a running joke among my fellow music students: “As a musician, you are never unemployed ... you are freelance.”
I have been freelancing as a musician for over a decade now, in various stages of employment, and this year I learned that it is, in fact, possible for a musician to be truly unemployed: when a global pandemic shuts down your entire career field.
I don’t care for it.
As if to add insult to injury, this is a virus that does permanent damage in even mild cases, in a way that feels specifically targeted at those of us who play wind instruments. They even found evidence of lung damage in asymptomatic patients, which is not something your friendly neighborhood trombonist wants to contemplate.
So what have we been doing in the meantime? It’s been mostly video content, often in the form of “virtual ensembles” made up of videos by individual musicians edited together in a process that is almost, but not quite, like making music.
Meanwhile, in July I had my first and only post-pandemic gig. It was an outdoor, masked, socially distanced, reduced-attendance graduation ceremony, because nothing says “welcome back” like an endless loop of the “trio” section of Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1,” otherwise known as “the tune you hear incessantly at every graduation in America.”
(Yes, the musicians were also masked. They’re making face masks now with a flap that you can lift to expose your mouth for the mouthpiece. Whether or not it actually functions as a mask while you’re playing is left as an exercise for the audience.)
We’re still a long way from being able to really do our jobs. However, while we are definitely all quietly dying inside with every canceled concert, I haven’t talked to anyone who is in a hurry to open things up again, because having a healthy living audience to return to is more important to us. In the meantime, musicians will just have to come up with more creative and innovative solutions.
I never thought I’d say this, but I’m tired of innovation. I just want to be back on stage again, doing the job of a trombonist: tormenting the viola section and shaking the dust out of the rafters. It’s been too long since I made a conductor flinch.
• Sara Mayo is the principal trombonist for the Yakima Symphony Orchestra. She and other symphony members write this weekly column for SCENE. Learn more at www.ysomusic.org.