Nashville musicians are still wondering when it’ll be safe to take the stage in front of a live audience again. Local leaders began easing “Safer at Home” restrictions on Monday, but it may be months before singers and performance venues are included in the reopening plans.
Barbershop singers are far from your typical musicians. They tend to work day jobs, and are almost never drawn to perform for the paycheck.
“I’ve been doing it most of my life. I joined with my dad out in Phoenix, Arizona,” says Dusty Schleier, the music director at Music City Chorus. “It was something kind of fun to do with dad to … get together and sing. It’s one of the few things I think people can do with their father.”
Music City Chorus is the local chapter of the Barbershop Harmony Society, a national performance arts organization. The chorus is home to barbershop singing in Nashville, a vocal harmony made up of simple melodies performed without instruments.
Schleier says barbershop singing is a lifestyle. Music is part of it, but it’s also a place where group members can come together and unwind. COVID-19 changes that.
“It’s tough,” says Schleier. “We’re used to getting together at least once a week and usually more than that.”
But now, instead of hanging out and rehearsing together, they meet on Zoom calls.
“We’re working on a virtual choir project right now. Where everybody’s submitting their own videos at home for various things. We’re going to edit it all together in a video.”
Online content may sustain for amateur singers, but professional musicians are having a harder time staying afloat. Music venues were among the first to close since the start of the pandemic. They’ll also be among the last to reopen.
Health experts say it could be at least one to two years — barring herd immunity or a successful vaccine — before music lovers will be able to enjoy live music in-person again.
So organizations across the country have had to get creative to keep making music during the pandemic. The Nashville Symphony went virtual with online entertainment and education resources last month. For instance, orchestra members took to their smartphones and laptops to record music, including a brass ensemble of the “William Tell Overture.”
But the Symphony hasn’t played a show in two months, which has been detrimental to its revenue stream. At the start of April, it had to cut staff and musician pay by 25%.
“We’re quite a ways from the place where we can turn virtual performances to a sustainable business model,” says Alan Valentine, CEO of the Nashville Symphony. “We did receive a SBA forgivable PPP loan — a payroll protection program loan. … And that enabled us to restore the pay levels of our employees and keep them employed for an additional eight weeks.”
‘Extended hibernation’ possible
But Valentine says there will still be hard decisions to make, as two-thirds of the symphony’s revenue from ticket sales. The organization has more than 100 employees, and it will be tough to maintain its $1.2 million monthly payroll without it.
“Depending on how long all of this lasts,” says Valentine, “we may well have to be in some kind of extended state of hibernation as an institution.”
This possibility is concerning for musicians like Derek W. Hawkes, a 27-year-old trombonist at the Nashville Symphony.
“Obviously, we hope it ends sooner than later,” he says.
Hawkes is trying not to think about the possibility of not being able to perform for two years. He’s been in the orchestra business for five years, but his journey as a musician began as a child in Texas.
“I grew up in a musical household. Both of my parents were music majors for their bachelor’s and master’s,” says Hawkes. “My dad actually did his bachelor’s in music education and a master’s in trombone performance at Temple [University].”
Hawkes joined the symphony in 2017 after a competitive, three-round audition. He says performing has essentially been a life’s work.
“We train for many … years even hoping just to have a shot at becoming a salaried member of the industry. We work the same sets of muscles for upwards of 50 years … if you get to enjoy a lifelong career in the business,” says Hawkes. “This is a commitment that typically is made pretty early in life.”
Still, with the future of concerts up in the air, he says he’s embracing the silver lining of the situation.
“It’s a bit of an opportunity to take a step back and reassess some things — without having the weekly, very intense busy schedule of performing constantly.”