A year ago today, I shut the studio down for a week to prepare for the transition to online lessons, which I thought would be for only a couple of months. I reopened online a week later and it was weird. The first lesson I gave was just terrible and I felt like it was all my fault. Of course it wasn’t, but well, that’s the way I can be. The end of the day, every day, found me in tears. My poor husband already was dealing with being a frontline worker in a pandemic and then had to deal with me having breakdowns on a daily/weekly basis, over not only the change to my business model, but also the loss of all my performing – at the worst possible time, during Lent.
As a church musician, Lent/Easter and Christmas are my two biggest money-making seasons (plus the High Holidays, for those of us who sing at synagogues as well). Suddenly I did not have Holy Week as the big moneymaker. My favorite performing venues, the Kennedy Center and Germano’s, were closed. The upscale retirement communities, to whom I was going to market cabaret shows, were on lockdown. I have always allotted specific sources of income to specific financial needs:
- teaching income went into savings and I would draw from it as needed for quarterly taxes, studio expenses, and a personal salary
- opera income went toward paying down the principal on the new car I bought in 2019
- church income was what I lived on each month – car payment, personal care, clothes
I deliberately kept my studio on the smaller side because I wanted balance between performing and teaching. Not only was the performing gone, but I lost a few students because of various reasons:
- They weren’t motivated to take lessons because they had no performing to do
- They didn’t like the online format and would come back when I went back online
- They were overwhelmed by everything and Zoomed out to boot
- They very well might have left anyway at the end of the school year, but this gave them a good reason to because of numbers 1-3
And by the same token, new people weren’t coming because of reasons #1-3.
I know I’m lucky. My husband is a physician. I didn’t have to worry about a roof over my head. If I wasn’t able to make a car payment (and I have been, so far), he would’ve helped me. But the lack of the stimulus of performing and of seeing people perform in person, both in my house and onstage, was really getting to me. Zach Finkelstein, a West Coast tenor and creator of the blog The Middleclass Artist, describes his feelings this way in the blogpost We Are Not Okay:
It feels like I’m swimming in the same direction, always, forward, head down, head up, breathe, head down, head up, breathe, forward, always forward, and there’s land somewhere, I know it’s there, but all I see is the endless blue horizon and the unfathomable depths below.
I’ve just gotten the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine – I qualified because I am still on the payroll at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, so I checked off the box marked “Clergy & support” because that’s what I do. And I am singing at CMOQ much more this year – last weekend I did a funeral and two Masses (all masked), and this coming weekend I will be singing Stations of the Cross on Friday and Saturday night Mass, so yes, it’s picking up. I have my second shot scheduled for the Monday after Easter. It was supposed to be scheduled for Holy Thursday, but I rescheduled it because I am going to be singing Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday and I am not going to be taken down by side effects. COVID may have cost me 77% of my performing income last year (!!) but it will not this year.
I don’t know what’s going to happen with the opera (I don’t know if I even want to be in opera chorus this year.) I hope Germano’s reopens and I can write some cabaret shows for myself and for my students to perform there and at the upscale retirement communities.
I’m actually enjoying teaching online now and it is offering my students the ability to keep their lessons even if they can’t get here, even if they live in another state, or even if one of us feels less than 100% and doesn’t want to put on pants (note: I am always wearing pants of some kind and I hope my students are as well). Doing things online has allowed me to bring in artists from around the world and across the sea in masterclasses and in the upcoming World Voice Weekend event.
But I am looking forward to in-person lessons and I intend to introduce them on a limited basis beginning May 3. They may be in the garage or on the patio, depending on weather, or in the studio, depending on whether or not the student has been vaccinated. No two students will be taught back to back until at least fall. More information will be forthcoming as I review how things are going.
While Zach Finkelstein is right that “We are not okay,” or at least that we have not been okay. Not only haven’t we been able to perform, we haven’t been able to go on vacation, we haven’t been able to see or hug or friends and families, we haven’t been able to live our lives. But with the roll out of the vaccines, especially over the last few weeks and the executive order by the President that all adults will be eligible by May 1, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Or, as Francesca Carpanini calls it in her article “We are all theatre ghosts now but poised to return,” the ghost light.
In the meantime, however, there is one light that has survived our now 11-month blackout…: the ghost light. For those unaware of the tradition, this is a floor lamp that remains burning onstage whenever a theatre is not in immediate use. Superstition says it protects the theatre from the many ghosts that haunt its chambers. These days, I like to think of it as doing the opposite. I sit on my couch and perform my middle school ritual from far away, picturing each theatre with its single bulbed lantern centerstage and all of our ghosts dancing around it—no longer past performers but instead the spirit of every artist and audience member currently kept apart, their union protected by its small but constant glow.
I’ve kept the ghost light on in my heart for the performances yet to come. Keep yours on and keep “poised to return” as well.
Early bird registration for World Voice Weekend continues through March 31. If you are a NATS, Speakeasy, or Somatic Voicework™ teacher, you and your students may receive a discount code for an additional $30 off.
Contact MVS if you don’t have the code and I’ll be happy to give it to you.