I promise to get back on the Airstream travel track with this blog soon, but you may have heard of this thing called Covid that changed our lives 20 months ago. Especially for performing artists.
Remember, back in March of 2020, when we thought wearing masks and stay-at-home orders were a short-term inconvenience towards ending a pandemic? Me neither. That was a long time ago.
Since then, Covid precautions for concerts have in many cases eclipsed the concerts themselves. These past two years as a musician, I sometimes feel like my pre and post-concert rituals have achieved Andromeda Strain levels.
At-home antigen test chemistry sets to play with every morning. Sending proof of those negative tests, vaccination, and booster, in advance to every group I play with. Different safety protocols everywhere.
And masks. Lots of masks.
Philadelphie Ballet’s La Bayadère on March 8, 2020 was the last concert I played before Covid shut down performances everywhere. Philadelphia Ballet was also the last to return in its full form with this year’s Nutcracker: the first full-scale “pit” gig in Philly since that day.
Over that time, I’ve amassed quite a collection of masks. Some are good for reading music (less fog on my glasses). Or just comfortable. Others offer more (?) protection.
For this year’s Nutcracker run, I decided to go through them and see if I had enough to wear a different one every day. I did.
More importantly, I wanted to try to turn the current nearly-expressionless ICU performing atmosphere into something a little more fun.
My masks have evolved over the past 2 years, and each one has a story.
I present to you… my collection
These two are early models made of simple T-shirt material. Nothing fancy. Comfortable. Stretchy. They’re my go-to masks in the car and the first ones I wore on this Nutcracker journey.
You may remember, early on, masks were hard to come by. A friend, an award-winning quilter, made these out of some material she had. Museum quality.
Later, store-bought masks got a little fancier. A dart here and there. A little color. Inside pocket for an additional filter.
My health insurance sent these.
2020’s Nutcracker run was cancelled. Philadelphia Ballet mailed these festive masks to members of the orchestra early that December. Thanks to the USPS mail slow-down, they arrived at the end of January. A lot of musicians wore these for this year’s production. I wore it opening night.
The Delaware Symphony was one of the first groups to resume full orchestra performances in January of 2021 – albeit playing to an empty hall to be streamed at a later date. They put a lot of thought into finding good masks, and gave us these deluxe models from Stark’s Vacuums in Portland, Oregon – a place I had visited on one of my trips years back (pre-blog), thanks to their vacuum museum.
Yes. You heard me right. Vacuum museum.
Some arts organizations started putting their logos on masks so musicians looked uniform on stage. Masks also started including flexible metal nose clips. Pro: they help prevent foggy glasses. Con: they push progressive-lens glasses up off the bridge of your nose to the point where you can’t focus. A Sophie’s choice.
Lucky for me, after ~500 performances of Nutcracker, seeing the music isn’t as necessary as it once was.
Leading up to Christmas eve’s show, I decided to tell a beard story: young to old. (I cheated, and bought these on Amazon a few weeks before ballet started)
The beard journey culminated in this Santa mask on Christmas Eve. It was surprisingly warm and comfortable. It also got caught under my fingers as I played, pulling out tufts of hair. But these are the sacrifices I make for art.
We had shows the day after Christmas, and I wore this.
Which was eerily appropriate, as absences due to Covid cases had started to thin the herd in the orchestra pit. We had increased testing, but false positives, PCR follow-ups, true positives, and Covid-like symptoms led to two orchestra-less ballets on December 27th.
Most of the orchestra had shown up ready to play that day’s noon show, but we were waved off a few minutes before show time.
Before the audience was let in, they did a sound-check with an empty orchestra pit.
Ballet to tape?
As someone who takes pride in, and makes much of his living, accompanying dancers with live music, this the only appropriate reaction.
So, for the first time in ~20 years, I watched the Nutcracker from the audience, accompanied by a recording we had just made a week or two earlier.
You have to remember, ballet musicians usually play under the stage. Other than hearing the dancers stomping overhead, we see virtually nothing. There are no mirrors or monitors. As one of the lucky musicians sitting high, and forward enough, I get to see heads and arm-gestures of some of the down-stage dancers. And the fly loft with the baffles full of (spoiler) end-of-first-act snow.
And on one occasion, a dancer’s shoe dropped onto my stand.
Thankfully, by the 28th we were back. A little spooked, and now even more careful about covid protocols. But back.
At this point, I needed to up my mask game. Not for show, but for actual protection. Sadly, it was a black KN95 mask from this point forward.
We played the first show back without a tuba for the first act. We were often short some violins, a viola, and later a French Horn. I started playing 32 measures of an easy low 1st violin on the bass to help out.
Somehow, we soldiered on to the end – New Year’s Eve.
Happily, we made it through the whole run. In part, by protecting each other with masks.
While this snapshot of extreme precautions in the current world of live performance seems normal (and necessary) now, I hope someday we’ll look back on this craziness and laugh, and laugh.