By Steve Provizer
“Individual stories are the single most important component of any collective, and your story matters more than you can know.”
When the seriousness of COVID-19 first took hold, there was a wave of efforts dedicated to soliciting money to help artists survive. In May of 2020 I wrote about some of these efforts here.
But, like “empathy fatigue” and “mask fatigue,” the level of concern in many quarters has waned regarding the financial plight of artists. In fact, the situation is only growing worse, given that the vaccine rollout stumbles and herd immunity may not take effect for another year. And that makes organizations such as The New England Musicians Relief Fund (NEMRF) that much more indispensable.
Oboist Jennifer Slowik and Yahuba Torres, percussionist and vocalist, agreed to talk to the Arts Fuse about how they have dealt with the pandemic over the past year. Both are articulate, thoughtful people, and their experiences provide considerable insight into their trials and tribulations for those who aren’t artists, and will ring true to those who are.
Arts Fuse: What’s your background. How old are you, where did you come from, and go to school? Who did you study music with and did anyone mentor you? Do you have a family?
Yahuba Torres: I am 46 years old, born in Cambridge, MA, and grew up bouncing between Puerto Rico, New York City and Amherst, MA. I attended Umass Amherst, Umass Lowell and then Berklee. I am married and I have a 21 year old daughter and have been in Lowell since 1993. My father and uncle were in a band in Puerto Rico called Haciendo Punto en Otro Son — part of a musical movement in Latin America known as La Nueva Trova.
I have been immersed in music my whole life. My first instrument was the violin and then the upright bass but by fourth grade I landed on the saxophone and that was my main instrument right up through my third year in college. Congas and percussion was something I somehow picked up along the way by osmosis. In college I got a pair of congas and started to play them with local bands. As time went by, I got into playing congas more and the horn took a back seat until one day I knew I had to say goodbye completely. So I made a very hard decision that I sometimes regret: to focus on percussion. I transferred to Berklee where there’s a hand-percussion department and studied congas with the great Ernesto Diaz.
Jennifer Slowik: I’m 52 and went to New England Conservatory for both a bachelor and master’s degree. I also got an Artist Diploma from Longy but, to be honest, that was more just a way of delaying student loan payments. Oboist Peggy Pearson is probably the closest I’ve had to a mentor. I am not married and don’t have any children.
AF: What was a typical day for you before the pandemic?
Torres: Before the pandemic, I was juggling a double life of IT guy by day and touring with bands on nights and weekends. I would use almost all of my vacation and sick time to go on tours. During the week nights I would play local residency gigs around Cambridge, Boston, and the North Shore with several bands and on weekends I would either be playing a regional gig in New England or flying out for tour dates with national touring acts. In the midst of all that, there were the psychological gymnastics of having to walk into an office every Monday morning and experiencing the humility of not being applauded by adoring fans for my work (no one gets an ovation for reinstalling the operating system on a laptop).
Slowik: Since my entire income was from performing, my schedule ebbed and flowed with the frequency of rehearsals and concerts. Regardless of what was going on, I practiced virtually every day (learning music in the busy times, and trying to hone skills or learn new techniques whenever time allowed). Reed making is also an essential part of life for any oboist; it takes up a huge amount of time because you can never have enough working reeds.
AF: Last spring, did your life as a musician change slowly? Or was the change immediate? How long did it take you to realize that your living was in jeopardy?
Torres: I still remember my last gig on March 11 at the Lizard Lounge and knowing (or suspecting) that it was likely the last gig I’d be playing for a long time. I also remember going back and forth with another venue where I had a gig booked: it was still trying to squeeze in our gig, even though other shows were beginning to be canceled. That band (Percy Hill), made a collective decision to cancel the shows we had the following weekend. Making that call on those gigs cemented the reality for me.
The real killer was that I was about to head out on what would have been one of the biggest tours of my career, doing a show with Turkuaz featuring Jerry Harrison (Talking Heads) and Adrian Belew (Taking Heads, King Crimson, David Bowie). We were doing a show celebrating the 40-year anniversary of the Talking Heads’ Remain in Light album. We had flown down to Nashville and spent the day rehearsing and shooting videos and photos to promote the tour in February. Everyone was very excited. But going into that last gig on March 11 in Cambridge, I knew the inevitable, so I played my heart out and poured all my frustration at the impending bummer into my drums that night. Strangely enough, I coped with all of it a whole lot better than I thought I would. I really think it’s because I left it all on the stage that night in the Lizard Lounge.
Slowik: It changed immediately, and the awareness that my living was gone in the short term as well. This was especially devastating as February/March to June is my busy season. It is the time in which I plan to make the money I will need for rent, utilities, etc. through December or January. The whole run of Odyssey Opera’s Regina d’Inghilterra (Rossini) was canceled, as was everything else scheduled to perform in Boston. The awareness (and stress) of loss renewed itself constantly as new factors came into play. It became clear that musicians would be some of the last people to go back to work. Initially the thought was that the 2020-21 season would go on as scheduled. Then the two biggest concert and rehearsal venues announced they would not be booking outside groups for 2020-21.
AF: Has this been a stressful time in terms of the important relationships in your life? Have you lost anyone close to you in the pandemic?
Torres: I haven’t lost any immediate family, thankfully. And it just so happens that my wife and I share a home with her mom and my mom, who came to stay with us this fall. So we have been lucky to have our immediate family all under the same roof during the pandemic. A neighbor of mine passed away from COVID and many of my friends have lost a relative or someone.
Slowik: I have not lost anyone close to me — thank God. The sheer isolation, not only from music making itself, but from not seeing colleagues, many of whom are close friends, has been the most devastating for me. Also, the realization of just how much work in this profession is done alone: it makes the act of seeing and interacting with people, both musically and interpersonally, vital. It’s the culmination, the tangible part of why musicians do what we do. I’ve never lost a limb, but the concept of a phantom pain seems like an apt comparison. You go on, but that hunger to do what you’re meant to do is always there.
AF: What kinds of plans did you make at the start of the pandemic and how did they change over the past year? Did you think seriously about leaving the field of music?
Torres: I decided to explore an interest in woodworking that I have always had but never had the time to get into. I started building cutting boards and small custom furniture pieces for our own home and then a few friends asked me to make them some cutting boards. Next thing I knew I was visiting saw mills and buying more tools and started selling cutting boards online. Honestly, I did it because I wanted a distraction that required me to focus my attention on something. I had no plan other than I would take the time to finish building out and putting together a small production studio in my home so that I could at least record tracks for people’s albums from my home and collaborate with other artists. Leaving the field of music entirely never crossed my mind. I’ve always had the expectation that it would come back. If anything, my feeling is that I should be taking this time to improve my skills as a musician as well as taking the time to expand and learn about music and video production.
Slowik: At the time it all went off the rails, I had enough saved for rent/utilities/health insurance, etc., through July, so I definitely had a safety net of sorts. I was thinking I could always work a (most likely) minimum wage job if I needed to. The question was — at what point would I do that? Applying for unemployment was a fiasco for me, as it has been for others. With DUA [Department of Unemployment Assistance], one “wrong” answer and you’re stuck in a maze of bureaucracy.
I initially really practiced a lot, but dealing with unemployment, the CARES act, applying for emergency grants, etc., kind of took over. I go back to it in spurts but, without a constant outlet, I find it diminishing overall. I thought about trying to make a little money refurbishing furniture, and even set myself up with supplies, etc., but in the end I never got it off the ground. Also, I tried some free online COURSERA courses (courtesy of DUA) — finance for non-finance professionals, learning Excel and Google Docs. I learned that, although I’m interested in those things to some degree, it’s not a sustaining interest. I’ve always known what I wanted to do — and even when I get burned out, it would never occur to me to do anything else.
AF: How did you learn about the New England Musicians Relief Fund? Describe the process of applying for and receiving financial support from NEMRF. Did you find any other way of garnering financial support?
Torres: I first learned about it when a musician friend of mine was hosting an online performance on Facebook Live with the intention to donate the money to the fund. I donated money that night and remember thinking that I felt lucky I still had my day job and that I could help my musician friends who don’t. That was back in April or May. My wife is a massage therapist and owns a business. Her landlord was nice enough not to charge her rent for seven months but, eventually, she had to close her shop and move everything out.
So both of of us ended up being dependent on my work income from my day job and the PUA (Pandemic Unemployment Insurance) checks she qualified for. By that point, any savings we had was gone and we were pretty much living paycheck to paycheck and having to max out my credit card. It all seemed to sneak up on us. In November, a musician friend who is in one of the bands I play with, reached out to everyone in the group and told us we should apply for the fund because there were still monies available. Even then I hesitated, but when I took a harder look at the reality of my situation (and the fact that Christmas was around the corner), I decided to apply. I was not aware of any other way of getting financial support and I didn’t qualify for PUA because of my day job (despite music and my wife’s business being half of our total annual income).
Slowik: I heard about NEMRF via the musicians’ union and was reluctant to apply at first because I was in relatively good shape as compared to others. But, as time went on, with no real idea of when anything would resume, I thought — why not? Also, Pat Hollenbeck [president of the Boston Musician’s Association] called me to say I might want to apply because funds were likely to run out, and I thought shit, if Pat is calling me I must be in worse shape than I thought. Applying was easy — basically submitting proof of lost income, which I had already done when applying for other relief grants back in March. Approval took a day or two and after filling out a form with bank information, the money was there. I also received 4 grants (about 2300.00 in total) in addition to provisions in the CARES Act.
AF: Has there been any musical upside for you during this time? When the pandemic is over, do you think you will approach your art differently?
Torres: Yes, I haven’t practiced this much since I was in college and I have also had the blessing of working on a myriad of music video and studio album collaborations this entire time. In fact, that is the one silver lining about this pause in the industry: expect amazing music to be released in the next few years. I have delved back into folkloric Afro-Cuban music; it’s a passion I’ve always had and I don’t get to spend as much time playing this music because I am typically out touring with the bands who hire me (and none of them play this music). Coming out of the pandemic, I will be reentering the music industry with many new tools on my belt.
Slowik: Upside?? Slowing down, even if it was forced upon me, has had its benefits. Learning to separate myself from what I do has been interesting, although I’ve come to the conclusion, at least for now, that it’s not such a black and white issue. Also, having the time to improve on some basic technique is nice, and to reconfirm, that yeah, this is what I want to do no matter how much I may bitch about it at times. The love/hate thing is for real. I doubt I will consciously approach music differently when things return, but there is no doubt the turmoil of this time will make itself known in one way or the other. My guess is that most people are experiencing a sort of musical evolution that will make their playing sound more informed/mature to others around them.
AF: Are there any resources that have been helpful to you that you’d like to share? What would you like to say to other artists who have been going through the same difficult process?
Torres: Well, one thing I would say that answers both of those questions is that as far as musicians go, my favorite resource is what we give to each other. During this pandemic, I have worked on musical projects with complete strangers in far corners of this planet. The most amazing thing about that is how easy it is. I have always been a shy person about approaching other artists to collaborate with me on projects, but this pandemic forced me to open that door and let in what has been a beautiful and ever expanding experience. Now is the time to take a chance and say “yes” when a musician you don’t know reaches out to you and asks you to play a part on their song or vice versa. During this time, when we are supposed to be in seclusion, I’ve made more new musical friends than I ever thought I would.
Slowik: Resources that were helpful for me were MusiCares, the Actor’s Fund, and calling up my state rep and senator an absolute shit-ton, both to ask for their help (mostly in fast tracking unemployment questions) and to pass along what I had discovered so that they could more easily help others who may call. Musicians and the issues that we face (even pre-COVID) are particular, they are so very specific and individual that we are often sidelined by policies and systems designed for large masses of people. I know people have had various experiences with this avenue, but I continue to find it [contacting political representatives] extremely helpful.
As to others going through this, I would say that comparing your situation to someone else’s is pointless. Everybody is dealing with it differently, and your loss and feelings around it are yours alone and will always be valid. There will always be someone who appears better- or worse-off than you — always. But the big differentiator is how that person is experiencing it, which will always be different. Everyone has had days when it all seems manageable, as well as those when all you want to do is cry, or hit things, or disappear. Just because someone else is having a relatively good day, doesn’t mean you have to, and even should. Individual stories are the single most important component of any collective, and your story matters more than you can know.
The New England Musicians Relief Fund (NEMRF) was founded in March 2020 by Boston-area musicians, union leaders, executives, and supporters. NEMRF has provided grants of $1,000 to more than 300 performers across every genre and region in New England and has launched an initiative to reach $500,000 in donations by March 13, 2021. Any professional musician in New England and New York’s Upper Hudson Valley facing financial difficulties can apply for a grant at NEMRF.org/apply. Anyone wishing to make a tax-deductible donation to the Immediate Relief Fund may do so at NEMRF.org/takeaction.
Steve Provizer writes on a range of subjects, most often the arts. He is a musician and blogs about jazz here.