About the Authors:

Tanya Kalmanovitch is a Canadian violist, ethnomusicologist, and author known for her breadth of inquiry and restless sense of adventure. Her uncommonly diverse interests converge in the fields of improvisation, social entrepreneurship, and social action with projects that explore the provocative cultural geography of locations around the world. Ryan Muncy is the saxophonist and Director of Institutional Giving of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE). Ryan & Tanya are colleagues at the New School‘s College of Performing Arts (Mannes School of Music)

As part of our Virtual Visionaries series, here they share their reactions as artists to COVID-19, what the future might hold for the performing arts, and some practical advice for artists during this time of disruption.

From Tanya Kalmanovitch

Two days after the 2016 presidential election, I came to Mannes straight from LaGuardia Airport. The night before I was in Whitewater, Wisconsin, where people were celebrating. That morning, in New York City, people were crying on the subway. I had a class to teach, and as I walked into my office, I was preoccupied with the question of how to best address the political event. 

My office mate, Elizabeth “Betsy” Aaron, professor of Techniques of Music, possessor of an enviable widow’s peak and a 60-year history at the school, caught my expression through the open office door.

“Why the long face?” she asked.

“Oh, you know,” I said, waving my hands vaguely. “The election.” 

“Please,” she shot back. “I had my phone tapped during McCarthy. I lived through that, and you’ll live through this.”

The people in Whitewater were celebrating, in part, because of a failure of imagination. They feared difference—immigrants, religious and ethnic minorities, and so on—and could not imagine a nation in which differences could make us stronger. Progressives in New York were mourning because of failure of imagination, too. They could not imagine a nation where Donald Trump could become President. 

I’ve thought of Betsy’s words often since Covid. In tone, they are the opposite of “challenging,” “trying,” “uncertain,” and “unprecedented” — the insipid adjectives institutions use to describe the times we’re in. Betsy’s crisp tone has nothing to do with “now, more than ever,” “the new normal,” and groundless assertions that we will “get through this together.” Her voice left no room for failure of imagination. When I hear her voice now, it is as an exhortation: to reevaluate our priorities, to imagine the possibilities of a world without the forces of Trumpism and Covid. 

We don’t know what will happen tomorrow. My cousin David did not live through Covid. So far, 100,000 people in the United States have not lived through Covid. But I believe that I will live, or I believe in my will to live, and I know that I care for the lives of others, and for the lives of those who are connected to their lives by love. That belief, that caring, and that love is what guides my actions. It’s simple, though the outcomes of my actions will always be uncertain.  

Betsy believed in keeping the office door open. It was important to her that she see and be seen, and our open door was a standing invitation to the unexpected. When she retired three years ago, we gradually started to shut the door. Then the administration moved us to another floor. And then the whole school was closed, and the basic premise of music—being together, to hear and be heard—was revoked. 

I’ve been asked here to offer advice to musicians entering the profession, which is difficult because Covid poses an existential threat to our profession, while making plain the systemic racism and inequities that are the enduring structural flaws of the nation. It feels like we are at a constant tipping point. It feels precarious, and sometimes the best I can do is to hold my ground. 

I remind myself not to be afraid of uncertainty, because that is where all the possibilities live. I remind myself that I believe in music, and in my will to make music. I have given my life over to it. I care for musicians, and I care for all of us who help music do its work in the world. Helping music is a life-affirming act, and it’s in this light that I offer a few loosely-related pieces of advice to those of you starting out in the profession today.

  1. Recovery may be slow and uneven and may take considerably longer than our leaders let on. Ask them tough questions. Prepare for a longer road. Think in one- to four-year scenarios. 
  2. Figure out how to move forward without resorting to knee-jerk positivity. It’s okay if Covid feels awful. It’s okay to feel isolated. It’s okay to find streaming sets unengaging. It’s okay to set practice goals and then fail to meet them.
  3. We learn to think of history, or catastrophe, as something that happened to someone else, somewhere else. This has the effect of making these things unimaginable in our present. It blinds us to our own experience and to the experience of others. Imagination and empathy are critical political skills: cultivate them.
  4. A practical thing: don’t try to make Zoom into a concert hall or a club. You might think of it instead as a curious theater in its own right. Think about your audience, and how you might appeal to their senses. Check out what theatre directors are doing. 
  5. More practical things: How you make your living does not define your worth as an artist. Don’t conflate your worth with what you get paid. Find a way to save a few months’ living expenses. Research other models for building strong communities: they are there, waiting for you, in the fuller history of American music. 

From Ryan Muncy

Part One: “Things can change overnight.”

In March, I learned that this household proverb—suitable for everyday use, making regular appearances in conversations around the globe—will, unfortunately, do nothing to lessen the shock if things actually do change overnight. 

The week of March 9th seemed normal. On Monday, I taught classes at The New School’s College of Performing Arts (Mannes School of Music). Tuesday through Friday, I worked in my role as Director of Institutional Giving at the International Contemporary Ensemble, specifically meeting with our new Executive Director to iron out an internal calendar for upcoming deadlines. I carved out some practice time to prepare for our April debut at the Théatre du Châtelet in Paris, and there was a rehearsal for an upcoming production of Ashley Fure’s The Force of Things. Throughout that week, my roles—performer, teacher, and administrator (or, as I prefer: bandmate, mentor, advocate)—and their respective demands felt normal.

At our weekly ICE staff meeting, I do recall some discussion of likely event cancelations due to a virus outbreak. Over the weekend, things escalated quickly. 

The week of March 16th began with the closure of the ICE office. The New School’s classes went remote. Stay-at-home orders were delivered in New York. All live concerts and traveling through the end of summer—totally canceled, overnight. I fully understood the gravity of the situation a few days later with the announcement that The New York Community Trust and Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, along with a coalition of funding institutions, would immediately release $75,000,000 in emergency support to local arts organizations—the NYC COVID-19 Response and Impact Fund—as a measure for short-term survival. This was an emergency. 

Creating the NYC COVID-19 Response and Impact Fund was an obvious necessity, though I viewed the actions of these institutions as nothing less than radical. I’d never seen foundations form such a coalition or move so quickly in designing an application process.  Proposal reviews began the same day the funding was announced. 

By the end of the week, most funding institutions had announced the specific measures they would take in response to the crisis. Seeing the collaboration, the streamlining of procedures, the restructuring of current grants, the speed in producing new emergency funds, and the relaxing of expectations that an arts organization should have or know the answers—was not only surreal, but also signaled a change of essence and role of these institutions, and turned my 12 years of professional experience on its head. Overnight, they became our leaders. It felt so uncharted and unprecedented, just like the crisis we were experiencing. 

Part Two: “If they can do it, why can’t I?”

This coalition building and strong leadership was deeply inspiring and provided a model for Tanya Kalmanovitch and I to form our own coalition to reimagine and redesign the course we teach at Mannes School of Music (five sections of The Entrepreneurial Musician with approximately 50 students total). 

We team-taught. My two weekly lectures became five weekly lectures. Overnight, the coronavirus crisis elevated The Entrepreneurial Musician from being “a degree requirement” to something more critical: an opportunity to engage with the active and urgent application of the skills that students were developing in our class work. Tanya and I instinctively felt that we had to combine our knowledge and experience to pull this off.

The challenging moments were offset by a lot of laughter and joy—so much, that the students began realizing that we had made a decision that laughter and joy, as well as the healing they bring, would be part of our teaching space. Some students began making similar decisions in their own lives, and together we felt how carrying out such a commitment on the tiring and largely unjoyful Zoom platform began feeling like a rebellion.

Part Three: Re-entry

As I write this from my apartment in Brooklyn, we are still under “stay at home” orders. We cannot reliably plan one month ahead, let alone one year. Though we are eager to understand the totality of the effects this crisis will have on our field, we are still stuck at the beginning, unable to predict when live concerts will resume. 

What we can do is spend more time listening, watching, and trying to understand the world around us while it changes so quickly. We can use this opportunity to imagine a world we want to live in. We, as artists, can use this opportunity to imagine an arts ecosystem we want to participate and work in. We can imagine a future for our artform that is less racist and more inclusive.

This crisis has revealed that artists, freelancers, and arts organizations in the United States are extremely vulnerable. The arts ecosystem noticed. New advocates are strengthening their voices and eventually there will be rebuilding. If artists across the field are able to engage with this type of imagining as a precursor to the rebuilding, can we become instigators of the large-scale change we wish to see reflected in the rebuild? 

Back in March, funding institutions provided us a model which demonstrates that significant changes can be made quickly when collaborating in the service of a common goal. If that is any indication of what artists have the potential to accomplish in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, then who knows—maybe things could change overnight. 

Want to hear more? Join Tanya, Ryan, and the University of Michigan EXCEL Lab on Zoom this Wednesday at 2:00PM EST. This conversational session will delve into their posts in greater depth, providing a chance for participants to ask questions and engage with these authors in real time.

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