It’s 6:58 p.m., and I find myself once again unpacking my viola in my living room, a world away from any backstage space I may have been in months ago. Opening a window, I gingerly angle my body over the plants on the windowsill and noodle, loudly, up and down the fingerboard. Sometimes I find myself in a one-sided competition with the trumpet player across the street, who is unaware of their musical interlocutor. Other times I try to ride the rhythmic pulses that swell from windows reflecting the last flecks of daylight, as the metallic cacophony of wooden spoons striking pots bounces off the buildings and drifts into the evening air.
The sonic display is as much a gesture of appreciation for essential workers as a collective catharsis for the rest of us. The gesture encapsulates optimism. They’re the battle cries of happy warriors enduring the daily struggles of figuring out unemployment insurance while keeping looming existential dread at bay. The pandemic may be the enemy, but the greater war is against the monotony of the unknown. We’ve encountered acute social upheaval before, but never on this scale, and never as protracted. The weapons we’ve all found, musician and non-musician alike, are noisemakers; to me, therein lies the outcome of this strife once the dust has settled into normalcy. If we connected with each other, every night, from our isolated perches across the city as an informal ensemble, then we as musicians have a role after the pandemic subsides. Our craft has already seen New Yorkers through this slog.
Once we pick up the pieces and begin unpacking our instruments in pits, concert halls, studios and clubs again, we face a greater reckoning. As a creative class, what we do is not only essential, but fundamental to the human condition. Healthcare workers and scientists dedicate themselves to their fields not to keep people in their workplaces, but to send them to ours. It’s incumbent upon us, then, to use this pause to reevaluate our professional environments. Union contracts for ensemble members have, on the whole, been beneficial in procuring unemployment benefits, even severance in some instances. On the other hand, substitute musicians and freelancers have found themselves drowning in W2 and 1099 forms between various employers, but with little to no protections in the ensembles they serve. The self-employed musicians among us are worse off. We must use the tools at our disposal as union members, as well as develop new ones, to preserve the delicate ecosystem of our professional lives. We suffer equally as a community when a pandemic strikes and performance spaces are closed, no matter what position each of us holds. When live performance begins again, which it will, we must ensure everyone, then, can benefit equally from their work.
Management also understands our intrinsic value — after all, many of us have been approached by our employers about streaming our work across social media to keep audiences engaged. While we see the value in the higher calling of maintaining community, there is also an opportunity to take inventory of this in other aspects of our contracts with employers, to see whether our CBAs are protective of the work we do to maintain any particular product. Our musical input is not only intrinsic to our workplaces, but our absence causes a domino effect that ripples throughout the local economy. Restaurants, shops and real estate all suffer when they lose the gravitational pull of a neighborhood centered around music.
Each night when we honor essential workers changing shifts at hospitals, delivering food, or stocking shelves at grocery stores with whatever instruments we have on hand, it’s important to remember the universality of musical expression. It acts as a reminder that, in our role as professional musicians, we can lead the way in healing the soul of the city once we’ve found ourselves through this trying time. When we make it out on the other side, and as bleak as it seems now, we will — our worth will be as apparent as ever, and our responsibility as union members will be to maintain, and push for, stronger protections that encompass our varied field.
Elise Frawley is a violist and a member of the Local 802 Executive Board. She has been a member of Local 802 since 2011.