Surviving (and potentially thriving in) the pandemic

Volume 120, No. 10November, 2020

Dan Wilensky

I won’t bore you with the depressing details about the pandemic’s effect on our precious worldwide music community. Much has been written on the subject, and we are all too busy living it in one way or another. To add insult to injury, we all thought WE were essential workers! For some of us, wildfires, hurricanes and floods have made this year even more challenging. Throw in a good dose of social and political upheaval, an increase in intolerance and violence of all types, and you’ve got the recipe for Armageddon. Or maybe not.

I’d like to offer some perspective, and a few suggestions to help you weather the storm. Obviously, many of us have already hit rock bottom, or have been directly impacted by the disease itself, so please forgive the ideas that aren’t free, or don’t reflect the magnitude of your personal tragedy.

You can bet that in 1939, most musicians in Europe figured they oughta find another line of work. Some of you remember when AIDS first hit. That too seemed like the end — that nothing else mattered. I performed at the top of the World Trade Center the weekend before 9/11. I knew all the workers at the Top of The World restaurant who — unbelievably — were called in for a morning meeting on September 11. It was a frightening, dark time. The Great Depression, the Great Recession, SARS, Katrina . . . Musicians and other artists are often on the front lines, and usually feel the economic impact first. Yet the music never died. We fell. We rose up once more.

This too shall pass.

In the meantime, it’s imperative that you do everything in your power to make the best of it: Take care of yourself and your family, do one good deed a day, and stay in contact with your friends and extended family. Then stay in the moment, listen to a lot of great music, and take one day at time. It’s also a great opportunity to practice and write music, shore up a double, or learn a new instrument. You may never have this much free time again.

Many of my colleagues are doing Zoom concerts, or recording and teaching remotely, and maybe even doing an outdoor gig or two. All good, positive skills to develop, and you might even make a couple bucks. For the record, I’m not participating in the web stuff. I also don’t like low-fat ice cream. If I’m going to play, record or teach, it has to be in the same room as at least one other warm body. But if you can embrace the online experience, it’s a great way to stay busy.

Of course, there’s so much more to life!

My favorite way to remain musically inspired, stimulate my creative output and keep my sanity during this crisis, is to do something non-musical. Read a book. Research a painter or two. If you hate Picasso, improve your chess game or learn a new language. Garden, or volunteer at a community park. Raise tropical fish. Learn to cook — better. Clean your pad. Going for a walk or a bike ride can help too: besides breaking the monotony and stimulating your endorphins, you bask in the unpredictable rhythms of nature, the first music on earth. Exercise to expel the copious amounts of second-hand smoke you absorbed from playing at funky clubs in the old days. Space out. Let your imagination run wild. If all else fails, there’s some cool new music documentaries and shows like”Song Exploder” on Netflix.

When is the last time that you completely stopped playing and listening to music for a while? You should do this periodically anyway, pandemic or not. If you desperately miss your instrument, so much the better. Your musical imagination will rekindle itself when you let it rest, and you’ll find time for important people and activities you’ve neglected during your practicing, composing and gigging frenzies. And what a great time to cultivate your spiritual life, practice yoga, meditate. It is essential to remember that the richness of your musical vocabulary and your ability to use it effectively are enhanced by the depth of your life experience.

Unfortunately, there is a chance that we will be in this purgatory for an extended period — that a return to “normalcy” is years away. With that in mind, it might be a good time to at least think about what you will do if you’re unable to cobble together a living in the overcrowded, fickle and fractured music biz. Some jobs are truly Covid and recession -proof: Plumbers, electricians, painters and carpenters are busier than ever; Amazon will hire you if you have a pulse. And it’s not a bad time to further your education, or even get a new degree online. As we entered the 5th month of shuttered bars and restaurants, cancelled tours, and only the occasional recording session, one of my more industrious colleagues — a superb and successful bassist — took one month to cram for his real estate license. Now he’s busy selling houses because he approached that business with the same dedication and tenacity that took him so far in his music career.

Finally, remember the salient words of Solomon: “The ear of jealousy heareth all things.”

When we’re down for the count, it can be particularly difficult to hear about the monetary or artistic success of others. But in a world where the richest 26 people own more wealth than that of half the earth’s entire population, it’s better not to compare your personal trajectory to that of others. During the current crisis, it’s inevitable that — even in this publication — you’ll discover musicians who are doing just fine. Some were born rich. Some landed gigs untouched by the shutdown. Others had big careers, saved their money and lucked out in the stock and real estate markets. Some married into money. Some have no life other than music. Others simply seem successful because they get a lot of press. A few are bonafide geniuses.

Ignore it all.

You are, after all, unique. That’s your best asset, regardless of what happens in a given year or two. Be your best self, stay lively, and fill the world with great music. You need to play, and soon we will venture out to hear you.


Dan Wilensky, a member of Local 802 since 1982, has toured and recorded with hundreds of artists, including Ray Charles, Jack McDuff, Slickaphonics, Steve Winwood, Joan Baez, Cornell Dupree, Mark Murphy, Santana, Rory Block, Faith No More, James Brown, The Roches, and David Bowie. He has played on and composed and arranged for numerous film soundtracks and TV themes, and can be heard on over 250 records. His popular book, Musician! and his seven albums as a leader are available at, Spotify and iTunes. His 2020 release, All In All, features Clay Giberson, Bill Athens, and Micah Hummel.