by Mallory Moad
Here we are in the 12th week of the COVID-19 pandemic and the accompanying shutdown, with a return to normal—whatever that was—still far away. We’ve worked from home, done our best to keep our kids mentally stimulated without going flat-out mental ourselves, practiced social distancing on those rare occasions when we braved going out in public, and embraced facial coverings as a fashion accessory.
But the truth of the matter is, we are living in a time of uncertainty.
Everyone has been affected by this crisis, but local musicians have been hit especially hard. With the date for a limited reopening of venues such as bars, nightclubs and restaurants yet to be determined, the prospects of a reduced number of customers and the possibility of further closures, things just aren’t looking good. Performing artists are a tough bunch, though, and many of them have come up with some creative ways to stay visible, active, and even employed.
For a number of years, singer/guitarist Pieter Moerdyk has had a recurring Friday night gig at Fresno’s Sierra Nut House. Although the restaurant has reopened with limited seating, “It’s not certain I’ll be back every week,” he says. Before the shutdown, Pieter also performed regularly at nursing homes and assisted living facilities, home to the population most vulnerable to coronavirus. With his places of employment closed for the time being, Pieter has turned to the internet as a way to continue playing, even if it doesn’t pay, because that’s how he rolls. Every morning he posts a selection from his repertoire of pop and jazz standards on his Facebook page. Recorded in various rooms in his house and sung in his relaxed, charming style, he shares his love for music with friends and fans. Dressed for the occasion (Pieter owns an impressive collection of hats), his videos are a gift. It’s an affectionate, generous way to use some unexpected down time and a delightful start to the day. “I will continue until we have a vaccine and we can safely get together again.”
Powerhouse bluesman, John Clifton is used to being busy. With the John Clifton Blues Band, he has played locally at Lucy’s, Goldsteins and Gazebo Gardens. Pre-pandemic, John would spend ten to twelve weeks on tour in the US and Europe; these days, not so much. Understandably, he’s not real happy about it. “I had a two-and-a-half week tour of the Pacific Northwest cancel on March 17,” he explains. “I also have a four-week tour of the Midwest for July that’s up in the air.” John is concerned about the effects the lengthy closure of venues will have on the future of the local music scene, fearing that reduced audience sizes will mean a decrease in pay for performers. As far as touring goes, “I’m not real optimistic about that, either.” In spite of an outlook that isn’t exactly sunny, John is taking a productive approach to the shutdown, making it work to his advantage. “I’m using this time to restructure my act. I’m looking at every aspect of it with a microscope, trying to make it better. I think now is the time for that.”
Tony Imperatrice is an organist/storyteller/comedian, and frequent participant in Fresno’s Rogue Festival. He also teaches music and works as a rep for a major organ building company when COVID-19 isn’t causing disruption to his daily life. Although Tony’s regular pre-coronavirus gigs include playing for services at two local churches, he has also lost other performance opportunities. “I had planned four concerts this year featuring my original music, storytelling and classical favorites,” he says “but they were cancelled before they were confirmed.”
Like many musicians these days, Tony has turned to the internet and has been presenting live streaming events on a weekly basis. “Every Sunday at 11:00 a.m. I have been performing online,” playing classical music and hymns on organ. It helps maintain visibility and, hopefully, will lead to in-person gigs when the danger of COVID-19 has passed. But there’s no income to be made in streaming; Tony refers to it as “internet busking.” As for the challenges of online teaching (he has two dedicated students at this time) he says, “I am a college trained music teacher but I’ve completely thrown the rule book out the window!” If desperate times call for desperate measures there’s your proof.
In spite of setbacks and a future that remains vague for the local scene, Tony remains philosophical and optimistic, his dry sense of humor alive and well. “I think musicians and creative people in general are very resilient. We find a way no matter what, but you have to play the cards you are dealt. A good poker player can use a bad hand to move forward in the game so I say, don’t fold, keep going! When this is all over, the deck may be reshuffled but the game will go on.”
Patrick Contreras’s musical career has taken him far and wide, from local venues like Fulton 55 and Arte Americas, to the Orange County and Oregon State Fairs, and all the way to West Africa. For the father of three kids—ages one, three and five—playing his jazz fusion style of music (what he calls “violin on fire”) is how he provides for his family, but his performance options have changed recently. What does a professional musician do when he’s all tuned up with nowhere to go?
In Patrick’s case, you think outside the box then throw the box away. “Since the shutdown I’ve been doing porch concerts,” he says with his customary enthusiasm. “I show up to people’s sidewalks or curbsides and perform mini concerts! It’s been a fun way to keep with social distancing guidelines but still bring live music to people.” Promoted via social media and word of mouth, the shows have been popular enough to keep Patrick working on a daily basis. “People are starving for the arts. I don’t care how good someone’s Spotify list is, live music brings something a recording can’t.”
Regarding the future of the local music scene, Patrick is concerned but also has some encouraging words to offer. “Things are going to be different for awhile. I hope that, collectively, we as the creative community will find a way through. It’s going to take some outside the box thinking and we are built for that.” He ought to know.
The times we are living in are pretty weird right now. Sometimes it feels as if everything has been turned inside out, doesn’t it? But rather than sit around and whine about the situation, these, and other, local musicians are setting an example by using this time to create, reinvent, explore and share their love for their craft.
My name is Mallory Moad and I believe strange times don’t have to be bad times.