COVID Ritardando

Local Musicians make it work during COVID-19

March 11, 2021


Verdugo Young Musicians Association

Before COVID-19 lockdown, VYMA (Verdugo Young Musicians Association) had two (in-person) concerts per school year.

The most difficult thing for me has been the loss of what I have loved to do my whole life: perform live music and be with my colleagues,” said Carrie Holzman-Little, Assistant Principal violist in the Pasadena Symphony, the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and a viola coach with Glendale’s Verdugo Young Musicians Association.

The Holtzman-Littles hold an outdoor concert for their neighbours.

Holzman-Little is one of many musicians in the Los Angeles County area whose life has been affected by Covid-19. Since March 2020, concert venues obscure and well-known have been forced to close their doors to live concerts and performances.The iconic Walt Disney Hall in Downtown Los Angeles does not plan to restart its concert series until June 2021. Classical musicians, music educators in schools, freelance gig performers and even worship musicians in religious institutions have weathered this last year with courage and a strength of spirit not many are intimately familiar with. Musicians such as Holzman-Little are trying their best to make do in very desperate times.

Before the pandemic hit, musicians in the Los Angeles area freely performed at weddings and bar mitzvahs, taught private instrumental lessons and recorded film music, never concerned that a pandemic would render those things illegal. Petros Boyadzhyan, a music teacher with the Glendale Unified School District has taught instrumental music for seven years at John Marshall, Cerritos, Monte Vista, Verdugo Woodlands and Jefferson elementary schools. His usual working routine saw him going to a different school site every day. When he completed his teaching in the district’s schools, Boyadzhyan would return home each day to coach private students in his private studio. Sometimes, he had music gigs with his quartet and even did orchestral recording sessions.

Since the pandemic, Boyadhyan has been at home. “All of my teaching happens online now through Zoom. This includes my school teaching and private students. Gigs have almost been non-existent. Many events that my quartet was booked for either were postponed indefinitely or completely canceled,” said Boyaghyan. While coaching online, Boyaghyan encourages his students to keep practicing and keep up the good work — but it doesn’t feel the same. He is well aware of what he has lost. “It is very hard to have a Zoom class of 20 incredibly talented musicians and not be able to hear them all perform as an ensemble all at once,” Boyaghyan said. Along with the challenge of being online all day, Boyaghyan also has to find ways to keep his two young boys entertained” while at home during the pandemic.

Samvel Chilingarian, a La Crescenta resident, knows too the difficulties of being a music educator. An East Los Angeles college professor and conductor of a local youth orchestra in Glendale, Chilingarian has found this year very challenging. “Since part of teaching a string instrument includes a lot of hands-on demonstration, I [now] have to communicate everything with words through a camera. Before, I could reach out and adjust a student’s hand/arm and improve their playing immediately without saying much or explaining, now I have to verbalise and explain how to do it in much more detail,” said Chiligarian. “It’s very difficult to see time pass with limited results….I have to accept that results may not come as quickly…explaining a new skill [verbally]  takes more time.” 

While music educators have had to overcome a huge learning curve, gig musicians have fared worse. In-person performances are a gig musician’s livelihood, and with no revenue coming in, many are waiting for the pandemic to be over. “I lost several big upcoming performances and had to cancel my studio student recital. I have only had three in person rehearsals or recording sessions [since the beginning of Covid] and that was different since it was distanced, not the way we usually make music!” said Victoria Sabanjohn, a oboist who normally plays in orchestras all over the United States. As a freelance musician, Sabanjohn enjoyed a wide range of work, playing with the Long Beach Symphony, with the “RAGTIME: The Musical” orchestra at the Pasadena Playhouse and during Christmas at the Grace Community Church’s annual holiday concert. These opportunities are now unavailable and the future is uncertain as to when musicians can once play on stage again with a live audience.

Despite the daily obstacles of securing work or working online, musicians haven’t given up hope. Their tenacity and love for their craft keeps them going. Yoo-Jung Chang, a cello coach also with the Verdugo Young Musicians Association, utilized technology to her benefit and was not deterred by the challenges of live streaming lessons. Chang discovered the “Band App” and used it “to post videos of [her] music playing which students learn during the class. The students can watch the videos anytime and it helps their practice.

COVID-19 Style concert, which is made by mixing and syncing every musician’s individual track together to create a coherent song. (Verdugo Young Musicians Association)

Simeon Sham, a prolific songwriter and guitarist and the creative arts pastor at Epicentre Church, undergoes a 10-day production cycle in order to produce his church’s weekly worship service. Sham said that each segment of the service is filmed at home — edited, mixed and mastered — in order to be ready to be aired online each Sunday. Along with the musical parts of a service, all work meetings related to the music are conducted via Zoom. Manufacturing an hour and a half service with new content every week is grueling — from the filming, editing and mixing processes. 

As retailers and hair salon owners begin to see their business pick up, many musicians are wondering when concerts, performances and orchestras will begin again.“Musicians have felt very marginalized. We are not mentioned in the news and no-one is clamoring to get us all back into live performing,” Holzman-Little said. “I feel tired.” 



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