Will the Show Go On? Amid Pandemic’s Upheaval, Aspiring Young Musicians Face an Uncertain Future
As the lights dimmed at the 92Y on the Upper East Side, Alexander Estrella relaxed into his seat and fixed his eyes on the stage. It was 2017, the spring semester of his freshman year of high school, and this field trip was a welcome change of pace. But Estrella’s posture changed when a female soloist entered the stage and began skillfully moving a bow across the strings of her violin. “It was so beautiful,” Estrella said, recalling the wave of emotion he felt during the performance. “And I just realized, that’s what I want to do. I want to make people feel the way I’m feeling right now.”
In the following three years, Estrella achieved what many thought to be almost impossible. Most professional violinists begin playing at four or five years old, but Estrella was undeterred. He practiced for hours each day, earning a scholarship to the Upper West Side’s Bloomingdale School of Music. The School’s “Music Access Project” (MAP) offered Estrella a rigorous three-year program developed for high school students who could not otherwise afford a music education of the highest caliber. In the spring of 2020, just three years after picking up his first violin, Estrella was accepted to NYU as a violin performance major. This marked the first step toward his ultimate goal of playing music professionally.
But in the past year, COVID-19 has struck massive blows to the music industry and to music education. As students have turned to virtual lessons, the subtleties involved in learning how to evoke emotion with the movement of a bow, or how to project one’s voice into a concert hall, have been lost behind computer screens. Theaters across the country remain empty, and the experience of gathering shoulder-to-shoulder to listen to music feels like a distant memory. While aspiring young musicians, like Estrella, continue to work their way toward a place on the stage, the question remains: who will they be playing for?
The stakes are especially high for Music Access Project students. Naho Parrini, MAP’s program director, said that when classes went online, her students struggled to find adequate practice space. According to Parrini, students can be sharing a one-bedroom apartment with as many as seven family members. The struggle to find privacy is compounded by faulty internet connections and competition between siblings for computer time.
“Last year I had a graduating student who couldn’t have a lesson from March until June because she didn’t have the space. She started making videos of herself practicing late at night. She’d put herself in a closet or a bathroom,” Parrini said.
MAP students cannot let a lack of practice space stifle their progress. Many of them dream of playing music professionally on the stages of iconic New York City venues like Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall. They hope that at the end of their scholarship, they will be accepted into a conservatory or a music program at a prestigious university.
Pre-COVID, students in the process of applying to colleges would rely on their community of teachers and peers for emotional support. They would gather in the halls of the Bloomingdale School of Music to commiserate about audition nerves and the constant urge to refresh email, hoping to see a long-awaited letter of admission. But these days, the halls remain empty, and students are forced to bear the stress of it at all at home and alone.
An absence of community has had a profound impact on the students and teachers at the Bloomingdale School of Music. Christina Shari, a senior in MAP, said that the transition from in-person to online classes has made playing the violin feel incredibly lonely. “A large portion of my motivation is to play my violin with others,” Shari said.
Erika Atkins, executive director of the Bloomingdale School of Music, echoes Shari’s feelings of disconnect. “You can have a wonderful experience watching and playing through Zoom,” Atkins said, “but the reason many of us went into this field is to have that in-person connection.”
Music ensemble teachers at the Bloomingdale School of Music have been searching for ways to recreate a sense of community within the virtual classroom. They have started asking students to record their individual parts, and then edit the segments together to make one full performance video. But a video pales in comparison to the sense of camaraderie students felt while playing their instruments beside one another.
The loss students feel is reflective of the larger landscape of the performing arts world. The industry as a whole is suffering. Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and Carnegie Hall remain closed until further instructed by the state. The New York Philharmonic recently announced the cancellation of all previously scheduled concerts through at least mid-summer. In a public letter, the NY Philharmonic’s president and CEO Deborah Borda said, “In the 178-year history of our institution, the cancellation of an entire season marks a historic first, and a dreadful one at that.”
Closures have taken a massive financial toll on the industry. New York City, often described as a cultural mecca of the world, has an arts and culture sector that contributes approximately $119.9 billion to the state’s economy. That represents 7.8% of the state’s total GDP. Without a season of normal ticket sales, performing arts venues are hemorrhaging millions of dollars. The impact has been profound, and on the darkest days, it’s difficult to see a clear road back.
Aspiring musicians worry about whether or not the industry they are trying to break into will ever fully bounce back. But despite these concerns, many of them have found a silver lining.
Tristan Negri, a percussion student in MAP, said, “This [pandemic] has forced me to think outside the box and be more creative in terms of how I’m playing, what I’m playing, and where I’m playing. It’s opened up my mind to different kinds of music.”
At the Bloomingdale School of Music, Negri had access to every percussion instrument imaginable: the snare drums, timpani, and his favorite, the marimba. But at home, Negri has an instrument only about half the size of what he had in the classroom; it literally shrinks the range of notes he can play. But Negri said he hasn’t let these limitations stunt his growth as a musician. He has modified his solos and dabbled in genres of music that are better suited to a smaller instrument. He sees this change as positive. It is expanding his capacity as a musician.
Clive Chang, chief strategy and innovation officer at Lincoln Center, said this type of adaptability in young musicians is a promising sign for the future. “As hard as it is right now, they will be the generation of music students who lived through this moment,” said Chang, “and they’ll come out the other side more equipped than those of us who were trained to simply go on stage and play.” Chang said this new generation of upcoming musicians is being forced to think about their futures in a much more nimble and adaptable way than ever before.
Students aren’t alone in their efforts to overcome setbacks. Industry leaders have seen this past year of upheaval as a chance to pivot and think differently about the future of performing arts. Many were pleasantly surprised to see an increase in accessibility through virtual concerts. Shows that were once attended predominantly by New York residents are open to anyone in the world with an internet connection.
That’s something Clive Chang hopes is here to stay. Lincoln Center has begun thinking about the creation of virtual campuses, where people across the globe could gather in a Zoom room to watch performances that they wouldn’t normally have been able to access.
Venues like Lincoln Center have also started reflecting on this global tragedy as a reason to seek more purposeful art-making to better serve humanity. “I think we all agree that art has tremendous healing powers. Both literal and metaphorical. And I think that will become a theme moving forward,” said Chang.
But not everyone has been able to adapt. Dr. David Brown, president of the New York School Music Association, said that for music students who have found the challenge of online learning too great to overcome, the statistics paint a bleak picture of what lies ahead.
“The sad reality is that when a student stops music for a year, they generally do not return,” said Dr. Brown. When music classrooms eventually open back up, there is a strong possibility that many chairs will remain empty.
The future of music education and the performing arts industry is unclear. But for now, students like Alexander Estrella are unwavering in their pursuits. Upon graduating from NYU, he plans to pursue a master’s degree at Juilliard or the New England School of Music. Next, Estrella dreams of playing professionally in an orchestra or on Broadway. As a freshman in high school, his late entrance to the violin scene did not prevent him from dreaming big, and in the face of the pandemic, he remains undeterred.