Saxophonist and bandleader Clinton Swanson. Photo: Bill Metcalfe

Nelson performers cope with COVID-19

How four prominent performers are responding to the loss of their audiences

Saxophonist and bandleader Clinton Swanson, one of Nelson’s busiest musicians, is learning to play the trumpet, and he and his eight-year-old daughter are learning, together, to play that most difficult of instruments, the oboe.

That’s because he has lots of time on his hands.

“In February my schedule was jam packed with gigs and teaching,” he says. “And then the last big gig was Blues Brews and BBQ on February 29. Then literally, bam, done. All my gigs: cancelled, cancelled, cancelled, cancelled, cancelled.”

The live music and stage performance industries have been destroyed by the pandemic because they depend on large numbers of people in close quarters in venues from bars to concert halls, and on physical distancing of the performers.

Hence Swanson’s string of cancellations. His private music lessons taught in students’ houses dried up too. He’s lucky he qualified for CERB.

“That’s the first time I’ve ever gotten money from the government for being unemployed as a musician,” Swanson says. “That’s a small miracle in itself.”

He says he’s contemplating going to school and changing careers. The alternative is learning how to make money as a musician on the internet, and he’s going to try that although it doesn’t suit what he calls his old-school approach.

“My philosophy was always you put on a good show. People tell each other and then before you know it, you’ve got gigs. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to create an audience, create a community that will support me.”

Now he’s faced with the challenges of creating that community all over again in a new medium, online.

“My wife calls it mourning a career. She has to deal with it all the time because I’m at home. I have some really bad days. Sometimes I think I messed up and I chose the wrong path. I should have listened to my Mom, I should have got a science degree.”

Other days he feels inspired again.

“I start writing and start recording and that’s been good.”

He’s got some gigs at the Charles Bailey Theatre this fall, and a few with his own group and groups led by friends, all of them with small audiences because of COVID-19 restrictions.

But whether or not he can make a living at music again in the old way, Swanson is grateful. He’s a saxophone player who has made a living in a small town, without touring. No mean feat.

“It’s been an extremely privileged life for me to do that here. I really thank the community for all the great years.”

Allison Girvan

Choir director, singer, composer

Allison Girvan has spent nearly 20 years directing the 65-member young adult choir Corazon and five other youth choirs, performing as a singer in musical works created by herself and others, and adjudicating and teaching at music festivals across the country.

Choir director and singer Allison Girvan. Photo: Bill Metcalfe

Choir director and singer Allison Girvan. Photo: Bill Metcalfe

And then, at the beginning of March, “everything stopped. Absolutely everything stopped.”

One of the ironies of the pandemic is that choral singing, of all things, has become one of the world’s most potentially infectious activities because it may generate more respiratory particles than normal talking.

Choirs can still sing, Girvan says, but only in smaller groups, with singers distanced. In fact the only one of her choirs that is still singing, the 20-member young adult group Lalin, rehearses outside in the park in the evening a couple of times per month, bundled up in the cold, with headlamps. But when they will sing for the public again is unknown.

Girvan has not attempted a Zoom choir because it’s a solitary experience in which singers are singing alone at home, and choirs are about collaboration and blending with others.

“Especially for this demographic, youth and young adults, people come together to be in each other’s company and to breathe together and make sound together, to be part of something bigger than yourself, and you can’t get that on Zoom, there’s just no way.”

So she and some like-minded and similarly innovative youth choir directors across the country have formed the Bridge Choral Collective, which offers interactive Zoom workshops for their singers, taught by international level luminaries.

Girvan was eligible for CERB, and having to take a break from singing and teaching has not been entirely a bad thing for her.

“I have been struggling vocally for some years now. [This work is] hard on my voice. In the absence of the teaching, my voice has had a chance to rest. I just was hired to do a recording project, which I would never have been able to do any other time.”

Girvan has also started a racial justice project with eight young women singers from Corazón and some Indigenous elders, with a view to an outdoor “site-specific soundscape” in the spring. Depending on the state of COVID-19 it might be performed for an audience.

“The absence of being able to be around my groups, whom I adore, has created this incredible gratitude for the interactions that I do have,” Girvan says. “With these eight young women, I am feeling so incredibly lucky right now.”

Slava Doval

Dancer, choreographer

Before the pandemic, Slava Doval had 200 students and employed six dance teachers. That ended in the spring. In September her classes started up again, but changed in many ways.

“The class sizes are smaller,” she says. “So I’ve had to say no to people that I’ve had for students for a long time, because I can’t fit them in to a class. So that has a huge effect on the business side of things.”

Dancer and choreographer Slava Doval. Photo: Bill Metcalfe

Dancer and choreographer Slava Doval. Photo: Bill Metcalfe

The students have to stay distanced throughout the class. That means no partner work or physical interaction of any kind between dancers, and there have to be gaps between classes.

Doval’s dancers lost their year-end showcase at the Capitol, usually held in the late spring.

“It’s a huge revenue generator, as well as celebration and culmination of the work of a whole year for the kids. And families had already invested in all the costumes. We lost all that.” Doval says she is actually working harder than she did before the pandemic because a few of her teachers didn’t return after the summer so she’s doing more of that work herself. She’s also put in a lot of time figuring out how to reconfigure her classes and studio space.

“It didn’t feel like time off. It felt like more work to create how the studio flow entry and exit is going to work, how to manage the physical bodies in space, and a schedule that allows for space and time between things.”

Doval said she did find time to do some personal artistic development, including workshops on respecting black culture in the dance community, and a week-long hip-hop intensive.

In the fall she is part of two different events in the Capitol Theatre’s online Homegrown series and another in the spring.

There may be fewer students in her classes but they are very grateful, Doval says.

“School is a very different experience for students in L.V. Rogers. So dance now plays a lot more of sort of social emotional aspect for them. Dance and coming together has been like a place to have self expression and kind of a sense of normalcy and creativity.”

It’s unknown how long it will be before she can put dancers on a public stage again.

“That feels really sad,” she says. “I can’t quite look at it head on yet. I’m kind of looking at it out of the corner of my eye continually like, there it is. How am I going to find a creative way for the kids to have something to be proud of at the end of all their hard work that they can show to the community and their family?”

Lucas Myers

Actor, playwright

One evening in mid-March, Lucas Myers did a one-person show on the stage in Trail. About half of the people who had bought tickets showed up.

“So it was already starting then,” he says. “People were already getting a bit leery. And that was the last time I was in front of an audience for about eight months.”

Actor Lucas Myers. Photo: Bill Metcalfe

Actor Lucas Myers. Photo: Bill Metcalfe

He had no work and was eligible for CERB.

“Which was really great, actually. I liken it to when you’re really busy in life, and you go, God, I wish everything would just stop for a little while. And it did.”

He enjoyed hanging out with his 14- and 11-year-old daughters, who were not in school.

“I didn’t have to think about the next show that I’m doing. I don’t have to start rehearsing up that thing. And the kids are around all the time. I can actually help them with math and connect with them on some level like that … I didn’t have an excuse to be busy, I didn’t have a reason to not pay attention.”

He feels privileged compared to others who have been seriously affected.

“I want to acknowledge how devastating this is, not just for the people who are affected by the disease, but all the people whose jobs are massively [affected].”

Myers says he has not gone this long without performing since 1998 and he’s nervous about going back. He has a gig coming up at the Langham in Kaslo and another in Revelstoke, in venues with limited audience numbers because of COVID-19.

He says his career is very sporadic at the best of times, with intense periods and down times between his self-written one-person shows.

“The first show after that period is always a little bit like, what am I doing here and why are these people sitting there staring at me?”

But he knows he’ll easily slide back into his signature comical take on life that he’s been developing and enjoying for years. It’s like riding a bike, he says. He hasn’t forgotten what to do.

Myers feels that way about the pandemic, and he expresses confidence that the old life of performing will come back, just like it did in the Roaring Twenties after the Spanish Flu.

“People were so eager to get back into it. They came out in droves. And I’m an optimist at heart,” he says.

”Maybe that’s foolish. But I think there’ll be something really interesting about the show [limited to] 22 people in Kaslo. I’ll feel fortunate to be able to do a show, and they’ll feel fortunate to be able to watch the show. So I try to focus on that.”



bill.metcalfe@nelsonstar.com

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