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Vital signs: The struggle for professional musicians nearly two years after Covid

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Vital signs: The struggle for professional musicians nearly two years after Covid (Photos courtesy Tony D'Amico/Jim Saunders)

Our January cover story about the decimation of the live music scene in the wake of Covid hit home for many of our readers that rely on freelance performance to keep the lights on. Musicians everywhere saw their performance schedules disappear overnight which meant no regular income, and for many musicians no qualified unemployment benefits.

We told you about the formation of the New England Musicians Relief Fund (NEMRF), created in response to the needs of New England area freelance musicians struggling to hold on. The 501(c)(3) non-profit philanthropy was established to provide a temporary safety net for musicians to meet emergency needs in the form of $1,000 grants.

Since its inception last year, the NEMRF has issued more than 500 of those grants to struggling musicians in every New England state. The organization is in the midst of an awareness-raising campaign to reach new grant applicants, potential new donors and the general public.

The fund may have been established in the aftermath of Covid’s silencing of the live music scene but it was designed to continue to serve musicians in the New England area for years to come, even after the virus becomes a memory we’d sooner forget.

As many sectors of the economy began to sputter back to life this year, many music venues were still closed or operating with a greatly reduced schedule with little evidence things would improve in the short-term. The unknown impact of the Omicron variant currently has many venues and musicians on edge that the encouraging progress made this year toward a rebound could vaporize at any moment.

So much was taken for granted before it was taken away

“It feels almost like a tinderbox about to go off,” said Tony D’Amico, a member of the Board of Directors for NEMRF.

D’Amico is an in-demand freelance musician based in the Boston area and serves as principal bass of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Odyssey Opera, the Boston Philharmonic and is a member of the Portland Symphony and the Rhode Island Philharmonic. D’Amico is President Emeritus of the Theatre Musicians Association.

According to D’Amico, many symphonies are being cautious by announcing partial schedules. He’d hoped that we would be out of the woods by now and that NEMRF would be in a position to help musicians in situations unrelated to Covid.

“We were ready at NEMRF to pivot to become a relief fund for musicians facing hard times not related to the pandemic,” D’Amico said. “We don’t know what to expect now and I think the whole industry is feeling that. Don’t break out the champagne just yet.”

D’Amico said he feels personally fortunate that he’s currently relatively busy in the classical music world and he’s continuing to do everything he can to remain safe and employed. He gets tested before each performance and said he recently received four Covid tests in one weekend for different organizations.

“It almost feels like a normal December, which is great, but I just feel like there’s an elephant in the room, a shadow hanging over everything,” D’Amico said.

Donations to the New England Musicians Relief Fund have slowed down this year as the public saw the live music scene slowly come back to life, according to D’Amico, adding that NEMRF is working in different ways to raise funds.

“Last weekend we placed a pair of musicians in four J. McLaughlin women’s clothing stores,” D’Amico said. “People heard live music while shopping and 15% of profits from those stores went to the fund.”

When D’Amico returned to live performances earlier this year, one of his first concerts occurred in Old Orchard Beach. He said the reaction from the audience is one he will never forget.

“From the opening announcement: ‘Welcome to the Portland Symphony at Old Orchard Beach,’ people began applauding and they didn’t stop,” D’Amico said. “It was so powerful to know they missed us as we’d hoped they would. I get choked up just thinking about that moment. So much was taken for granted before it was taken away, but that applies to a lot of things we didn’t envision losing before the pandemic.”

Seven Dollars from an Audience of One

Musician and teacher Barry Saunders says he feels the same worries and hesitations felt by many venues and musicians at the moment. The optimism he felt three months ago has been replaced with a dark cloud representing the winter ahead.

Saunders is a Portland-based clarinetist, saxophonist and composer who plays with jazz musicians in Maine, the Seacoast region of New Hampshire and in New York City. He’s also a member of the Portland Symphony Orchestra and of Jonny Peiffer’s improvisational jazz group SOJOY.

Saunders teaches at Osher School of Music at the University of Southern Maine as a faculty and adjunct professor and is a full-time public-school teacher for 4th, 5th and 8th graders at MSAD 51 in Cumberland, Maine.

He plays with a diverse lot of music makers including the Road Trip band, a 10-piece improvising jazz ensemble based out of Brooklyn, New York, led by Mike McGinnis. Just before the pandemic hit, they recorded two albums that should have been out by now but the funding to produce those records evaporated along with the band’s schedule of performances.

“I did feel optimistic until this latest variant came along and I’m worried that we’re looking at another rough winter,” Saunders said.

Some of Saunders’ professional music making friends who earned expensive degrees for their formal training were forced to improvise in a new way when Covid hit, Saunders said.

“A good friend in New York who relied completely on live performance income ended up offering to do most anything from filing to copy work to producing records because he had no other income stream,” he said.

Another friend of Saunders’, who performs in the Broadway musical “Chicago,” ended up driving for Uber, he said.

Saunders said all of his income from public performance disappeared during the first year of the pandemic, adding that if not for his teaching positions, he probably would have sought employment in a warehouse or delivering packages for UPS.

Adding to Saunders’ worries is the notion that the public at large is still nervous about attending live shows, especially smaller shows held indoors. His favorite club to perform at in Portland is Blue, an intimate live music venue on Congress St. The club charges no cover but collects donations, all of which are donated to its performing musicians.

On one recent evening, Saunders made seven dollars from an audience of one.

One of the important points he wanted to convey during this interview was that professional musicians have highly advanced skills and that these paid professionals have lost a huge amount of their income.

Saunders said he has acquaintances in the Portland area who don’t understand that musicians are paid to play music with the Portland Symphony.

“When I tell them I play with the symphony, they’ll say ‘Oh, that’s fun’ but when I tell them it’s my job, they are actually surprised,” he said.

“This is how it works with these part-time orchestras: if you’re not a W-2 employee, you’re a gig employee,” Saunders said. “These are highly trained musicians with advanced expensive degrees that have lost everything. My wife and I both have Master’s Degrees in music. Our student loans are equivalent to our mortgage.”

Saunders neither requested nor received aid from New England Musician’s Relief Fund because he had his teaching positions to help pay the bills. NEMRF is a cause that is dear to his heart and he encourages everyone to please donate if they can.

Saunders said he frequently reflects on one of the most moving moments he experienced this year when he performed a free outdoor summer concert with Jonny Peiffer in Dover, New Hampshire.

“We played in the park and the people were shouting as they were walking by,” Saunders said. “They were overjoyed to have live music back.”

The vast majority of donations to NEMRF are made by private individuals, according to Tony D’Amico. Nearly half of the donations amount to $50 or less. Two thirds of the donations are $100 or less.

New England Musicians Relief Fund is dedicated to fostering long-term security for professional musicians in New England by providing financial assistance and critical resources as a safety net for musicians experiencing unexpected or catastrophic income loss.

(Musicians may apply for a grant from the New England Musicians Relief Fund at Supporters wishing to make a tax-deductible donation to the fund should visit

Last modified on Wednesday, 22 December 2021 07:59


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