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Coronavirus In Ohio: Livestreams Restore Income, Audiences To Local Performers

color photo of Scott Woods watching Tower Duo perofrm on a computer screen
Scott Woods
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Streetlight Guild
Streetlight Guild Founder Scott Woods watches a virtual performance of the Columbus-based Tower Duo

Gov. Mike DeWine’s implementation of a statewide ban on large gatherings has put many Columbus-area musicians, at least temporarily, out of work during the coronavirus pandemic.

But thanks to a new online live concert series, the music will go on.

The recent ban on large gatherings prompted Zoe and Jack Johnstone, founders of the Johnstone Fund for New Music, to cancel three concerts in Columbus that they were supporting financially.

Now, some of the musicians scheduled to perform for those in-person concerts will instead be performing in a new series of free video concerts, livestreamed on Facebook and open to everyone during what could be the height of the coronavirus pandemic in Ohio. And those Columbus musicians are being paid.

“Culture in the Time of Corona”  is the creation of Zoe Johnstone and Scott Woods, founder and director of the arts nonprofit Streetlight Guild on Columbus’ Near East Side. The six concerts will feature Columbus-based musicians and will be livestreamed on Streetlight Guild’s Facebook page at 3 p.m. Sunday afternoons between April 26-June 7.

The musicians will perform in Streetlight Guild’s event space with no live audience, while Woods runs the livestream on Facebook through his phone.

Zoe Johnstone says the idea for the new series came to her after she and Jack Johnstone paid the musicians who had agreed to perform on the now-canceled concerts.  

The Johnstones knew the musicians would be hard hit with mass gatherings canceled in Ohio in the coming weeks. They wanted to help the musicians keep working until the pandemic has passed and it’s again safe to attend live concerts.

color photo of Zoe and jack Johnstone
Credit Johnstone Fund for New Music / Courtesy of Zoe Johnstone
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Courtesy of Zoe Johnstone
Zoe and Jack Johnstone

“Zoe Johnstone reached out to me and asked if I would be interested in hosting some concerts to offset the loss of income and the inability to perform for some musicians,” said Woods. “And I said, ‘Absolutely.’”

The series fell into place quickly.

“In 28 hours, we had six acts booked, money was transferred, all of that happened in a short period of time,” said Zoe Johnstone.

The Johnstone Fund for New Music is paying all of the musicians to perform on the series and is paying to rent Streetlight Guild as the venue from which the performances will be livestreamed.

The musicians and ensembles scheduled for the series are percussionist Cameron Leach (April 26), the flute-saxophone combo Tower Duo (May 10), the voice and acoustic guitar duo Starlit Ways (May 17), the all-percussion Pendulum Duo (May 24), jazz pianist Robert Mason (May 31) and the Janus Quartet (June 7).

A Scary Time For Musicians

All of jazz pianist Robert Mason’s gigs scheduled for the month of March were canceled, and he says the same is likely to happen to his performances scheduled for April.

“The majority of my income comes from performing, so it’s been a pretty big financial hit overall,” Mason said.

Mason performs regularly at several Columbus restaurants, which are all now temporarily closed. He was scheduled to perform as the featured artist on a high school music festival, but that job got canceled when Ohio’s schools were closed. The spring weddings Mason booked have been postponed.

Mason’s May 31 performance on the “Culture in the Time of Corona” concert series is the only musical performing job he has been able to pick up in the midst of the COVID-19 upswing in Ohio. The income from that performance will help, Mason says, but in the meantime, he’s trying to pick up more hours at his part-time job and taking other measures to pay the bills.

“We’ve been trying to be strict with the budget and also dipping a little bit into personal savings,” Mason said.

The musicians of Tower Duo, the husband-wife duo of saxophonist Michael Rene Torres and flutist Erin Helgeson Torres, have seen more than a dozen of their scheduled performing gigs scratched during March and April, and are expecting to see even more disappear as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

Tower Duo are flutist Erin Helgeson Torres and saxophonist Michael Rene Torres.
Credit Tower Duo
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Tower Duo are flutist, Erin Helgeson Torres and saxophonist, Michael Rene Torres.

Helgeson Torres says most of her livelihood comes from performing – with Tower Duo, with the Columbus Ohio Discovery Ensemble, with orchestras in and beyond Ohio and in one-off performances with other ensembles – while her husband derives most of his income from teaching at the Ohio State University School of Music.

“We’re lucky because my income does come mostly from teaching, so we balance each other,” Michael Rene Torres said.

Even so, Helgeson Torres says she and her husband are already feeling the pinch and anticipate even greater financial struggles later on as a result of the recent concert cancelations.

“March and April are really heavy gig months, and so you tend to save something during these heavier gig months," Helgeson Torres said. "That supports you through very dry months in the summer, because freelancers and teachers don’t really work very much during the summers. I stop making a salary over the summer entirely. Right now, it’s scary, but in a couple of months, it’s going to be really scary."

The voice and acoustic guitar duo Starlit Ways have seen three of their scheduled gigs between now and June canceled and are expecting more to be canceled if the coronavirus pandemic lingers. Both of the duo’s members, vocalist Rose Nkechi Onyeneho and guitarist Chris Glover, have full-time jobs to fall back on and say the loss of income from performing is not yet catastrophic for them.

Starlit Ways are guitarist Chris Glover and vocalist Rose Nkechi Onyeneho.
Credit Starlit Ways
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Starlit Ways are guitarist Chris Glover and vocalist Rose Nkechi Onyeneho.

But Glover and Onyeneho say not performing, not being able to share the music they love with people will take an emotional toll.

“Beside the financial side of it, the interaction, sharing our gifts and talent with members of the community is certainly what we start to miss,” said Onyeneho. “It’s a release from our day-to-day jobs for us, and not being able to do that now is an impact that’s certainly felt.”

Beyond Social Distancing

Woods also is concerned about the emotional toll of the social distancing measures now in place throughout Ohio. While the livestreamed concert series will help some musicians stay afloat financially, Woods says it will also give the community a cultural offering through which to stay connected during a time of relative isolation.

The perspective that comes from engaging with community, Woods says, can help people cope with the stress of a long-term public health crisis and the stress of not knowing when DeWine will lift his State of Emergency declaration in Ohio, so that large gatherings can resume.

“Anxiety is real and stress is real, and a crisis only exacerbates those conditions,” Woods said. “If (the projected social distancing timeframe) were a week long, we would be feeling enormous effects from it. But because it has this open end, that’s a debilitating thought.”

“The more we can distract and the more we can find ways to live, to keep getting off the couch, to keep our minds engaged, the more that we chip away at depression, the more we chip away at anxiety, fear. That is something that art can do extremely well,” Woods continued.

Arguably nothing is better equipped than online media to help artists engage community – even worldwide mass audiences – through their art.

Still, some of the musicians scheduled to perform on the “Culture in the Time of Corona” concert series are considering the challenges of communicating through a screen with an audience with whom they cannot interact as they normally would during an in-person concert.

“With chamber music in particular, the norm is to make it more intimate, more personal, and you do that by talking to the audience and being close to the audience,” said Michael Rene Torres. “But I still think that audiences will look for that human connection even on a digital platform, despite the distance. And we will still try to make it personal and communicative, as we always do.”

As the number of coronavirus diagnoses increases throughout Ohio and the pandemic spreads, it is also potentially inspiring creativity in how musicians bridge the “social distance” and break the isolation.

“I’m glad for the initiative to really help commandeer everyone together to help signify that we’re all in this together,” said Starlit Ways’ Chris Glover. “At the end of the day, everyone’s human, everyone has different needs, and hopefully at this time everything brings out the best in us, not the worst in us.”

“Culture in the Time of Corona” concerts will be livestreamed on Streetlight Guild’s Facebook page at 3 p.m. Sunday afternoons between April 26-June 7. The concerts will remain available to view after the live event.

Jennifer Hambrick unites her extensive backgrounds in the arts and media and her deep roots in Columbus to bring inspiring music to central Ohio as Classical 101’s midday host. Jennifer performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago before earning a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.