Pandemic pauses or shifts careers of classical musicians

Aleksandra Labinska is a member of the Albany Symphony Orchestra and a teacher at Luzerne Music Center. (Joy Strotz photo)

Aleksandra Labinska is a member of the Albany Symphony Orchestra and a teacher at Luzerne Music Center. (Joy Strotz photo)

In the best of times, professional classical musicians typically string together positions in several orchestras, along with other gigs, to make a living. 

During what some might argue has been the worst of times, many of those strings have broken or at the very least frayed. 

“. . . you’re stringing together, five, six orchestra jobs to make 40 [thousand to] 50,000 a year,” said Catherine Hackert, chair of the Albany Symphony Orchestra’s musician’s committee. “And most everybody’s teaching on the side and most everybody is freelancing whenever they can.” 

Those orchestra jobs and gigs either disappeared or were severely cut back last year, at the start of the pandemic. According to the National Endowment for the Arts, 27% of musicians were out of work as of September 2020. 

During this time, ASO, which like many in the Capital Region is a pay-per-service orchestra, set up an emergency fund for its musicians, urging those who needed assistance to apply for grants. Applications included letters, some speaking to the difficult financial situations the musicians were in thanks to the pandemic. Others spoke to financial struggles that went beyond the pandemic. 

“The COVID crisis is certainly a special situation but it hasn’t brought to light anything that wasn’t already there,” read one letter. “We’ve been struggling for so long fighting for raises that don’t even keep pace with inflation, trying to eke out a living. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a profession with more people who are so highly trained and educated, who have masters and doctoral degrees who are living below the poverty line. And that was before the pandemic. You can love what you do and also expect to be paid fairly for it. For some reason, artists are seen as mercenaries when they want to make a living. Like we don’t sufficiently love what we do. Like we can pay our bills with passion.” 

During this time, some of Hackert’s colleagues have taken other jobs as contact tracers, UPS drivers, dog walkers; whatever they can do to get by.

One fellow ASO colleague, Dana Huyge, recently turned to real estate for a steadier alternative.

“Once upon a time I was playing all over the state but as my family’s grown it’s become more and more burdensome to live the lifestyle of a freelance commuter musician,” Huyge said.

“It would actually be more accurate to say that the pandemic has accelerated something that was already in process.”

Beyond ASO, he also performs on viola with Symphoria in Syracuse and up until recently, he was an adjunct professor at SUNY Geneseo. The college laid him off this year, along with several others in the department. He took that job loss as a chance to get into real estate, hoping for a steadier schedule and income.

Hackert, a cellist and retired educator who has a pension to fall back on, said she wouldn’t be surprised if some musicians left the field altogether.

“I think for some of the younger musicians this has been a real wake-up call for them. Some of them who didn’t think they’d need something to fall back on are finding that they do. The kind of education that we go through, even for me I was an education major, you’re kind of like the racehorse with blinders on the side; you stick with the music stuff. You don’t have a diverse kind of education that you could pick up another career,” Hackert said.

For Aleksandra Labinska, another ASO member and teacher at the Luzerne Music Center, the onset of the pandemic brought concerns regarding her visa. The Boston resident is originally from Poland and has been in the United States for the past nine years on an artist visa. She and her husband, who is also a musician, had to reapply at the start of the pandemic, at a time when concerts were being cleared from the calendar.

“One of the requirements is that you have to show activity for the next three years, which normally wasn’t a problem but because everything shut down our lawyer was a little worried,” Labinska said.

For them, the wait didn’t last too long and they were approved at the end of May, However, Labinska said she has colleagues who are still awaiting approval.

Beyond the visa concerns, the pace of life changed dramatically for Labinska last spring. The violinist has memberships not only in ASO but in the Vermont Symphony, Symphony New Hampshire, and several others.

“I was living in the car, for the most part, playing one to two to three concerts on top of recordings on a weekly basis,” Labinska said.

Since most of her concerts and gigs were canceled, she’s pivoted to online concerts and teaching, growing her studio along the way.

“Everything got restructured. My husband is a violinist as well so we did a couple of online performances for a variety of groups. That was a way to supplement our income but it was quite shocking to go from [a] full, packed schedule that we’ve maintained both of us for the past ten years to basically an empty performance calendar,” Labinska said.

Beyond the financial impact, it’s also been challenging socially.

“Musicians gather and we play music together but we also gather socially outside of the rehearsal space,” Labinska said. “It’s such a rich community in New England and in the Capital Region in terms of arts. There’s just so many inspiring people. Keeping in contact with each other is so crucial and I feel like because of all of this we’ve lost that and the conversations stopped. That’s the biggest part that I’m missing in this whole experience.”

While there have been discussions of in-person concerts potentially returning in the fall, whether or not that will happen remains to be seen. For now, some musicians have found work through virtual concerts. Schenectady Symphony and ASO have both hosted a few and there are others in the works.

They may not be the same as in-person shows, but they’ve kept people like bassist Luke Baker afloat.

“Last spring was pretty much just this horror show of things just being canceled,” Baker said, “Last summer I didn’t have anything. Nothing was going on. But . . . I’ve been actually very lucky. Since the beginning of November, every month at least I’ve had good work,” Baker said.

He’s also been teaching students virtually and has been supported by his wife, who is a nurse.

While the latest COVID relief bill passed by Congress included funding for the arts industry, it was focused on small arts venues rather than musicians. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo discussed a New York Arts Revival Initiative, which would include 150 artists commissioned to do pop-up programs around the state. It also includes plans for grant funding to get 1,000 artists back to work. Performances are slated to kick off in February and though the schedule has yet to be announced, Cuomo mentioned ASO would be part of it.

“I do hope that the arts will snap back to what it used to be,” Labinska said, “I’m sure it won’t be a year, it’ll probably be a more lengthy process. But the most important thing is safety and I do understand that.”

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