While my expertise is in classical music and styling the performers, I’ve always been a huge fan of the “Lifestyle” section of any newspaper. What’s trending in food, fashion, and any aspect of relating to others?
Well, right now, COVID19 is trending, and will continue to do so, for a while yet. In this series, I’m speaking to people who are figuring out ways to prevail during the pandemic. If you follow the classical music scene on social, you’ll have seen cool stuff happening from Pocket Concerts , founded by Co-Directors Emily Rho, pianist, and Rory McLeod, violist. Their entertaining and interesting programming cuts through a lot of the “online noise” I wade through, and I wanted to know how Emily and Rory were doing during these times.
Tell us in three sentences or less what you do. We are both freelance performers who make a living from a combination of performing, teaching, and running Pocket Concerts. Pocket Concerts is a series of intimate chamber music concerts that takes place in alternative venues all over the GTA. Emily is also the General and Artistic Director of Caledon Music Festival, a summer chamber music festival in Caledon.
What predictions are you making about your line of work for the next few months? Emily: I think whether we like it or not, technology will become a huge part of being a performing musician. Even having a good tech set-up still won’t produce the same effect as a live concert, but without one it would be difficult to engage with our audiences. I think a lot of us musicians are learning (and will learn) to use technology as part of the process of performing, and I’ve definitely come to terms with the fact that the more I inform myself about various different equipment and platforms early on, the better it’ll serve me and the music I want to share with the world for the foreseeable future. With the cancellation of all live concerts, there has been a flood of online musical content since the first day of lockdown, and we may be reaching a saturation point where both sides of the equation, the artists and the viewers, will inevitably feel fatigued by the volume of content. But I remain optimistic that this will encourage artists to continuously adapt and create meaningful content that is valuable whether it is online or off-line.
Rory: I agree with Emily that we’re being forced to find new ways to deliver meaningful experiences to listeners. Not only have we been forced to stop performing IRL (In Real Life), we’re also being forced to think hard about why we do what we do. What is valuable about live performance? Can we offer online content that has the same value, or should we even try? I think musicians are a resourceful bunch, and we’ll continue to find ways to reach people in meaningful ways, whether it’s through live-streams, porch concerts, drive-ins, or some other format that we haven’t thought of yet. It doesn’t look like we’ll be playing in big concert halls to thousands of people anytime soon, so the larger organizations will likely have a difficult time ahead of them, but there are a lot of brilliant and passionate people out there who care about music, care about their communities, and want to bring beauty into the world. Ultimately, I think we’ll be okay. Will it be common to make a comfortable middle-class income as an artist when this is over? It’s hard to say, but it was pretty darn difficult to do that before the pandemic, and we now have an opportunity to figure out some better practices and better business models.
Let’s talk about how you’re doing. We’re all looking for coping mechanisms – what are yours? Emily: Is eating potato chips considered a coping mechanism? I go through a cycle of eating lots of them and I exercise a ton to feel good. For the most part, I’ve been doing what most other people seem to be doing: baking, cooking, and cleaning. Oh, I started learning to use Photoshop and have been getting a little too much joy out of altering some of my friends’ and family’s photos…
Rory: My first impulse was to launch into a new project and throw myself into it. I was booked to play Romeo and Juliet with the National Ballet this spring, and I think it was on the first morning of cancelled services that I woke up and said to Emily, “I think we should start doing live-stream concerts.” By the end of the next day, we had set up the Patreon page for Pocket Concerts Live. We spent the next eight weeks on a very steep learning curve–learning how to use new technology, promoting more concerts than ever before, and pushing for an international audience–which was a bit crazy. Now we’re taking a brief pause to plan ahead and improve the quality of our future concerts. I’ve signed up for a couple of courses at Ryerson University in entrepreneurship and copy editing, and I’m really enjoying immersing myself in new subjects. So I guess I would say that I cope by learning new skills. To be fair, I’ve also noticed that I’m eating more ice cream than usual.
It’s hard to watch the news. Let’s focus on the positive … what positive thing(s) are you discovering about yourself during this time? Emily: After going through the initial phase of not having much desire to practice, I’m pleasantly surprised to find myself practicing several hours a day and really enjoying every part of it! To be completely frank, I probably haven’t felt this much joy, curiosity, and peace of mind during practicing since I was a student. In a strange way, I feel grateful for this opportunity to reconnect with my instrument, and I plan to enjoy it as long as it lasts! Also, I have solo recitals (online) coming up, so I’m gearing up for them.
Rory: One thing I’ve discovered is that I’m actually okay with not playing all the time. Maybe some readers will be shocked or disappointed to hear it, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how comfortably I’ve adapted to a life where I’m not constantly preparing for the next big performance. Of course I miss playing, especially chamber music, but I don’t miss the stress of being constantly under the gun. I’m feeling a healthy sense of detachment from my identity as a violist right now, and thinking of myself in broader terms, recognizing that I have plenty to offer in other realms as well.
Have you found a way to “help with the cause”, no matter how insignificant it may seem to you? Emily: I recently started to design workout programs to do with some friends over Zoom. I make them as fun and social as possible (like asking each person to tell a joke during a wall-sit to pass the time), and under the current circumstances these workouts feel weirdly similar to playing chamber music or going to a concert with friends. I’d like to think a couple of rounds of HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) goes a long way, especially if you’re with friends playing games while working out. If anyone is interested in joining, get in touch!
Rory: Emily’s workouts have been super fun (she’s incorporating toilet paper rolls this week!), so you should definitely consider joining us sometime. For my part, I’ve been writing blog articles encouraging artists to charge for their online content, so that we can all continue to make some money as performers. Knowing how precarious everyone’s financial situation is, we paid all of the musicians who were booked to perform with Pocket Concerts this spring on the date of their original booking. We treated our artists how we would like to be treated. We’ve also turned the Pocket Concerts social media platforms into hubs for discovering live-streams for other organizations, and we’re being as supportive as we can be of everyone who is putting great music out there. When I find an opportunity that might help my fellow musicians make some money, or something that will make their lives better, I share it with as many people as I can. If you want to spread the word about one of your performances or a resource for artists, hit me up!
Supposing we get the news it’s all over, and the whole world has been vaccinated. Do you predict your life will return to the way it was, or different somehow? Emily: I often go for a run with an app that guides you through the run, and the “coach” often says, “you have to slow down to run faster.” I’m definitely not suggesting that we should all feel like we’re preparing to go all out with whatever projects and life goals we might have at the end of this, but in some ways, I’m thankful for the pause that was forced upon us. It’s allowed me to reflect on big questions like what my values are, why concerts need to exist and how, and outside of being a musician what am I? I have thought about these questions before the pandemic, but I feel I have a bit more time to process my thoughts and make plans for going forward while the world is moving at a slower pace. When it’s all over, I suppose some aspects of my life will go back to the way they were— performing, teaching, and presenting concerts—but I have a feeling I’ll be opening some new doors at the end of all of this…
Rory: Emily’s answer is perfect. What she said.
I LOVE how these two are adapting, and treating every situation as an opportunity to adapt and learn. With such positive vibes, these two music mover and shakers are bound to lift your spirits, but Rory wanted to mention that “if you’re feeling isolated or down, call someone and tell them how you’re feeling! Don’t be afraid to ask for help and support when you need it.”