From the November/December 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By E.E. Bradman
It’s a gross understatement to say that the coronavirus pandemic has affected us all. With most indoor gigs cancelled for the foreseeable future, guitar factories shut down for weeks, and the vast majority of brick-and-mortar music stores (and music schools) closed until next year, we have been forced to reconfigure our relationships to time, money, motivation, work, performance, the internet, and the future. Here at Acoustic Guitar, our offices have been closed since mid-March, and the “new normal” means working remotely to continue bringing you features, lessons, columns, and reviews.
In August we initiated a survey at acousticguitar.com asking you about the effects of the pandemic on your musical lives. We asked how your practice, gear-buying, and listening habits had changed and how you were dealing with the lack of live performance opportunities. What we learned from nearly 900 readers—a wide cross-section of amateurs and professionals, teachers and students, bandmembers, and solo performers—was fascinating, informative, sobering, and ultimately, inspiring.
IN THE SHED
For many of us, the first weeks of the pandemic represented new opportunities for quality time with our instruments. Commuters who could now work from home, often with guitars at arm’s reach, found more time to play. Several readers noted that it felt good to be picking up the guitar after a long time away. Indeed, many respondents were practicing more—and being disciplined about learning music they truly loved.
“I am much more intentional with my practice, and it seems to contain material congruent to my mood at the time,” wrote Debbie Wagner, of Appleton, WI. “It helps me to normalize things. And despite my hesitation sometimes to pick my guitar up, it always brings me a sense of peace and joy.” Other readers found that their practice routines were more specific, too. “I’m focusing more on music that really resonates with me. Rather than building a wide collection of pieces across all time periods, I’m narrowing my repertoire to music that truly speaks to me,” said Andy Jurik. “I’m digging deeper, fixing small errors and trying to keep musicality—not mechanics—at the forefront,” emphasized Dan Henkel.
Players like Scott Oviatt, from Palmer, AK, accustomed to preparing new material for performance, settled into a different pace. “When my wife and I were doing open mic nights two to three times a week, I felt a constant pressure to ram new material out even though it might not have been ready. Now that open mics have either gone kaput or are down to one a week, my practice time is spent developing a song more thoroughly, thoughtfully, and maturely.” The atmosphere of the times is certainly finding its way into the practice room, too. “I think I am getting darker,” Oviatt continued. “There’s more stress in life, more angst, and that is coming out in the music I listen to, as well as the music I write.”
On the other hand, some readers are finding it difficult to carve out time. The usual distractions—movies and TV, books and magazines, games, social media, daydreaming, procrastination—are more enticing than ever, and with increased family obligations and less privacy during lockdown, maintaining a steady regimen can be difficult. And then there are those whose work took precedence as a direct result of the pandemic.
“As a crematory manager, my job went into overdrive, and I had less time to practice and perform,” reported rumandsteeljon. “We were trying to livestream acoustic duo shows from home, but I was so overwhelmed with work that I didn’t have the energy.” Even casual playing made all the difference, however. “A few weeks into the height of the pandemic in Massachusetts, I took the guitar off the stand and really enjoyed the stress relief that playing gave me. I signed up for an online guitar course and I tried to get the guitar in my hands every day so I could pull my head away from my work and the uncertainty of what we were facing.”
Understandably, practicing is close to impossible for those who have contracted the virus, are working as primary caregivers, or are dealing with COVID-related depression and anxiety. Others miss the motivation of preparing for live gigs. “Without jams, open mics, or gigs to play, there has been less incentive to put in regular practice sessions. Also, less incentive to seek out new music to learn and play, and it’s kind of boring to work on the same material,” said Paul Rappell, from Kingston, Ontario. “When I do sit down in my music room, however, the feeling comes back and—old song or new—the involvement is there. I have decided to explore songs I haven’t tried before and see what can be adapted to styles I play.”
Considering that the coronavirus has hampered musicians’ ability to get together, many respondents have been working on solo guitar arrangements. “Since there is no interaction with other musicians, I am practicing solo pieces and digging deep for some feeling,” wrote Dean DeLorenzo.
Many readers seemed excited to work on music theory and ear training, and some were learning new techniques or styles—fingerpicking, flatpicking, alternate chord voicings, flamenco, Gypsy jazz, and experimenting with capos were all on the list. Readers like Bruce Adolph in Puyallup, WA, were experiencing epiphanies: “I tried an open-A tuning for the first time—it blew my mind!”
Others were trying out resonator or classical guitar, banjo, mandolin, or ukulele for the first time. “Since there are no live gigs or shows at the moment, I’m spending more time with instruments that had previously received short shrift practice-wise, specifically banjo and Weissenborn-style guitar. It’s helped. And it helps keep the latent depression from crystallizing,” wrote Eric Ramsey, of Phoenix, AZ, thanking Bruce Cockburn. Can’t make it to the salon to get your nails done? Start five-string banjo with thumbpick and fingerpicks, as one unnamed reader did.
TO BUY OR NOT TO BUY
Musicians who do consider picking up a new instrument face a major hurdle: Going into a store to try instruments is harder than ever. Most of those surveyed seem to be purchasing less, thanks to reduced income, closed storefronts, or apprehension about their financial futures. Some want to support their local music stores instead of shopping online, while others won’t buy an instrument without playing it first; several mentioned selling gear to make ends meet, and a few, like another unnamed reader, are “saving rather than spending.” As one respondent said, “I’m being extra special careful . . . gear can wait.”
Not all readers were so thrifty, however. The money they might’ve spent on restaurants, movies, and travel is now going to online retailers, and some were excited about new purchases and stimulus checks. “I got more money to spend on gear instead of drinking beer at the bars every night,” laughed Scott Oviatt. Optimistic pragmatism had its fans, too. “I am buying more stuff because I know this is temporary,” opined Ray McLean of Cambridge, Ontario, Canada, “and I’ll have the tools I need when I’m available.” Also, given how much more some have been playing, players are buying more strings and picks than usual. The prevailing sentiment, however, echoed Matthew Kelly, in Yangon, Myanmar, who wrote of “appreciating and wanting the gear that I have . . . I shop less and play more.”
Those who are spending money online are split between guitars and recording software, as well as effects pedals and loopers. With an uptick in online lessons—both given and taken—microphones, interfaces, better computers for Zoom, as well as livestreaming, podcasting, and video-editing essentials are hot items. “In order to be heard for online tutorials, I purchased a condenser mic. To record guitar, I purchased cables to connect my acoustic-electric and electric guitar to my computer by USB port,” reported Cate in Maryland. “I purchased a song- and video-slow-downer for practice, and audio software to record and edit my work to share with others.”
Although some readers aren’t listening to as much music as they did while commuting or going to the gym, most readers say their listening habits haven’t changed. In fact, many are making new discoveries and digging into old favorites. “I’m purposefully taking time to listen to artists I’ve always known of but haven’t checked out, as well as seminal recordings I’ve neglected for far too long,” said Andy Jurik.
Others, like Jody Cole, in Yorktown Heights, NY, are branching out into new territory. “I find that I am listening to music more often and turning to genres I normally do not consider in an effort to expand my repertoire and incorporate different styles into the music I already play.” And in an environment where the news cycle can be depressing, music makes all the difference. “When I first started working from home and businesses closed, I listened to news and information most of the day,” wrote brent.studer. “That got to be overwhelming, so I began listening to CDs that I hadn’t listened to for years.”
Sgaber1016 feels similarly. “I am digging into my stash of LPs and CDs that I have not played in a long time, getting reacquainted with all the recordings that made me want to learn how to play guitar.” And readers like b1kgiffo, in Kennewick, WA, found themselves “listening to a wider variety of music… and playing new things as a result.”
The effects of the coronavirus lockdown are tough on all of us, of course, but few have taken it as hard as professional performers, whose livelihoods vanished overnight. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of respondents expressed great frustration at months of cancelled gigs.
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“All of our gigs for the reminder of this year and into next have been cancelled, and my internet connection is too slow to do livestream concerts, so we are depending totally on royalties and album sales,” wrote Al Petteway, of Asheville, NC. “Gigs have gone from 50–60 a year to nonexistent,” reported m.asken. “Instead of playing five to six nights a week, I’m home creating videos to post to my Patreon page,” lamented Justin Allison, in Salida, CO.
A handful of readers are dealing with the shutdown by focusing on recording or songwriting—or in at least one case, building a guitar from scratch—while others mentioned performing in unusual venues, from front porches and driveway singalongs to “window concerts” for seniors. A couple mentioned using Zoom to play with friends around the country.
Although some respondents are making the transition to online gigs and jams, many of those surveyed aren’t tech savvy, can’t afford the technology, are dismayed that the audio is less than optimal, or feel disconnected from online audiences. It’s no surprise that most readers who answered the survey find that online shows are nowhere near being a substitute for live performance.
THE VIRTUAL CLASSROOM
One group that is thriving in the online environment is teachers. Andy Jurik, for example, said, “I had already taught online, so the transition was not terribly difficult. Frankly, the screen share and whiteboard options on Zoom are fantastic.” Others note that although there are difficulties with latency, as well as the loss of tonal nuance and feel, they make it work. “It’s frustrating not to be able to [do things like] adjust students’ hand positions. I find a disconnect with students virtually,” wrote Mari Yancho from Goodrich, Michigan. “On the other hand, students are still able to learn, so we do what needs to be done.” The results may be mixed, but the technology has been a godsend to those able to maintain their teaching studios during this time.
Meanwhile, respondents are picking things off YouTube, taking lessons via Skype, or signing up at portals like Guitar Mastery Intensive, Tony’s Acoustic Challenge, Groove3, and truefire.com, highlighting the fact that there’s enough info online to last several lifetimes. “I am practicing more,” commented djusullivan, “but I am also overwhelmed sometimes because of all the content on the internet. I have trouble staying with a routine.”
TAKING SOLACE IN MUSIC
If you’re like us, you probably recognize yourself in many of these responses. In the last several months, it seems that many of us have experienced the six stages of grief—denial about the severity of the virus, anger toward authorities or those who see the virus differently, bargaining with ourselves and others about survival, depression about lost opportunities and uncertain futures, acceptance of the “new normal,” and finding meaning in our current predicament. In fact, it’s been such a rollercoaster that a survey over a longer period of time would probably illustrate wild fluctuations across the full spectrum of happiness and distress.
The truth is that no one knows when our COVID-19 nightmare will join the 1918 influenza pandemic as a distant memory from bygone days. In the meantime, we can be grateful that as musicians we have an outlet during these intense times. Numerous AG readers reinforced our belief that taking refuge in music will get us through, calling it “an escape,” “a great break from the sideways times we are living in,” and “a source of comfort,” while confiding that playing guitar “helps preserve my sanity in these trying times” and “brings me peace.”
“Although we are living in very challenging times, I have the pleasure of teaching many students the love of music, as well as becoming a better musician,” wrote guitar instructor rhambomusic. “I’ve always wanted to lock myself in my home and just practice, and now, I have not only embraced this time to play beautiful music, I also have helped many of my students to blossom. I’m so happy that I have music to lift my spirits up during a time like this!”