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Performing During the Pandemic by Tyler Burchfield

Updated: Nov 21, 2020

Thoughts and experiences on the time off and the adjustments upon return

When live music and entertainment shut down as a result of COVID-19, we professional musicians had to re-imagine not just how we’d make up for the lost income, but how we’d stay connected to their craft and their musical communities. Although there’s no substitute for the real thing, many of us have come together and made remote online video performances, improved our online teaching logistics, and taken time to expand our skill sets. However, this summer and fall, as COVID-19 became a little more manageable and the weather was good for it, some of us got a sweet — albeit modified — taste of the gig life that had eluded them for the previous five months. As for myself, I went from March 9 to August 29 without playing live music with another human being. Since then, I’ve only done so about four other times. Since starting piano lessons in an ensemble-heavy studio at age four, I’d never gone more than a few weeks without playing music with another person, even if it was just my teacher. When my August 29 performance, a livestream from Shapeshifter Lab with the Bobby Spellman Nonet, was approaching, I imagined an emotional, cathartic reunion, not just with my bandmates, but with the music and the job as their own entities. There were fleeting moments where I felt those things. There were many other moments where it felt like I hadn’t missed a day. But one area that caught me off guard was that of the more tangible challenges that come with a return to performance during the ongoing pandemic. I consider most of these challenges to fall into two main categories: the logistical modifications required to put on a safe and legal performance and as the personal adjustments from having been out of the routine for so long. As far as logistics, Shapeshifter was required to follow specific protocols, including temperature checks, spacing requirements, mask mandate (except for wind instruments while playing), and a strict no food or beverage policy outside of water. I understand and am grateful for all of these policies. After all, as an extrovert, my instinct has been to ask during these times, “How can we do this safely?” rather than, “Should we do this?” That said, the sterile environment coming from greeting my bandmates with no more than a fist bump, having a thermometer pointed at my forehead, standing six feet apart from my fellow musicians on stage, and having to scarf down pizza around the corner was a tad jarring. I’m glad that the venue was large enough to accommodate nine musicians on the stage standing six feet apart, but it did create acoustical and interactive challenges that we’re not used to in the jazz environment. To contrast the strict legal protocols required to play Shapeshifter, when Dingonek Street Band decided to join the other brass bands’ attempts at busking in downtown Manhattan, the safety protocols were ours to impose upon ourselves (or not). Washington Square Park and the surrounding areas were generally peaceful, yet still very lively and dense with not-always-masked New Yorkers. While officials, including police officers, did not enforce mask ordinances or six-foot distances for bands (or seemingly anyone else), I still took it upon myself to perform in a paper mask with a hole cut out for the mouthpiece, so that my nose could still be covered. The facts and figures around aerosol travel through wind instruments are still being debated by those much more qualified than myself, so I considered it better to be safe than sorry. Dingonek parked at about a dozen spots around the West Village over the courts of about three hours, playing entirely for tips. In order to get the tips safely, one of us (usually me) took a grabber/pick-up tool (what do people call these things?), grabbed a candy bucket, and approached the listeners from a distance to solicit tips. Whether it was because they liked the music, appreciated the safety precautions, or simply got a kick out of the spectacle, it seemed to work!

As for personal adjustments, my brain came up with a few entries of on-brand catastrophization that didn’t bear out. Will I remember how to play? Will I remember how to read? Will I be so overcome with emotion that I’ll forget what I’m doing? No on all three counts. But a few other unanticipated issues did come up. For one, the only playing I did from March to August was in my bedroom/home studio for teaching, practicing, or recording projects, and I did not guess that the routine of setting up at the venue would become rusty. It took me longer than usual to set up my horns and stands, and for a while, I was sure that I’d left my neckstrap at home, but thankfully I’d just set it aside in a way that I normally don’t. My page-staging game also turned out to be out of practice, which made it a little awkward on a couple songs. (Those of you who play long, multi-page arrangements know what I mean).

Another major area of unanticipated difficulty was air support. I primarily perform on baritone sax, but as a teacher (and as a polite tenant in the work-from-home atmosphere) I kept most of my playing at home on alto sax and clarinet. As such, I hadn’t put in as much time on the bari as I was used to and I felt that my air support, and consequently, my tone and power suffered a little bit, especially on the low notes. To add to this, my brain and body weren’t used to performing — no stopping, no “punching in” on the recording software, etc. — for over an hour straight. This didn’t result in any major errors, but a little bit of sloppiness and almost-missed entrances for which I can forgive myself. The other people in each ensemble could relate.

All things considered, I’m extremely happy to have gotten to play a few times between late August and mid October. Between an uptick in COVID cases and the colder weather, it doesn’t look like there will be many of these opportunities left for a while. I’ll have to be grateful for these experiences and remember the necessary adjustments for when things open up again. Until then, I’ll hunker down for a winter of online lessons and remote video collaborations.


About the Author

Brooklyn-based musician Tyler Burchfield is gaining critical acclaim on the East Coast as a multi-instrumentalist, composer, arranger, and teacher. Tyler’s experience ranges from small group improvisation to large ensemble composition and arrangement, utilizing a host of influences from the jazz, rock, soul, and classical traditions, emphasizing a sensitivity to melody and texture.  Originally from Gainesville, Florida, Tyler was exposed to many musical influences growing up, beginning Suzuki piano lessons at age 4 and listening to classic oldies on the car radio. Throughout middle and high school, he learned in many instruments, including guitar, bass, drums, flute, and clarinet, and ultimately chose saxophone as his primary performing instrument. After earning music degrees from the University of Miami and the New England Conservatory, Tyler spent the following five years as a freelance musician in Boston, as well as touring the United States and beyond. As a co-leader of the Burchfield-Vituri Project with Brazilian guitarist Pedro Vituri, he completed a Brazilian mini-tour in 2015 and released the ensemble’s debut album, Metonímia, in March 2018.  As a regular performer with Dan Gabel Music, Tyler showcased both his performing and arranging skills in traditional jazz settings, performing in every woodwind chair in the Abletones Big Band as well as the 10-piece High Society Orchestra. From 2014 to 2017, he was a regular, touring member of experimental Afro-funk powerhouse Big Mean Sound Machine, and appeared on their 2017 album Runnin’ for the Ghost. Since its inception in 2016, Tyler has been traveling the northeast with New York-based improvisatory brass project Dingonek Street Band, with whom he can be heard on baritone sax and percussion on their February 2018 debut album, Primal Economics. In addition to these projects, Tyler is a saxophonist, keyboardist, and musical director of one of New England’s most versatile wedding and event bands, The Ward Eights. As a commissioned composer and arranger, Tyler has written for big band, small jazz ensemble, chamber groups, full symphony orchestra, and pop bands. His arrangements have been played by the Cambridge Symphony Orchestra, Elise Roth and the Harvard Squares, and Dan Gabel and the Abletones, to name a few. In addition to performing and writing, Tyler has an active roster of private woodwind and piano students in New York and is on faculty at the Great Neck Music Conservatory. Tyler’s hobbies include adventurous home cooking, fantasy basketball, listening to podcasts, learning Portuguese, and spending time with friends, especially in Brooklyn, where he lives with his friendly cat, Franklin.

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