Musicians in Mourning: Pandemic Steals Performances in Youngstown Community

By Frances Clause

Mellifluous sounds of vocal and instrumental music take listeners’ ears on a journey from the first note to the last. But many performers in the Youngstown community did not expect their last note to come so soon.

Coping with coronavirus precautions became difficult for performers around the world when public spaces, including concert halls and other music venues, shut down.

In addition, President Donald Trump issued guidelines to avoid social gatherings of 10 or more people – many less than who would typically fill an audience at Stambaugh Auditorium or the DeYor Performing Arts Center.

For Youngstown musicians, this has caused a detrimental effect on how they will continue to make a living – including musicians at Youngstown State University who are now trying to finish their degree online.

Randall Goldberg, director of the Dana School of Music, sent an email to students on March 14 stating the school is working diligently to assure the continuity of students’ education.

“All events including concerts, guest artists, student recitals, etc., have been cancelled. Students will not be penalized if they cannot perform a public recital,” the email stated.

Cody Tonkinson, a junior piano performance major, said he had already planned his junior recital and marked other ensemble performances in his calendar. Although he can’t perform, he believes it’s important for musicians to keep moving forward.

“The amount of work that students put into these performances is unreal; it’s why we’re here as performance majors,” he said. “[The seniors] have helped shape my three years here at the Dana School, and I can’t thank them enough.”

Brynn McCullough is one of these seniors and is graduating with a violin performance degree. She said the initial news of finishing the semester online left her heartbroken.

“Since this is my last semester, I will not get to see my friends before I graduate,” she said. “My senior recital has been canceled along with the [Dana] chamber orchestra concert and strings showcase.”

McCullough said she can’t comprehend how courses like keyboard musicianship and aural theory will be taught online.

“I practice between three to four hours, six days a week learning [musical repertoire] and practicing technique,” she said. “It’s very difficult to have an online ensemble.”

However, McCullough is already familiar with online platforms to teach music lessons of her own. TakeLessons is a platform she has used since 2017, where prescreened music teachers, academic tutors, dance, acting and foreign language instructors can connect to students, according to the site.

Cody Tonkinson, a junior piano performance major, performing onstage before recitals and concerts were cancelled due to the spread of coronavirus. Photo courtesy of Cody Tonkinson

“If [musicians] can survive this, we can survive anything,” McCullough said

Information about music juries, which are required for Dana students to pass each semester, is being released to students of each department in the Cliffe College of Creative Arts and Communication. Students are encouraged to check their emails.

Coronavirus Outbreak Cannot Break Local Theater

When news of the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread, Robert Dennick Joki, founder of the Rust Belt Theater Company, said he never expected the situation would escalate so quickly.

“When the ‘events over 100 people’ ban was announced, I began to worry,” he said. “Our theater space is an intimate one, and we generally perform for audiences of 30 to 50.”

However, when the recommended gathering was reduced to 10 people, the Rust Belt Theater’s entire season was canceled.

“After much tearful deliberation, we have decided to close our doors to the public until the major threat of this pandemic has passed. It is the socially responsible thing to do,” the Rust Belt Theater Facebook page posted March 15.

The theater’s current musical, “MISS TUESDAY NIGHT: The Drag Pageant Musical,” was set for live performances on Fridays and Saturdays in March, starting March 13. Months of preparation were poured into the production.

“At the Rust Belt Theater, we produce locally written material, so between writing, designing, directing, rehearsing and performing, we are typically working on three to four shows at any given time,” Dennick Joki said.

“We are a small theater company that survives entirely off ticket sales,” he added. “So for our latest musical to have been produced but not able to open is a very difficult situation.”

But this didn’t stop the theater. A livestream of the “MISS TUESDAY NIGHT” performance was scheduled for Facebook viewers on March 20 at 8 p.m.

Dean La Salandra, who plays Ana LeCage in the musical, said the livestream is an idea several theater members proposed because they wanted their countless hours of work to be known.

“People need the arts, especially at a time like this,” he said. “My hope is that in the gray, vitamin D deficient world we live in, we can bring a little light.”

Many performances, from symphonies to musicals, are moving to livestreaming services to bring this light to viewers’ digital devices.

According to USA Today, Marquee TV, the “arts and culture version” of Netflix, carries on-demand opera, ballet, contemporary dance and theater productions with a free one-month trial. Similar streaming services include All Arts, BroadwayHD and YouTube.

The Rust Belt Theater Company’s performance of “MISS TUESDAY NIGHT” was live-streamed on Facebook for their audiences when it’s March performances were canceled due to coronavirus concerns.

Although performers are finding a way to cope and continue their passion, concerns are still high.

Nicole Zayas, who has performed in numerous Rust Belt Theater shows, said the actors are volunteers who often work in the service industry to pay their bills – something that is becoming more difficult with the COVID-19 outbreak.

“With restaurants and bars closing, adjustments and reducing opportunities for [performers] to make money, they will be struggling to support themselves and feed their families,” she said.

Supporters are encouraged to donate to the theater’s GoFundMe page, titled “2020 Rust Belt Theater Season.”

“[We] hope that people watch the show and donate to our GoFundMe so that we can continue to have productions after the dust settles from this virus,” Zayas said.

Until then, the Youngstown music and performing arts community believes the show must go on – even if the performances are stuck in the digital world for now.

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