Beyond the bridge

Coronavirus strikes a chord as Island musicians hunker down for a long winter.


With cases of COVID-19 on the rise in Martha’s Vineyard, Island musicians are poised for a long winter, and while the change of season is often cause for creative inspiration, this year it looks a lot like going back to the drawing board. The Times spoke with six music industry professionals to take the temperature of the local music scene.

Now on the other side of a long summer with no touring, many musicians who would otherwise make their living through live performance have turned to alternative sources of income, like commercial fishing, landscaping, cleaning, and masonry work. One artist who spoke with The Times noted a loss of “easily five figures” from live sound engineering and performance alone this year, while another says, “I am a firm believer that you have to have backup plans.”

Liz DiSessa has worked as a touring drummer, and currently owns the booking agency Heart Roots Music, in addition to lending her talents to the teen center Alex’s Place at the YMCA. DiSessa is sanguine about the current state of affairs, saying, “I’m optimistic on the creative side, but I’m very concerned regarding what the business model could be. I think that’s going to be a challenge.”

Indeed, with music venues shuttering across the country, many artists find themselves out in the cold this winter, but the retreat indoors has not been without its benefits. “When everyone started quarantining, I felt like I had more time to study and work on my craft and write songs,” says international touring artist and founding member of Firstbourne Mike Kerr (whose forthcoming album can be expected in February 2021). “This is my chance to get on the next level with guitar,” Kerr says, “I started taking lessons to learn how to read and write music, because I’ve always played by ear.”

It’s a sentiment that Kerr’s fellow musicians echo, as Jessie Leaman of the Edbury All-Stars tells The Times: “It’s a great time to get back in touch with your guitar.” Iconic frontman of Johnny Hoy and the Bluefish Johnny Hoy elaborates on the musical tension of the moment: “There’s the economic part of it, and then the soul part of it,” Hoy says. “You depend on being a musician for a part of your soul, it keeps you whole, and there’s a lot of people who get that same thing by listening to it.”

It’s true that as live music exited the building this year, many fans flocked to online platforms to get their musical kicks, but for many, the novelty has worn off, leaving artists to assess whether the virtual world can be sustainable without high-quality audio setups and powerful streaming servers. DiSessa puts it more succinctly: “I think everybody is done trying to do a show on a phone,” she says. She offers up a vision for the future: “I think we are still sorting through, and I think theater is going to be involved, and graphics will be involved, and storytelling, and I think it is going to end up being something different.”

As artists adapt to more virtual creative settings, many have found a refuge in the world of teaching. Andy Herr wore many musical hats before COVID-19 struck, but now Herr is moving more deeply into teaching. “It’s the most important thing of all the things I do,” Herr told The Times, “and largely I’ve been able to do that on Zoom.” The same is true for David Stanwood of West Tisbury, who has garnered acclaim as an improviser and Hall of Fame piano technician. “People all over the country and the world have been contacting me,” Stanwood tells The Times, “And I’ve been doing personal mentoring online at a level I’ve never had before.” It seems clear that while the trend of virtual concerts cools down, the online instruction world is just heating up.

Each Island musician surveyed by The Times ended his or her comments with an eye toward the future and an optimistic outlook, but it’s not for lack of suffering. “I’m certainly not feeling as passionate as I normally do, because most of what I enjoy about music I cannot experience right now,” says Herr, “but I’m taking my own small steps to make it better.” While it is clear that COVID-19 has taken a deep emotional and professional toll on local artists, each individual puts the crisis in perspective, and concludes with gratitude. “It’s a terrible thing that’s happening, but any cloud has a silver lining, and there is always something to be optimistic about,” says Stanwood. “Here we are in this bad situation, but that’s an opportunity for goodness.”

Perhaps Leaman put it most poetically when she told The Times, “Corona feels like a game of musical chairs — the music stops, and there you are.”