Local musicians band together to play music on the porch

— Created August 26, 2020 by Kathy Reed

By Kathy Reed

Saturday, between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m., step outside and see if you can hear it – the soft strumming of a guitar, the pleasant plinking of piano keys, the brassy tones of a trombone or maybe the plucky rhythm of a stand up bass. Whatever the instrument or melody, keep an ear out for the Whidbey Island musicians joining in the fun of Play Music on the Porch Day. (playmusicontheporchday.com)

Founded by visual artist Brian Mallman in 2013, the annual event – always the last Saturday in August – has grown to include thousands of musicians from more than 70 countries, and is based on a simple premise: “What if for one day everything stopped…and we all just listened to the music?”

No one needs reminding 2020 has been a difficult year thus far. Performing artists have been hit particularly hard, with live theaters closed, live music not allowed and group sizes severely limited by the COVID-19 pandemic. The disease has impacted everything – even Play Music on the Porch Day, which is recommending masks and social distancing.

Whidbey Weekly reached out to several musicians on the island. Some knew about the event, others had never heard of it, but all of them gave the idea an enthusiastic thumbs up and many are planning to join in the fun.

“We like the idea of musicians performing around the world in concert, in a collaborative way,” said Kristi O’Donnell, who will be participating with her partner in life and in music, her husband, Keith Bowers. “Personally, I think it will raise a harmonic tone in the atmosphere here on earth. This is needed, especially at this time.”

“This seems like a good way to reach out to the community and share music, especially during this difficult time,” said Patrice Weed Shearer, associate concertmaster (violin) with Saratoga Orchestra of Whidbey Island. “It also gives me a chance to share what I love, which is performing.”

“I love the idea of people around the world connecting with their neighbors through music,” said Oak Harbor High School Choral Director Darren McCoy, who will participate with his wife, Heather. “Music wasn’t always something that only experts did on the radio. It was something you heard at barn dances, carnivals, or ceremonies and most importantly, made by the people in your community. I think this is a nice way of getting back to just sharing something simple with the people that live near you.”

“This is my first year participating and I’ve decided to do so because it’s extremely important to share music with others,” said Jordan George, who grew up in Oak Harbor and is studying music performance at Central Washington University in Ellensburg. “I feel like my neighbors, family and myself need to take a second, especially during these difficult times, to listen and escape from reality and feel the emotions that music brings to them. The hardest part about being a musician during a worldwide pandemic is that I can’t do the very thing I’m going to school for, perform. I’m very excited to see how my neighbors feel about the tuba!”

For many of these musicians, the year has not only meant a loss of income, but for some a deeper, more intense feeling of a loss of their musical community.

“I really miss performing, as well as working with my brass ensembles,” said Sean Brown, principal horn player with Saratoga Orchestra and a private music instructor. “I miss playing together with my students in their lessons. Plus, I’ve lost half of my income because of not being able to perform or have my student ensembles, as well as some of my students who quit lessons.”

“The pandemic has affected us in several ways, all deeply,” said O’Donnell. “Firstly, I miss playing with my bands and friends (Trio Nouveau and The Hot Club of Troy). I miss playing music out for the people who love our music. To date, we have missed 30 live performances since March, including festivals, weddings and local shows. I miss the energy we create through our music. I miss the rigorous playing and rehearsals to keep this music ‘under my fingers,’ as we say.”

“Our band ‘Bahia’ has been in playing on the island for 22 years and we joke COVID killed our tenacious band,” said Dale Fuentes, who said the group has already been getting together and playing on the porch, although they aren’t playing Saturday. “We are all former gigging musicians and we still play because we love the feedback from a live audience.”

“I miss the lack of connection to our fellow musicians and audiences,” agreed Larry Heidel, Saratoga Orchestra’s executive director and principal trombone player. “Also realizing that different scientific studies are pointing to the fact that the performing arts sector, and large ensembles in particular, will be the last to open up.”

“The disappointment of not making music seems small compared to lives lost,” noted Erica Montgomery, percussionist for Saratoga Orchestra and retired principal timpanist for the U.S. Air Force Band in Washington, D.C. “It makes me, along with many of my friends, anxious to imagine a future that’s ‘normal.’ It puts us all in an uncomfortable place of uncertainty. I just hope that unity can bring folks to all [help] to make this pandemic as short as possible.”

Other musicians said they have found unique ways to connect with one another during this unusual time.

“For me, as a working musician sans performance, I decided to challenge myself to a 100-day musical project,” said Louise Fiori, assistant principal viola with Saratoga Orchestra. “I got out my viola, put on new strings and fell in love again with simple musical sounds. Hugged scales and arpeggios and tried on some Bach.

“Day 67, tired of doing this alone, I realized that this pandemic was not going away and I needed to explore safe ways to connect with other musicians,” Fiori continued. “It was time to look at my relationship to music from a 21st century perspective. I found an online musical workshop for 12 weeks. Using Zoom, we connected with over 200 musicians from around the world! Now I feel refreshed and excited to explore new possibilities. Music keeps me sane.”

“I missed having musical projects during the pandemic, so I cleaned out this old ‘concrete room’ and made it a hip space for all things drums,” said Montgomery.

“During this time, the pandemic helped me connect with musicians around the world, which gave me a sense of purpose,” said O’Donnell. “We produced two videos together, as The Hot Club of Lockdown. E Sarah Carter, famous Lord of the Dance fiddler, is the brainchild of this project. She lives in England, David Ahmed the guitarist lives in London and Thomas William Dostal, drummer, is in Seattle.

“Three of us had never played together before,” she continued. “We orchestrated the videos to tunes Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappellrecorded. David Ahmed is also super creative designing the video program, and Sarah and all of us chimed in to help. The end results are super fun and have been viewed by thousands the globe ‘round. It is bringing joy to people at this time of chaos and separation.” (Find the videos here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=a4g6mTUn3RI and www.youtube.com/watch?v=53gHC4vYrz8.)

Whether playing on the porch or not, all the musicians Whidbey Weekly heard from say music can bring people together, even at a time it’s necessary to be apart.

“We have known the power of music therapy for hundreds, if not thousands, of years,” said McCoy. “Music is one of the most powerful ways of changing a person’s mood or attitude. Within seconds, your favorite songs can wash away a rough day at work, jog wonderful memories, or even help you cope with being cooped up with nothing to do except yard work and laundry. For me, a Guinness and some Ella Fitzgerald goes a long way to lowering my blood pressure.”

“I can always count on music to be there for me,” Brown shared. “Nothing can ever take it away. I enjoy it so much that listening to it, making it and playing it will always make me happy. I think hearing music, particularly live, classical music, is a good escape from everyday life for everyone, and the quality and artfulness of music can speak to anyone.”

“Music really can not only bring joy, sorrow, nostalgia and peace to people, but it’s an international language we can all identify with,” Montgomery said. “It’s a ‘joining place.'”

“Music brings us together,” said O’Donnell. “It brings us joy and a way to communicate, to be creative with each other. This is a great time to learn how to play an instrument! Plenty of time is available, and there are tons of classes online.”

“I’d like to think that musicians, artists, writers, actors, dancers, etc. are the second wave of essential workers,” Heidel said. “Being able to share our talents for the community can bring healing not only for the consumers but the artists.” 

“It may sound corny, but it does soothe the soul,” said Weed Shearer. “Picking up my violin or viola and playing is probably the best therapy for me. It gives me hope. I recently was able to get together and play with my quartet and do a couple of weddings (with social distancing). All of us were so excited to be able to play music together. I don’t think we will ever take what we are able to do as musicians for granted again.”