Houston Artists' Silver Linings Songbook: A Pause for Grief and Searching For What's Next

Abby Veliz leads her Garfield Elementary students in song at a holiday program in December 2019.
Abby Veliz leads her Garfield Elementary students in song at a holiday program in December 2019. Photo by Gladys Treviño
Before COVID-19 halted arts and music industries around the world, Garfield Elementary general music educator Abby Veliz was in the process of booking a performance for her students with the Houston Dash. Veliz, an HSPVA and UH graduate, was also prepping her kindergarteners and 4th graders for their end-of-year graduation performances — opportunities now gone.

Grieving a loss — whether it be over a loved one, a compromised career, or a potential performance at BBVA Compass Stadium with your students — is only human; but, crises of this magnitude present more immediate demands: adaptability, innovation, community. traits that, after Harvey, became the Houstonian Crest. In the midst of the coronavirus, Veliz says her family at Garfield Elementary in Pasadena ISD is finding its way through the unknown.

“We are a team and we work together. We are intimidated; we're all worried; but we are ready to learn and to basically attack this head on because we want to be reaching out to the kids that we can,” says Veliz.

In 2008, Houston ISD closed for some two weeks in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike; in 2017, closures began on the district’s first scheduled day of classes. Students that remember those fall semesters might tell you how those academic school years never quite recovered. Syllabi were altered. Lesson plans were scrapped. Moods in the classroom were...weird. The coronavirus pandemic — well past its two-week closure mark — is not Ike; nor is it Harvey. Both storms had ends in sight with textbook disaster relief plans. COVID-19 has little to no reference point.

“One [aspect] that's super new is that everybody's experiencing this newness. Nobody has really done this. Sure, there are teachers out there that teach via the internet or online but for the most part, most teachers that are currently in the public school system have never experienced this," Veliz says. "Our Fine Arts departments have never had to lead this kind of curriculum online. There's so much. There's so many different possibilities - it's difficult to streamline.”

After trial and error with resources such as Google Classroom, Garfield Elementary settled on Flipgrid for their students’ remote learning. Many students in the Houston metro area have seen their private music lessons follow suit adopting remote formats.
click to enlarge Michael Karash was set to perform in Pure Country at TUTS before their season was canceled. - PHOTO BY KRISTINE CANTERBURY / CANTERBURY PHOTOGRAPHY
Michael Karash was set to perform in Pure Country at TUTS before their season was canceled.
Photo by Kristine Canterbury / Canterbury Photography

Michael Karash of Katy ISD now takes piano, voice, and drum lessons online via Skype, FaceTime, and Zoom. Like Veliz’s students, 12-year-old Karash has also forfeited performance opportunities due to the coronavirus, albeit of a different nature.

Karash, a rising young actor at Theatre Under the Stars, has an already stacked resume behind him (last year’s Ragtime and Jerome Robbins’ Broadway at TUTS, and a leading role in Opera in the Heights’ Amahl and the Night’s Visitor) and, up until recently, had a stacked season ahead. A small principal role in the world premiere of Pure Country and ensemble roles in Newsies and The Music Man at Miller Outdoor Theatre were all in the works.

The harsh consequence of socially distancing amid a pandemic rendered the remainder of TUTS’ season impossible. For season ticket holders, these shows’ cancellations might be an easier pill to swallow than it is for their performers, particularly young ones in formative years of their artistry.

“I kind of got a little bit upset, but then on the other hand I was like: ‘Okay, you know, I'll have other chances.’ My brother was also supposed to be in Newsies and The Music Man and he was even more devastated because [they were] the first shows that he got ever at TUTS,” says Michael of his 7-year-old brother Daniel, who said he was sad, disappointed, “and even cried.”

Wiley DeWeese returned to Houston after his off-Broadway engagement with Whisper House was canceled. - PHOTO BY CHRIS MCCARRELL
Wiley DeWeese returned to Houston after his off-Broadway engagement with Whisper House was canceled.
Photo by Chris McCarrell

A week before the curtain fell on the remainder of the TUTS’ season, the coronavirus descended upon Broadway faster than The Phantom of the Opera’s prop chandelier’s crash to the stage. Music director and HSPVA alum Wiley DeWeese was in rehearsal for the New York premiere of Whisper House, an off-Broadway musical written by Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening) and Kyle Jarrow (Spongebob Squarepants: The Broadway Musical), when the show - set to have its first preview performance that night - met its fate.

“We got the news that Broadway was shutting down and then within the next hour, the theater that Whisper House was being performed in made the call that they were shutting down until the end of the month. So we left that day hoping that we were going to resume performances at the beginning of April and then very quickly realized that wasn't a feasible timeline.

So the show was just suspended indefinitely until we know more and [then it was] officially cancelled,” says DeWeese, who made his Broadway debut last Fall as music director of The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical. When his shows shuttered (he was also involved in the Bob Dylan musical Girl From the North Country), DeWeese vacated New York, Houston-bound just two days later.

“I think that as soon as all of my jobs evaporated in an instance, I thought since I had no reason at that point to stay in New York it made sense to go to a place that was less densely populated.”

click to enlarge HSPVA alum Emileigh Vandiver's first season with the Dallas Symphony came to an early end at the hands of the COVID-19 pandemic. - PHOTO BY KAITLIN MORENO
HSPVA alum Emileigh Vandiver's first season with the Dallas Symphony came to an early end at the hands of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Photo by Kaitlin Moreno
Orchestras of all sizes around the country are reeling, falling next in line in the domino effect of regional arts institutions shuttering for, in the best case scenario, the time being. Former Houston Symphony Orchestra cellist Emileigh Vandiver comes from a family of musicians. Both of her parents were public school music educators. Her mom taught orchestra; her dad, choir. Vandiver, another HSPVA graduate, has spent her life steeping in the classical music machine: countless hours of practice and rigorous training in a highly competitive, oft unforgiving, world.

After her time with HSO, Vandiver began her first season with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra last Fall. When that season closed prematurely like Houston’s, Vandiver returned to Houston to quarantine. She says that all of the assumptions she thought she could make about the stability of even the country’s most financially sound orchestras are no longer safe to make.

“It is really day to day who will be able to weather this storm. It won't necessarily make sense and you won't necessarily see it coming which means you have to be in this state of alarm. You're watching people that aren't in tenured track positions. Freelancers, you're seeing them, well, filing for unemployment. It's really heartbreaking,” says Vandiver. “I also think that my bubble — and I use that word intentionally — is so tiny. I mean it is really just artisans, musicians, well educated people. Seeing them scrambling - it's a really shocking experience and it's waves of shock. It has not subsided at all. Actually, we are looking at each other and thinking: ‘This is the hardest thing and are we going to make it?’”

click to enlarge Jesse Clevenger, French Horn, Houston Symphony. - PHOTO BY REGGIE MATHALONE
Jesse Clevenger, French Horn, Houston Symphony.
Photo by Reggie Mathalone
Her boyfriend Jesse Clevenger, who plays French Horn in the Houston Symphony and comes from a monstrously musical family (both of his parents were staples in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra), says “we're not exactly so far seeing a Renaissance for classical musicians right now. It's basically nothing but a problem.”

Vandiver says that classical musicians now faced with an abundance of free time do have some liberating opportunities at hand: play repertoire they intrinsically want to play, dive deep into practicing technique, or take a break entirely to heal. Still, uncertainty paints a backdrop of questions regarding the return of symphonies’ live performances.

“I dare to even say it out loud but will we have the seasons and the number of concerts and the live events that we’ve had? Is the 52-week orchestra going to be a thing of the past now because the show’s too expensive to maintain? Or are we going to come out of this and find that our world’s perspective has adjusted and that people are thirsty to go to a concert?”

Audiences are already parched.

click to enlarge Fans, artists, writers, photographers, venues, sound designers, and stage hands all depend on the well being of the live concert industry. - PHOTO BY JOHN AMAR
Fans, artists, writers, photographers, venues, sound designers, and stage hands all depend on the well being of the live concert industry.
Photo by John Amar
Before music became commercially available to the masses in the 20th century, it was a strictly live medium; audiences experienced sonatas, symphonies, and chamber music in person at concert halls. Turn your music history textbook a couple of hundred pages and couple of hundred years later to the chapter on a pre-Napster music industry where music had transformed into a tangible, consumable product thanks to recording technology and big box retailers. Recording artists no longer needed to tour to deliver their music to audiences.

Yes, they went out on the road - it just wasn’t too necessary with revenue from robust album sales (remember when *NSYNC sold a million albums in a day?).

Then Napster happened. Album sales exponentially declined; artists began touring out of necessity to make up for lost revenue; and for the better part of the decade that followed, the recording music industry toiled over how to restore the glory days of physical sales, never quite accepting the reality that those days were gone in the time it took an illegally shared file to download on a DSL connection.

When streaming services came along, audiences and labels were tepid at first. But by the time the numbers proved an uptick in recorded music revenue, the live music industry was booming (concert industry giant Live Nation grossed $11.55 billion in 2019), prepared to meet its now democratized streaming sector at the industry’s new normal. Then another invisible threat swept in, as Napster once did, and pulled the plug.

The live entertainment industry is no stranger to swift responses to outside physical threats. After Las Vegas’ Route 91 Harvest Music Festival endured a massacre at the hands of an active shooter, Chicago music festival Lollapalooza tightened security with circling helicopters, shining light into Grant Park’s surrounding hotels and skyscrapers scanning for any suspicious activity. When a suicide bomber terrorized an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, her future tour security measures landed just a step or two away from those of TSA checkpoints.

Other acts have taken more proactive efforts in the past to protect the creative content of their performances. On Dave Chappelle and Jon Stewart’s 2018 limited co-headlining venture, venues sealed every patron’s cell phone shut in a Yondr pouch that could be opened only after the performance upon exiting the venue, or in certain designated, monitored, areas of the venues, to prevent audiences from filming their sets. The tactic worked. Chappelle was able to maintain recycle material from that outing for future Netflix specials.

Should history repeat itself, venues will find a way to safely reopen in a post-coronavirus society. Doors could open significantly earlier to allow room and time for socially distanced lines and staggered entrances inside the venue. Perhaps temperature checks become regular parts of security screenings. A normal temperature reading (and a ticket, of course) scores a fan entry into the venue along with a free face mask. Artists could capitalize on that and sell custom designed masks as merchandise.

Merch booths and concession stands could collect payment from apps instead of a touchscreen kiosk bound to encounter thousands of fingertips in a night. Whatever those solutions are, it's impossible to know right now when to deploy them as venues face the paramount concern of surviving (at least) the coming year on an empty calendar.

click to enlarge Karo Cantú was one of a handful of photographers in the photo pit at Tame Impala's sold out White Oak Music Hall concert on October 5, 2019. - PHOTO BY KARO CANTÚ
Karo Cantú was one of a handful of photographers in the photo pit at Tame Impala's sold out White Oak Music Hall concert on October 5, 2019.
Photo by Karo Cantú
Music photographer Karo Cantú is a Houston music scene mainstay. She’s photographed numerous local recording artists, and an impromptu photo shoot with Neon Indian at Raven Tower yielded a Pitchfork placement last year. In a pre-corona music industry, she could be found photographing seemingly every live touring act that graced stages at White Oak Music Hall and Satellite Bar. She was set to photograph Orville Peck, MGMT, Little Jesus, and Post Animal this month. Now those precious photo pit moments of ‘first three songs, no flash’ are gone for the foreseeable future. Cantú’s optimism, however, is not.

“I feel like I finally have time to work on my personal things. Unfortunately it's a little sad but it's inspiring for me. I feel like I should be capturing what's going on right now but I just don't know how yet. As far as shows — yeah, it sucks. I feel like I can’t be creative. I mean, that's my second nature. I feel incomplete; I miss it; and it sucks. I feel like as much as I even have my full-time job, I feel like I'm unemployed in a sense just because I can't go take pictures and I was looking forward to a lot of shows this month,” says Cantú, noting that although photographing live music isn’t an option right now, there is still demand for portraits.

“It's one of those [situations] like, well we can't play music - so let's start getting material for when we can come back or when we come back strong.”

click to enlarge Rome Hero Foxes was about to start recording a new album when COVID-19 put those plans on hold. - PHOTO BY NATASHA BERMUDEZ
Rome Hero Foxes was about to start recording a new album when COVID-19 put those plans on hold.
Photo by Natasha Bermudez
Before the virus crisis designated this as a time for some acts to stockpile new music, Houston based indie act Rome Hero Foxes already had plans to begin a new album cycle.

“We were going to go into the studio this week to record in Austin and we had to push all of that back because of the quarantine,” says Foxes’ Andrew Hagan. “It really is a hindrance to us and our plans for this month. We've had a lot of plans, we can't do a lot of things because we can’t leave, and if the state goes into lockdown, we don't want to be stuck in Austin. So we decided to move everything back and find a different day to record.”

Streaming numbers for many artists’ catalogs could see a spike in the coming months, ideally cushioning lost revenue from touring (not touring could ease the financial burden of touring for some). Hagan says that releasing new music is key to growing a fan base. Without it, “everything is kind of stagnant. Luckily we have a good amount of Spotify listeners. We’re around 80,000 or so monthly listeners, so we make a pretty good amount of money from Spotify every month.”

But Spotify pays only fractions of a penny per stream, and not every independent act amasses that large of an audience like Rome Hero Foxes who completed a successful national tour last year with This Wild Life. When local acts with less clout perform at homegrown venues like Satellite Bar, merchandise sales help their bottom line (and that $30 t-shirt only strengthens the bond between fan and artist).

Last week, online music and merchandise retailer Bandcamp waived its revenue share of all online sales for a day, giving its artists 100 percent of their sales in an effort to help soften the economic blow their acts suffered overnight. Spirits were high among the indie community the day of the promotion. Houston artists united, sharing each other’s Instagram stories and encouraging their fan bases to support other artists throughout the scene with T-shirt and vinyl purchases.

Bandcamp slam dunked with astronomical sales of $4.3 million that day for all of its artists. It was a nice gesture, — particularly from fans that contributed to their favorite artists — but an even better PR stunt that, similar to many solutions at the moment, felt more like using a band-aid when in need of stitches.

click to enlarge Brothers Todd and Chris Macek of Barron Studios and The Barron Collective are now offering remote mixing sessions in response to Harris County's shelter in place order temporarily shutting their doors. - PHOTO BY JOHN AMAR
Brothers Todd and Chris Macek of Barron Studios and The Barron Collective are now offering remote mixing sessions in response to Harris County's shelter in place order temporarily shutting their doors.
Photo by John Amar
“I feel like we're just holding everything together with duct tape and string and every day is another string of issues to see,” says Todd Macek of Barron Studios and the recently opened multi-studio space The Barron Collective.

Barron Studios is a creative home to its staff of recording engineers and Houston’s signature Rap and Hip Hop community (Travis Scott honed his chops there way back when). Business thrives every year around this time largely in part to South by Southwest. When that international conference caved, so did Barron’s bookings. Advance appointments went from being booked 12 days in advance to a day to day basis, and Macek was caught between a rock and an impending shelter in place order.

“I feel like from a business side of things, I'm just waiting for that shoe to drop. And that's real tough,” says Macek.

Like the bass in many tracks pumped out of Barron - it dropped.

Prior to Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issuing a mandatory stay-at-home order on March 24, Barron took precautionary measures by limiting the number of people in a room to three at a time, which gave everyone their six feet of personal space. Now, Barron’s doors are closed until at least April 3. The studio will offer remote mixing work to its clients in the absence of in-person sessions, but at the time of interview for this story, the reality of temporarily closing was one that Macek feared, as a small business owner, would manifest.

“With some of these bigger companies it's a thing of well - they just don't want to pay their people. But for us it's literally like - I can't. I don't have money to pay rent and pay people and pay health insurance if we're closed for a week. The margins, the safety net just isn't there because we're a business that just runs based on the work that [we’re] bringing in,” he says. “These are some real-world considerations and just things that we are juggling on how to keep our employees safe.”

click to enlarge Brittany Howard was just one of countless concert cancellations in the wake of coronavirus. - PHOTO BY ETHAN GULLEY
Brittany Howard was just one of countless concert cancellations in the wake of coronavirus.
Photo by Ethan Gulley
A day before LiveNation cancelled its tours worldwide, RodeoHouston saddled up and ‘yeed’ it’s last ‘haw’. Two weeks before that, East Loop 610 was underwater thanks to a water main break. And as that tide barely started rising, Brittany Howard of The Alabama Shakes and I began a phone conversation ahead of her now scrapped White Oak Music Hall concert. We swam in topics as deep as 610 River East: birth charts, lopsided love, religion, politics, racism.

After ending that phone call - Houston’s all too familiar crisis came into focus, superseding my crossing career paths with an artist I’ve grown to associate with triumph, victory, and celebration; an artist whose music, at one point or another, has helped this writer stay true to his voice.

Music writers, too, will find a way through this. Or maybe we won’t. At least not in the way we’ve been accustomed to doing things. If reviewing live music is still a thing when the industry re-opens, reviews might focus more on the impact of coronavirus than Miley Cyrus (sorry, had to).

During this hiatus, there will be no national touring artists to interview because — in case you blinked while reading this — there are no tours to promote. Coverage of local artists could take more precedence than before. But what happens when those artists lose their day jobs and can’t afford to produce new music, or when publications can’t afford to run stories on those artists, or when those artists — or you — start losing loved ones to the virus?

We will grieve. It’s the only certainty I can find in 3,000 words of searching.

I asked  Howard at the end of our conversation about what it is to live with grief over a lifetime — not as a musician, but as a human. When Howard was eight years old, she lost her older sister Jaime to an eye cancer. Almost a decade ago, I lost a dear friend to leukemia. That his name was James is some sort of cosmic coincidence. My question was earnest; her response, a moment of clarity as relevant then, - on a sunny, clear skied, flooding Houston day - as it is now, as it will be when we’re finally afloat stiller waters.

“I think growing up around so much grief, it really had the potential — especially when I was younger — it had this effect on me of shutting down, shutting things out, especially emotions. When you do that, you also don't let the good emotions in. So you're kind of just on the survival vibe, you know what I'm saying? That was me when I was younger. Now I'm older, and I've really softened up a bit. I think I see things in a different way, especially when it comes to compassion. It taught me a lot of compassion, taught me a lot of humility early on that I'm just now getting to experience. I’ve definitely opened up more, softened about the whole situation, and healed a lot of things.

"I think it's all about just knowing that everything’s really fragile. You don’t get to keep people forever. Whoever you’re around, just love them really good.”
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