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Trying to stay in the groove: Artists, musicians continue being creative during crisis

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When voice teacher Elizabeth Winstead saw other states issuing stay-at-home orders in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, she knew North Carolina would not be far behind. And Winstead is a planner.

“When I saw other states closing down, I knew we needed to be prepared,” said Winstead, owner of The Singers Studio in downtown Wilson. “We started virtual lessons the first week and have been doing this ever since.”

Winstead said she and the other two instructors at the studio use three different platforms to connect with their students: Skype, Google Duo and FaceTime.

“We are teaching 85% of our students online, and it’s really not bad,” Winstead said. “Most people jumped on board immediately, but some students have very poor internet connections and that just won’t work. But most have been very willing and able to do it.”

Winstead said that there is no substitute for teaching face-to-face and that virtual lessons will do for now, but not for the long run.

“There is a slight delay (with online teaching) so the teacher can’t live accompany the student,” Winstead said. “You can’t practice a voice exercise together, so I made hundreds of recordings and sent them to students so that I can ‘accompany’ the students and they have someone to sing with.”

Winstead noted that a lot of her students are beginning students who still need to hear someone else sing what they’re learning.

In addition to Winstead teaching virtual voice lessons for The Singers Studio, Cory Whaley is teaching piano and voice using online platforms, and David Winstead is teaching a directing class and directing one act plays using Zoom.

Winstead teaches online about seven hours a day, and although it’s worth it, it is by no means easy.

“I’ve done this before but not on this scale, and my eyes are taking a beating,” Winstead said. “This so much more exhausting than live teaching.”

But Winstead knows that in addition to keeping her students practicing, she provides a bit of normalcy during an uncertain time.

“A lot of my students have thanked me for keeping a part of their lives normal,” Winstead said. “For my younger students, a lot has been taken away from them this year including dances and sports.”

‘GUIDING ME TO MY ART’

For artist and studio owner Andrea Horton Morton, being homebound is more essential than it is to most other people. Morton is currently in treatment for cancer, which means her immune system is compromised and she can not run the risk of coming into contact with COVID-19.

“The only place I go is to radiation treatment,” Morton said. “I go there and back every day. This (coronavirus) pandemic guides me more to my art. Painting gets me through my cancer and what we’re going on in the world right now.”

Morton felt the need to give back to the community that has helped her during her cancer diagnosis and treatment, so she began painting small paintings and selling them online.

“I’ve sold six paintings at $100 each, so I’m giving $100 each to six downtown businesses who can use it,” Morton said. “The whole community helped me pay for my chemotherapy, and we are family downtown so I wanted to give back.”

Morton said that painting is something that makes her happy during times like this and that she doesn’t want to use her cancer treatment as an excuse not to paint.

“I want create art, share it and make people happy,” Morton said. “The first painting I completed was one of a hummingbird because my mother loves hummingbirds. We can’t see each other right now, and I miss her so much. I posted the painting online and someone immediately wanted to buy it. I didn’t set out to sell it, but I did.”

Morton heard that some downtown businesses were struggling during the pandemic and decided to keep painting small pieces, selling them and giving the proceeds to those businesses. She is also doing commission work and donating the proceeds to her downtown fund.

She plans on expanding her online presence and start selling hand-painted mugs and begin producing videos showcasing her work and providing tutorials.

MUSIC GIVETH, COVID-19 TAKETH AWAY

For some local musicians, social distancing during the coronavirus outbreak gives them time to practice their music, time that normally is not afforded to them with busy life schedules. For others, it is a shock to the pocketbook. A total loss of income.

Mark Peterson, who serves as music director for both Barton College and St. Therese Catholic Church in Wilson, is grateful for the time he has been given to practice his craft.

“For me, this has been amazingly stimulating,” Peterson said. “For two hours every day I practice playing the organ at St. Therese. I had not been able to do that in a long while. Consistency is everything for a musician. If you practice every day and then don’t practice one day, you can tell.”

Although mass is not held at the church during this period of social distancing, Peterson played the organ for an Easter service that was broadcast online.

“That was well-received, so we might do more live recording,” Peterson said.

Peterson also directs the Barton College/Wilson Symphony Orchestra, which performs several public concerts each year.

“The spring concert for this year has been canceled, but the money that funds it comes from an endowment so it will roll over to the next concert, which will be held the Sunday before Thanksgiving,” Peterson said.

Peterson realizes that he is one of the lucky musicians.

“I really feel for musicians who have lost all their income during this time,” he said. “Out of the 40 people in the Barton College/Wilson Symphony Orchestra, 10 of those musicians rely entirely on playing gigs.”

‘A TOTAL COLLAPSE OF BUSINESS’

For local music teacher and bass player Dale Bryce, the coronavirus resulted in a complete severing of income.

“In the course of 18 hours, I went from being able to pay my bills to no income whatsoever,” Bryce said. “It was a total collapse of business. The social distancing meant that all the venues I played at weren’t allowed to host events.”

Bryce’s primary teaching job is being the music teacher at the Save A Youth’s after school program.

“Obviously, there is no school now so there is no after school program,” Bryce said. “When they are closed, I don’t work.”

“Regarding my private lessons, I canceled the lessons in my studio immediately, and the music store where I teach closed, plus I’m not going to do lessons in a small room because it’s just not safe,” Bryce said. “I do have interest in online lessons by my students, so now I have to get the equipment set up, as do my students. I’m considering making video lessons on specific music topics that would be available for purchase.”

Bryce plays bass guitar for several area bands, including TripleWide, Chet Nichols & the Repeat Offenders, The Monitors, The Unnamed Band, Fatmouth and the Dale Bryce Collective.

“Every one of those bands had gigs on the calendar, and all those gigs went away,” Bryce said. “I still have some shows on the calendar, but they depend on what will happen in the next couple of months. Most are postponed.”

Bryce said that many musicians are emphasizing the sale of their merchandise in order to earn some income. He has Dale Bryce bobblehead dolls for sale and is in the process of designing T-shirts to sell in order to bring in some money. He continues to do livestream performances via his Facebook pages and has advice for those who are watching various artists’ virtual performances.

“People need to hit the ‘like’ button on all the videos they watch across all the platforms, even if you just watch for a few seconds,” Bryce said. “Young people say, ‘You’re thirsty for likes,’ but if you’re in this business, it helps with the logarithm. It pops up in other people’s feeds even if you aren’t friends with them. And that is very important on the Instagram platform.”

LISTEN TO WIL’T’SON LIMELIGHT

Bryce is posting live performances on the newly-formed “Wil’t’son Limelight” Facebook page, hosted by Wilson Downtown Development, the Arts Council of Wilson and Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park. The page was created to provide Wilson musicians, singers and dancers a place to post performances during this stay-at-home period when all concerts and recitals have been canceled or postponed.

“Susan Kellum (Historic Downtown Wilson marketing and communications coordinator) came to Jeff Bell (Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park executive director) and I with the idea,” said Cathy Hardison, Arts Council of Wilson executive director. “We all shared a heart for our local musicians and dancers and wanted to do something to help our performers in Wilson County. All three of our organizations program stages and line up entertainment for events. Performances are meant to have audiences and to create shared experiences among groups bringing them together.”

“As Wilson Downtown Development marketing and events staff realized we were not going to be able to have physical events during this time of social distancing, we started looking for alternative methods of supporting our downtown community,” Kellum said. “We saw a great idea from a neighboring North Carolina Main Street community which launched a Facebook group platform that would support local performing artists and provide entertainment for the community.”

The Facebook page, “Wil’t’son Limelight,” went live on April 14. The page administrators began inviting local singers, musicians and dance studios to join the page to provide programming and encouraged those people to invite both performers and audience.

“I’ve been inviting people who are not musicians to watch the performances on the Facebook page,” Bryce said. “This should not only be musicians watching musicians. We need a much broader audience.”

Hardison pointed out that artists do not only rely on the energy created by live audiences. Some need the income earned at those performances.

“Many performers rely on gigs for a living and aren’t receiving that income right now,” Hardison said. “To protect the health and safety of our people, live performances can’t happen right now, so we created “Wil’t’son Limelight” to set the stage for Wilson performers to share their art form during this pandemic. By providing a platform, we hope to increase and/or extend the audience for local performers, showcase the wealth of talent here in Wilson, and sooth our community with artistic experiences they would normally have the opportunity to enjoy in person.”

“Wil’t’son Limelight” encourages its audience to not only enjoy and “like” the online performances but to tip the artists as well if the performers provide a platform for donations.

“Performers are encouraged to post a virtual tip jar and their social links along with their performance so their audience may support them during this time when their livelihood has been put on hold,” Kellum said. “Guidelines and helpful tips for performers participating in the group are provided in the ‘Abou’ section of the page. As the focus is local, performers should be from, or reside in, Wilson County.”

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