For the past four years, Washington-area photographer Oliver Contreras has been performing as a percussionist with local bands at small gatherings, bars, festivals and fundraisers. Over the years, he has met a variety of full-time musicians from different backgrounds, coming to a better understanding of how they make a living doing what they’re passionate about.
With the pandemic halting live performances, tours and recording sessions, the vulnerabilities that full-time musicians face have never been clearer. Most are independent contractors with few labor protections and little savings to fall back on. Without being able to do the thing they love most — simply playing in front of an audience and sharing their art with the public — their professional lives are at risk, and their futures in limbo. In the meantime, they try to make do by practicing at home or performing online for virtual audiences.
Contreras photographed several of these musicians, and through his portraits, he conveys the uncertainty of this moment, and asks us to reconsider the importance of music in our daily lives and what its presence — or absence — means. He asked each the same question: “How has the pandemic affected your life as a musician?”
Elena Lacayo, a bilingual singer-songwriter and instrumentalist outside her home in Washington’s Petworth neighborhood on May 19.
“I am a full-time musician with multiple projects, including leading my own band, playing as a solo musician and touring as a guitarrón player with the female Mariachi group Flor de Toloache. Professionally, the crisis has hit me hard — all of my shows and tours have been canceled or postponed for the foreseeable future, wiping my calendar clean for what would have been my most exciting and lucrative year as a musician to date. While I deeply miss touring and performing for live audiences, I’m doing my best to use this time to stay creative, work on new skills and projects that are tailored to an online format, and stay grateful for all that I have.”
Ray Lamb, a musician, server, student and teacher outside his apartment building in the Eckington neighborhood on April 26.
“It’s had a really interesting effect on me. I’ve lost my main source of income, some students, gigs and the ability to take classes in person. But on the other hand, I’ve been able to spend more time with my girlfriend, Amy, and practice a lot more than normal. So personally, it hasn’t been ideal, but not awful.”
Allyson Goodman, principal violist with the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra and the Washington National Opera, and her husband, Derek Powell, staff sergeant and violinist in the U.S. Army Band “Pershing’s Own,” outside their apartment building in the Adams Morgan neighborhood on April 29.
Goodman: “The Kennedy Center was shut down mid-March and all remaining opera and ballet performances for the 2019-20 season were canceled, including two operas which were mid-run. I can’t remember the last time I didn’t have any performances on the books for months like this. It’s a first for me and most orchestral musicians across the country. We are grateful for our health and are using this extra time to try new recipes and go on long hikes in Rock Creek Park.”
Santo Buzzanca (far right), musician, educator and director of Crush Funk Brass Band, performing with his bandmates in Georgetown on May 24.
“We’ve always been an ‘outside of the box’ group, looking for ways to make life better through music. It was trial and error the first time we went out [to play in public during the pandemic]. We ourselves felt the pressure and burdens that the pandemic dealt everyone. The message was simple — we just wanted to bring some sort of joy to the community and help everyone get through everyday life. After playing in Old Town, Alexandria, where it was a ghost town, there were words of encouragement and thanks for all that we were trying to do. When we went home, we didn’t feel defeated but encouraged. We tried our best to help people celebrate what covid-19 would not allow us to enjoy: Life!”
Chandra Cervantes, a freelance musician, with her son Augie, 11, outside their home in Silver Spring, Md., on April 28.
“Like so many others, my livelihood, my routine, my lifestyle has come to a grinding halt. What was once a busy and fulfilling schedule of parenting, performing, practicing, teaching, commuting, planning, volunteering, cooking, yoga and more has become very small. It has become clear that I have lost so much more than income. Every part of me is fed by my life as a musician — community, collaboration, creativity, audience response, even dressing for this photo shoot — it all reminds me of all the aspects of performance that I savor and miss.”
G.L. Jaguar, guitarist and music director of Exotiq Int’l, former guitarist of Priests and co-founder of Sister Polygon Records, on the rooftop of his apartment building in the 16th Street Heights neighborhood on May 21.
“I was in a transitional period between the ending of my former band, Priests, and the beginning of my current band, Exotiq Int’l. Our first show was planned and then canceled due to the virus. Most people I knew had to cancel their tours, which was unfortunate because the beginning of quarantine coincided with South by Southwest [music festival in Austin]. Right now everything feels like it’s on hold. Each day kind of feels the same, like that Bill Murray movie ‘Groundhog Day.’ I feel like people have this subconscious pressure to be productive, to make the most of all this time. That pressure is self-imposed. Some days I make some cool music or art; others I feel like I hit a brick wall.”
Fairouz Foty, a professional opera singer and artistic director of Quartertonez Music, outside her apartment building in Chevy Chase, D.C., on May 27.
“I have been severely impacted as a professional musician and artistic director of a music school. All my sources of income rely on gatherings of small or big groups of people. Our school has lost 80 percent of our students due to this pandemic with only 20 percent of our students continuing through online distance learning. Although there is the intention of restarting in-person lessons when we open in the fall, this drastic drop in our income has not only negatively affected me, but also all of our teachers that rely on teaching as their source of income.
With all of that said, personally this time has been a time for rebirth and reevaluation. I think when one is so busy there is no time for reflection and personal, and emotional growth. Without the noise of one-thing-to-the-next, I have had time to work on projects, my vocal development and restructuring the curriculum and infrastructure of the school. I’m excited for what the future has to bring, and success is measured in how many times you fail and persevere, not the absence of failure.”
Laura Harris, musician, outside her home in the North Michigan Park neighborhood on May 21.
“Being a drummer first, it’s been much harder to play my instrument the way I’m used to. I live in a duplex, and although my neighbors are wonderful, it’s pretty close quarters. The huge amount of idle time has sent me in some interesting directions, though. I let go of any semblance of logistical control over music pretty early on and tried to remember what it felt like to appreciate music — and art and reading — before I really made it a career. I’ve spent more time listening to music, learning and playing other instruments, and just enjoying it.”
Pepe Gonzalez, performing artist/educator, outside his home in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood on April 26.
“Coronavirus has basically done away with most of my livelihood. If it wasn’t for some students that are helping me stay afloat I would be in dire straits.”