Why I Didn’t Get a “Real Job” During Quarantine


say that 2020 has been a roller coaster of emotions for everyone would be a huge understatement. Now, imagine that you work in a field such as music where your work cannot be properly done until large gatherings of non-distanced people are deemed safe.

Thankfully, I play with a symphony orchestra and we have been able to implement social distancing procedures into our concerts. However, not all musicians have the privilege of being able to perform for a small live audience or even a virtual audience. Even with the beginning of the vaccine distribution, it will likely take a few more years for my profession to return to the way it was.

I will never forget March 12, 2020; the last day of “normal”. My orchestra was playing Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony that evening in our masterworks series. Each day during our rehearsal week, COVID-19 was becoming more and more serious. However, none of us saw it as a threat in our small, isolated Canadian city.

The night of our concert was the first day of major worldwide shutdowns. It was surreal to be able to have our concert when other musicians in larger cities faced last-minute cancellations for their concerts the same evening. At one point, I thought maybe my city would be exempt from the lockdowns due to its geographical location.

No such luck, however. More and more businesses shut down with each passing day. It didn’t matter whether you lived in Toronto, Ontario, or some random town in Saskatchewan, these lockdowns were mandated by the federal and provincial governments with no regard to population or geographical location.

My orchestra remained optimistic that perhaps this lockdown would only last for a month. Every day, sometimes multiple times a day, we received emails with our revised schedules for April and May.

By March 16, it became very clear this lockdown was not as simple as stay home for a month and then go back to normal. My orchestra finally made the difficult, but important decision to cancel the remaining concerts in our 2019–20 season.

At first, I was excited to have an extended summer break. This newfound free time inspired me to refine my concerto and orchestra excerpts for future auditions. I also got to work on other solo pieces that I wouldn’t normally have a reason to practice as an orchestral musician.

By mid-April, I started losing my motivation to practice. I wanted to believe that I’d be able to resume work with the symphony in October, but the return to normal just kept getting pushed back. I didn’t want to waste my energy getting excited about something that could be taken away in an instant. I frivolled away my days watching countless Netflix series and playing Animal Crossing.

This was my first year out of school and also my first year with the symphony. In some ways, I felt like my career had ended before it truly began. Practicing audition repertoire seemed like a waste of time if this was the end of live music. Of course, we wanted to believe that our symphony could think of an innovative way to resume performance in October, but nothing was certain.

Here in Canada, we had access to income assistance known as the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit or CERB for short. This benefit was set up for employees and freelance workers who lost work because of COVID-19 restrictions.

Other than the eternal debate over whether one pronounces it “Curb”, “Serb”, or the four letters individually, the CERB had confusing eligibility criteria in its early days. It was unclear initially if musicians and other freelance workers could collect CERB if they made a small amount of money from online sources (ie. teaching). Later on, this was clarified to allow freelance workers to make up to $1 000 while still being eligible to collect the monthly $2 000.

Recently, thousands of Canadians were asked to repay anywhere from $2 000 to $12 000 in benefits due to a misunderstanding of gross income versus net income. Thankfully, that did not happen to me as I had received over $5 000 of net income in 2019. I had not verified this information at the time of my CERB application so I was quite lucky I met that sneaky requirement.

When CERB was first rolled out, I was ineligible as the symphony paid all the musicians in full until the end of our contract in mid-May. It is important to note that not all orchestras were in a fortunate position like that.

I often refer to summer 2020 as that time the Canadian government paid me to be a professional couch potato. My only source of income from June-September was that $2 000 the government put in my account.

You may say that’s not a lot of money and I should have found a job that would pay me more. However, I don’t own a vehicle or a house and I also don’t have children, so I can make do with less money quite easily. During the symphony season, I make only slightly more than CERB, so I was already used to budgeting for this amount.

Some of my symphony colleagues decided to get a new job or move back in with their parents in light of financial uncertainty. I chose to remain where I was as going back home would have made me feel even worse and I wanted to remain in the same city as my boyfriend.

It was tough seeing my coworkers essentially starting new lives while my life had not stayed the same since March. I could have experimented with online teaching or putting on a monetized live-streamed recital from my living room to try to make slightly more income in addition to the $2 000, but I had no motivation whatsoever. Watching my industry crumble throughout the pandemic was devastating enough.

The “CERB guilt” feelings were real. Frontline workers have been overwhelmed since March trying to navigate this ever-evolving pandemic. I felt terrible sitting on my couch all day collecting $2 000 while these people risked their lives to save humanity, essentially.

Why didn’t I get a “real job” during quarantine? The answer is simple — I am not trained to do any other job.

I studied music for a total of seven years in university, obtaining a Bachelor of Music, a Master of Music, and a Performance Diploma. Before my post-secondary schooling, I had taken music lessons for twelve years. I did not go through all this specialized training in music performance to flip burgers at McDonald’s. Getting a new job, regardless of your expertise, is not as easy as it sounds.

Of course, I fully acknowledge the privileged financial situation I am in where I can choose to pursue my dream career. I have the means to budget myself and live comfortably from $2 000 each month.

I came to terms with the idea that there is no pressure to be productive or immediately get a new job during a global pandemic. Staying at home and watching Netflix was perfectly fine as I was helping to flatten the curve by not visiting public places. The Canadian government would not have offered a program such as CERB if they expected all recently unemployed people to find a new job.

My orchestra was eventually able to come out on the other side. The quarantine was a necessary mental health break to help me cope with all that was happening in the pandemic.

I’m thankful that I was able to return to work in this profession where I have almost 20 years of training and experience. My heart goes out to my fellow musicians who have had no choice but to retrain in a new field of work for this pandemic.

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