Before March 2020, Vanessa Holroyd ’90 was juggling two successful careers—as an in-demand classical flutist performing throughout the Northeast and as the co-owner of the music/entertainment agency Music Management. But early in the pandemic, due to shuttered concert halls and no in-person events, she had to quickly adapt to the “new normal” for her music and business careers.
Photo Credit: JILL PERSON
Before March 2020, Vanessa Holroyd '90 was juggling two successful careers—as an in-demand classical flutist performing throughout the Northeast, and as the co-owner of the music/entertainment agency Music Management—all on top of being a mom to two kids. But when stay-at-home orders shuttered concert halls and ruled out any in-person events, she had to quickly evolve and adapt to the "new normal."
For Holroyd, who serves as principal flute of the Orchestra of Emmanuel Music at Boston's historic Emmanuel Church and can often be found in the woodwind sections of the New Bedford and Portland symphony orchestras, the sense of community and collaboration is at the core of her love of making music.
"Although it's [really] fun to play in an orchestra, my happy place is really as part of a chamber group or supporting a vocalist," she says. "I like working with people and communicating with them, and in a large orchestra, sometimes it's hard to have relationships with everyone around me. But in smaller ensembles or supporting an aria, it's like we're having a conversation, and I love that. I love that one-on-one interaction."
Unfortunately for musicians, this kind of close collaboration became impossible, and performances were canceled one by one—an experience Holroyd compares to watching a really slow car crash. Like many people during the past year and a half, Holroyd was forced to work from home, though for her, that meant converting her bedroom into a practice room/office, with her husband setting up in the living room and their children learning remotely in the dining room and second bedroom.
Thanks to Zoom, Holroyd was still able to lead some private lessons, and by the fall, a number of organizations had devised clever ways to offer virtual concerts for their audiences. "Everyone solved it differently. Sure, it was a bit chaotic, but people were getting super creative and scrappy with livestreams," she recalls. "In most cases, we would gather in an empty space—10 feet apart, with the string players masked and the winds surrounded by Plexiglass—and record a piece all the way through and then upload it online."
One time, Holroyd joined a woodwind quintet for program that was filmed with multiple cameras. Then, after the footage was edited together, the group released the concert like a live event, with live introductions and an interactive chat, so members of the audience could comment and interact with the players while enjoying their performance.
Playing in even these modified setups proved to be a powerful experience for Holroyd after months of isolation. "I was able to play the Christmas Eve service at Emmanuel, and I actually started crying at the first rehearsal. To be able to play with real people, even though there wasn't a congregation, was very moving."
But this style of performing also presented artistic challenges. "We're missing a crucial piece without a live audience because we really do miss the interaction with them," she says. "When it's just you and the cameras, you're hyper aware of them. You feel like your playing is being looked at under a microscope, whereas a live, in-person concert is so much more about the energy of that performance.
"Virtual concerts are so strange. On the one hand, it's not like recording an album in a studio. It can't be perfect because it's live, and we usually only do one or two takes," she continues. "But since it's going to exist in perpetuity online, you feel like you can't take the risks you can in live performance. It became a question of bringing the energy, the courage, and the risk taking of a live performance without throwing all caution to the wind." Between January and the end of the freelance season in May, Holroyd stayed busy with a series of small projects, and by July, she was finally able to play before an audience again, as part of a special concert with the New Bedford Symphony Orchestra featuring the woodwind and brass sections to thank donors for their support during the pandemic.
But even now, as venues are slowly beginning to reopen, companies are still cautious about planning full in-person seasons. And while she too is uncertain about the year ahead, Holroyd is extremely proud of all that she was able to accomplish over the past 18 months. "Some amazing things have come out of this! It's been exhausting, and it's been a ton of hustle, but we've been able to make it through. For me, it was so important to stay relevant, to be able to say I'm still an artist, I still have something to give musically, I'm still here."