CEDAR RAPIDS — In the golden light of evening, clear notes pealed through the air at Bever Park in Cedar Rapids Wednesday. Eight French horn players, spread out, each on their own picnic benches under a park shelter, played together, gathering for a couple of hours of music and camaraderie.
Members of area music ensembles, the horn players started meeting in the park for weekly socially distanced practice sessions in May.
In a normal summer, the horns would be part of the full Cedar Rapids Municipal Band, which plays free shows at Bever Park twice a week. But this is not a normal summer, and the concert series was canceled before it could begin.
“In some ways, it makes it not feel like summer,” Valerie Shanley, of Cedar Rapids, said. “We have more time, but it doesn’t feel relaxed ... In addition to the playing, it’s such a huge social part of our summer.”
A summer without music didn’t seem feasible to them.
“For some of us that probably hasn’t happened since we were 10 years old,” Doreen Anderson, of Newhall said.
So they found a way to get together every week, gathering in the park in a small group.
“When we got together for that first rehearsal in May, it just made me tear up,” Shanley said.
As they played last week, people walking their dogs stopped and lingered, leaning against trees and sitting on the grass, applauding at the end of songs. A car leaving the parking lot stopped, the passengers rolling down the windows to listen. Families pushing strollers paused a moment to take in the moment.
“This is so awesome. I miss the music so much,” a woman exclaimed as she sat down to listen with her dog.
Anderson said she thinks people need music now more than ever, but so many have been cut off from it. The normal summer concert season brings not just band members but audiences together to experience the arts.
“Music is all about expression and emotion. When that’s absent, there’s no outlet for that,” she said.
The Cedar Rapids Municipal Band is trying to bring some performances to the public this summer via livestreams of small ensembles. A group of percussionists played a set in a driveway last week for a Facebook audience, and they hope to continue the series with different groups, including the French horns, throughout the summer. The performances will typically be streamed on the band’s Facebook page at 7:30 p.m. on Sundays, and people should watch the page for announcements of upcoming shows.
The French horn players were working on songs they might play for their livestream, trying to whittle down their choices.
“We have about an hour of music, but we only need about 25 minutes,” said Andy Harris, of Cedar Rapids.
Harris plays with the Des Moines Symphony. They were doing the dress rehearsal for the first performance of the season in March when word came the show was off — and so was the entire season. They went ahead and did the rehearsal, anyway, a chance to at least play the music they’d prepared for the universe if not an audience.
“That was kind of a performance for ourselves,” he said.
Harris said the cascade of show and season cancellations reminded him in some ways of the 2008 Floods, which swept through the performing arts space many musicians counted on, including Orchestra Iowa, where he also plays, which counts the Paramount as its home venue.
“When we saw the water around the bench outside the Paramount, we knew we were in trouble,” Harris said. “I’m not sure any of us fully recovered from it. Every time the water comes up, you feel it.”
But in comparison, this disaster is much more difficult, he added. Then, the crisis was finite. The orchestra moved temporarily to a smaller stage at Coe College, and the town got to work rebuilding.
“We have so much less control over this,” Harris said.
Shanley said the uncertainty is its own challenge.
“I think what’s hard about this is we don’t know how long this will be,” she said.
They worry about the viability of their performing arts organizations, with loss of a season or more worth of ticket revenue.
They also worry about their own finances. Harris said he works part time at Target along with performing in various ensembles and teaching French horn at a number of area colleges. Everything but Target fell apart when the pandemic shutdowns hit Iowa. Performing was about 75% of his income, he said. He’s been relying on unemployment benefits, but worries what will happen when they expire.
He did spend some money to upgrade his computer and software for virtual teaching, but the horn players all agreed those kinds of lessons weren’t as effective for students as in-person learning.
So, for now, they’re taking advantage of the summer weather and being able to spread out in a park.
“We can’t play inside, because it’s not safe,” Shanley said. “So we’re doing as much as we can now, until it is too cold.”
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