The purpose of this project is to provide a collection of transcriptions from the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. This project seeks to give a platform to all parts of the vocal performing arts to better understand the lived experiences and mentality of those professionals. In collecting stories from the COVID-19 pandemic Allen Henderson spoke with me about the immense amount of pivoting that the National Association of Teachers of Singing was facing. He shows his deep passion for students in his advocation for mentorship and advice to singers, who are facing a long journey.
Allen Henderson, Executive Director of the National Association of Teachers of Singing
Interviewed March 18, 2020
TB: Thank you so much for joining me. So, what do you feel is the best thing that has happened to you in the last week?
AH: I was just asked this online yesterday. I think for me, the best thing that has happened professionally is that a lot of NATS members and friends in the industry have really rallied around the issues that we’re facing and are mobilizing, either collectively or in small groups. [They are] finding ways to make things work and help one another. Some of us are more technologically adept than others, so there’s a lot of helping one another and helping people that are less technically savvy figure out what we’re all being thrown into. I’ve also seen a lot of concern for students and what they’re going through as well. I think those are two really great things that have happened recently.
TB: This also brings together two points of your career; teaching and being the Executive Director at the National Association of Teachers. So could you give a little bit of your background and where you’re at in your career?
AH: Sure, well before the crisis my day to day life was: I’m a professor at Georgia Southern University, where I teach voice and foreign languages diction. I have a reduced student load due to my work with NATS. The university has been very supportive of that. But I do have a studio of about 10 college students and a small number of private students.
On the NATS side of things, we have a staff of eight people that run the office, all of the programming, and everything we do at NATS to serve a little over 7,000 NATS members. We have between 15,000 and 16,000 students who go through NATS auditions every year. So, it’s a big organization. This is our primary professional organization as voice teachers and it is there to serve our profession. So, when I’m not teaching, I’m working on NATS duties and I’m back and forth between the NATS office in Jacksonville [Florida] and where I live near Savannah, Georgia, where the university is. So it’s been an enjoyable time of my life professionally. I’ve really enjoyed my work with NATS. And of course, I love my work as a professor and teacher working with students.
TB: So this is a really interesting time for NATS as voice teachers are being asked to move something that was predominantly teaching face-to-face onto an online platform, which is something that we will get into. But could you go back a little bit and describe where you were and how you first realized that not only you, but NATS was going to be affected by this pandemic?
AH: We have a lot of members who do teach online regularly and some actually make their entire living from teaching online. Certainly though to many, many voice teachers it’s a new thing. But it is important to recognize that there are some who have taught basically online for several years now. And we’re fortunate that some of those are members and they have expertise that they’re lending and sharing in a variety of ways.
Early last week we started seeing what we anticipated would be some of the impacts and we were starting to hear murmurs of a variety of things happening. Then I met with our executive committee and our staff. We began really discussing scenarios and what assets does NATS have? What are we able to do? How are we able to serve our members? How are we able to lower the anxiety and calm our collective membership during a very unsettling time and a time in which their anxiety is naturally going to be on the rise? So we began to think about how we are going to equip everyone to continue to do what they do.
First for us was that between last weekend [March 13-15, 2020] and May 5th, we have around 20 NATS events happening around North America (both Canada and the United States). We had NATS auditions, regional NATS auditions, and chapter events happening. So our very first thing was to immediately make a plan and reach out to all those folks and say, “Okay, here’s our direction for you relative to making your choices that you need to make that best serve your event.” So we adjusted some regulations as well.
Fortunately, a few years ago, we transitioned into an entirely new registration system for NATS auditions that was unified and required all our members to register their students in a common system. That system also has the ability for us to submit videos. Until now, we’ve been using it primarily just as a registration system in order to facilitate scheduling of auditions. So some, particularly our regional auditions, chose to move to a more online format. They saw the writing on the wall. Either where they were having their auditions, the host site was warning them, or people that had to travel were starting to ask questions. We just put together a plan that allowed them to make the decision that was best for them.
These regions have moved online so we have students who are still trying to make videos to submit rather than coming to live auditions. And of course, even that is presenting some problems. So we’re allowing people to not use live accompaniment to make their videos this year; whether that is a recording that their accompanist can send them—if they are at a distance and can’t get together—or need to use apps like Appcompanist, as long as they are piano-based and not orchestra-based. These are some of the things we immediately changed to just try to facilitate and make things work. Some of these [changes] are made on the fly a little bit, as another issue comes up and another question comes through. But fortunately, we have a really good conduit of communication set up amongst our chapters, our office, and those who are running auditions nationally.
We also began to think about the bigger impact of this. Now we know some schools are starting to close; some are talking about moving to online instruction. So one of our best conduits for communication, we feel, is our NATS Chat, which is something we do every month during the year. Dr. Kari Ragan, who lives in the Seattle area, is our coordinator. Since we do most of these now using GoToWebinar and record them, we can use this format to adapt to some things that we feel are important for people. So we sat down and we talked about what the most pressing needs are. We hurriedly scheduled what we call an “Emergency NATS Chat” the other day; I guess it was last Saturday. We had a few panelists that we selected to be on, mostly to calm people down a little bit and say, “We’re going to get through this and figure this out. We’ll find a way to help everyone.”
So when we did that NATS Chat, we received some really great responses and people were so appreciative of the help that was provided. We also moved into chatting about some specifics [regarding] the things you need to consider if you’re moving to teaching lessons online. We offered a few solutions and gave an overview of a variety of options that people have. We reminded people that even your face-to-face lesson is not a perfect environment; mistakes are made on your part, the student’s, and the environment. So moving to online, you’re still going to have mistakes. It’s just an added complication or an added alternate setting. That helped provide people with some resources and sent them on their way to investigate some of the [different] options that might work for them.
We also had some partners that came forward and offered discounts to everybody—like free versions of Appcompanist for 30 days—through some of the contacts we were able to make. I think that’s another value point of an organization like NATS: we have partnerships with commercial partners that work in our industry. Many of them want to serve the community in this time as well. So we’ve been able to provide communication and work directly with them for our members.
I also recorded a video message to our membership, which I will email to our membership. First, when we started talking about auditions, I really kept all of the communication about that just with the people who were dealing with auditions at that moment. Because it was a crisis situation, there was really no need to involve everyone in the organization or all the people that coordinate auditions nationwide. But our leadership and I thought it was important to also share what we were doing with the greater NATS community, so that they know that we are doing our best to serve everyone.
We continue to work on that front. We had a nice chat last night about teaching diction online. Tonight we have one for those who are teaching vocal pedagogy. We immediately identified those three things as major need, the [online] lessons were first, then teaching diction and pedagogy were two things that people were going to struggle with (or just needed some creative ideas about how they can do it easily). It’s amazing how a small thing will lower someone’s anxiety level.
TB: So we’ve talked a lot about the logistics and the idea of how we’re going to survive this. But one of the biggest things that has been affecting our community is this financial burden, because a large portion of the people who we teach are based in a contract situation [independent contractor], which has the option not pay in the case of a force majeure. So could you talk about both sides of your work, as the leader of NATS, but also as a professor who’s trying to guide students through this?
AH: To some of my students already, I have said, “We’re going to get through this and we’re going to get through it together,” which speaks to the community issue. The issue of shelter in place orders that might come down the pike and everything that tends to isolate individuals is [also] a really serious potential mental health crisis. We have to do everything we can to maintain that community. At least one of our NATS Chats, is going to address the mental health aspect of what people are going through right now, both from a teacher perspective and a student perspective. We’re concerned about that. I’m concerned about that personally, but we as an organization are certainly concerned about that. The welfare of all of our community is extremely important. So we need to do everything we can to maintain that community and to provide opportunities for people to reach out when they need help.
On to the contract issues: from where I sit, NATS is not going to lay off anyone. We’re going to employ all our people. I haven’t heard of any universities talking about financial exigency clauses yet. I’m not saying that might not happen, but I’m thankful for the messaging I’m receiving from my institution, and I think a lot of people are right now. But I also applaud the work of Zach Finkelstein. I don’t know if you’ve seen his blog: he’s keeping a list of those opera companies, churches, and others who are doing the right thing. I realize that the opera companies especially, but also symphonies and others, have to make business decisions during this time. But I think those who have chosen to exercise the force majeure clauses are misguided, unless they face total ruin right away. I think that is not going to bode well for them when this is over.
I think the performing arts community tends to reward those who are helpful and supportive in times of crisis and they have a good memory about those that aren’t. I’m going to be on a call later today about some of these issues with a couple of other organizations. So I don’t know what I will hear, but that will be my message. I have friends and acquaintances who have lost more than $100,000 in gigs that have been cancelled (some of the more high profile folks). But for a lot of young singers and those who make their living in the gig economy, even losing a $1,000 gig is pretty serious.
I heard a statistic today that over 50% of Americans say they can’t handle even a $500 hit to their livelihood. They don’t have enough savings. They don’t have the financial resources to weather something like that. So, when we think about that statistic it really hits home. I think a lot of our community of young singers, young teachers, and those who are making a living in multiple places (to cobble together a living) are at risk in many ways.
I’m also trying to keep up with legislation and what’s happening in that space. I’m disappointed so far that the gig economy seems to be totally left out of the legislation I’m seeing currently moving through Congress. I think it started off on that path and unfortunately all the big corporations got in the door yesterday. I’m not saying they’re not hurting, but their power has taken over politics. So I don’t think a $1,000 check per person is going to help much because by the time that check gets in the bank, it’s already gone. Because, we know what our friends have already faced—losing thousands of dollars in gigs—$1,000 is a drop in the bucket. In New York City, it might pay for one or two weeks’ rent.
TB: So do you have any ideas or thoughts about how the community of teachers of singing and NATS could possibly help with this?
AH: Well there are a couple of things that are in the works. One that’s in the works right now is, we’re converting our NATS events calendar into a place where anyone can come in and post a concert or something they’re going to do online; so that we can keep the music going and continue to share what we love to do. That might take many forms and we’re not going to be picky about the form it takes or who it is. I know some people are getting rather creative and setting up concerts on a pay-what-you-can basis or even a ticketed event. We’re not going to care about that either. That’s part of what, in my opinion, we should be there to do; to provide ways for singers and those who want to perform to be able to perform.
One of the things we don’t have right now is some kind of calendar or collection point where all these thing can go. And our NATS calendar is fairly simple; that is actually to our advantage because you don’t have to enter a lot of information on the forum. There is a large block for you to enter information about your event, but you don’t have to up load photos. You can just enter the information and it creates a running list. If I’m home tonight and I have an hour or two and I want to pop in and listen to somebody that’s on the calendar, I can do that. So we’ve modified the insturctions on the page and now we need to get the promotion out about that. It seems like a small thing, but for those who do have events set up where they want to try to earn some income from a concert that they can stream, I think that’s a good thing. OPERA America has a wonderful resource site right now that they’ve been setting up. We are considering doing a resource page on our site, but now I’m referring most people to that site.
Also, I know that ART [Artist Relief Tree] raised over $100,000 to hopefully distribute back out to artists. I don’t know exactly how that’s going to happen. I have been warning people to be careful with donations because it’ll be easy for people to be swayed with some slick graphics and things that look professional. So you’ve got to be careful about that kind of thing. I also saw in Austin, where they’ve been tabulating how much gig income has been lost in just Austin, Texas. It was over $4 million just from gig workers. So it really wouldn’t matter how much money we raised—NATS or any other organization—there’s literally no way we could make everybody whole. It really is going to come down to, how do we support the community? How do we find ways to employ people? I’m working some in that space, trying to figure out some ways that we might help.
I do think our collaborative pianist colleagues are really taking a hit just like many professional singers. We’ve encouraged people to reach out to collaborative pianists—and pay them, of course—to make rehearsal tracks. Some people already have a side business doing that. We’ve encouraged people to find ways to continue to employ the collaborative pianist community. It’s easy to pick up something like Appcompanist—to which we’ve helped a lot of people get a free 30 days subscription—and some people need that. They don’t really have anyone near them. But there are others that regularly work with collaborative pianists who know them and know the way they sing a certain piece. They know that they can record it just like they sing it, so that when they get the recording, they can sing it like they want to. I encourage that. I think we just must find ways to support the community.
TB: So in the singing world, do you foresee the gig economy changing?
AH: I think the contracts are going to change significantly after this crisis. Artists and their managers should be demanding the right kinds of clauses, whether it’s the Met or a small shoestring organization. If they pay people and have a contract with them, then I think there are things that are going to change. I think one of the things we can do not just as an organization, but collectively as an industry, is really address that issue. Whether it is unions that need to get involved—for those that are in unions—I am sure the unions will push that. But it is a bigger issue than just a union issue. There are a lot of people that are not in the unions that are still gig workers. So I think that’s a big change we will probably see. Of course our entire industry, over the last 25 years, has totally been upended from the days when you got an agent and they basically did everything for you. They just told you where to show up and you learned the music and you showed up. I’m not going to say they [agents] do little because I know most agents work really hard for all their clients. They do work hard for their clients, but they’re not doing all the PR that agencies used to do. Many artists are doing that on their own now or hiring others to help them.
One thing that I encourage singers to do right now is take the downtime to do a variety of things. Obviously keep your skills up and practice and prepare for future gigs. It is also a great time for them to rework their materials. Get a new headshot, if you have the resources.
TB: And I’m sure the diction teacher in you also says go and study your languages?
AH: Yes, get coaching. It’s another good way to employ your coach in this time. Or maybe get an acting coach where you can run lines and dialogue. There was a really good article I read—somebody posted yesterday—about things not to do: don’t stay in bed all day, get dressed every morning even if you are working from home. It was just a list of obvious things that pros that work at home do to be successful. I think that’s an important thing for all of us to do no matter whether we’re a professional singer or a teacher. Try to make things as normal as possible. We know [these times] are not normal, but don’t totally interrupt your entire routine.
TB: So what is something that you could teach me about your experience dealing with COVID-19?
AH: That everyone is more resourceful than they think they are. If you just take a moment, take a breath, relax, [and] center your thoughts. When we think about performing, most of us have a ritual before a concert or a recital. So this is our performance. And our performance over the next few weeks is this drama that’s on stage right now in the world. So take a moment, collect your thoughts, and make a plan. Sit down and write down your thoughts. Don’t type them out on your phone. Get a pen and paper. Scratch it out so you can reorder things and draw little doodles when your mind wanders. But just map out a plan.
One of the things that we’re facing right now is uncertainty. So, two days ago I was justgoing to be out of teaching for two weeks. Now we’re going to be teaching online for the rest of the semester. Who knows what the announcement tomorrow will be? Or what kinds of things will be passed down from the government depending on where we live? So I recommend making that plan for what you’re going to do over even just the next week, and then knowing that plan may change; it may have some adjustments to it. But if you can begin to build routine into your daily pattern, I think that helps.
TB: That’s a wonderful way of putting that. My favorite question is always, what question did I not ask you that I should have?
AH: We covered the waterfront pretty well.... How’s the weather? I guess you didn’t ask me that.
TB: So how is the weather in beautiful Georgia?
AH: It’s really nice, it’s sunny today. I think people are missing out on spring. I live an hour and a half from where the Masters takes place and everyone sees the beautiful azaleas on the golf course. It’s not quite the peak of spring blooming down here, yet.
TB: So in closing, I know that one of the things that you’re advocating for is to really stay engaged with your musical community. So what’s one of the ones that you’ve enjoyed watching in the last week?
AH: I watched the video that came to me yesterday. It’s [from] a European tech person that was talking about optimizing all your settings on Zoom for audio. I think we posted it on the NATS page yesterday. But I thought that was great. And it was short, just what a lot of people needed.
I have watched a lot of MSNBC and CNN. Just this morning Stephanie Ruhle was really championing the gig worker or the worker in general and really trying to get the voice out there [to ask] “if you’re bailing out all these big companies, what is the worker going to get out of that?” The last time they did that, what did the worker get out of it? Nothing. So, I’d love to get her to engage in the arts gig economy and be our champion.
TB: Well, thank you so much for chatting with me today. It has been a pleasure.
Ich atmet einen Lindenduft from Rückert Lieder by Gustav Mahler
Shadows by John Rutter