Musicians Ask Gardner to Lend an Ear to Extending Unemployment Benefits

Colorado Symphony violist Helen McDermott leads a procession of musicians and protestors in front of Senator Cory Gardner's office.
Colorado Symphony violist Helen McDermott leads a procession of musicians and protestors in front of Senator Cory Gardner's office. Nell Salzman
On July 27, the Non Violins Marching Group performed songs outside of Senator Cory Gardner’s office in Denver and delivered a petition asking him to support an extension of the $600-a-week federal unemployment benefit.

“Most musicians are entirely or largely unemployed because of COVID-19, as are many Coloradans, and we want Cory Gardner to focus a little bit more on helping those Coloradans and a little bit less on the fundraising for his campaign,” says Helen McDermott, a Colorado Symphony violist, one of the founders of Non Violins, who organized the event on July 27.

The musicians played four different songs. While they performed “Amazing Grace,” to honor those who have lost their lives from COVID-19, a police officer informed them that they weren’t allowed to continue to stand on federal property. McDermott asked him questions long enough for her fellow musicians could finish their song.

The music group itself was formed by politically active violists from the Colorado Symphony in 2017, right before the women’s march that year.

“We wanted to do something a little bit different and fun, so we came up with this idea,” McDermott says. “We went out and got some flier clips, figured out how to attach them to the scrolls of our violas, and got a song leader. People loved it.”

They have been marching since then, performing at demonstrations about women’s rights, climate change and health care. There are around half a dozen core violists, but the other members vary. Colorado Symphony oboist Nicholas Tisherman joined the protest at Gardner's office.

Tisherman, 25, is one of the younger members of the Colorado Symphony. A New York City native from a musical family, he attended the New England Conservatory in Boston, then the Colburn Conservatory in Los Angeles for a year before getting his current job. Playing with the orchestra has been a lifelong goal.

McDermott majored in music at Oberlin College and went to graduate school at Yale. Her first job was in Puerto Rico with the Puerto Rico Symphony. After playing in California for a few years, she moved to Colorado in 1987, and has been working with the Colorado Symphony ever since.

She used to perform at three or four concerts a week, but because of the pandemic, she has not been to work since March. “I miss the music. I love playing music, and I love orchestral music. I love being a part of a large ensemble,” she says.

click to enlarge Helen McDermott has been playing with the Colorado Symphony for over thirty years, but has had to drastically change her lifestyle in recent months. - NELL SALZMAN
Helen McDermott has been playing with the Colorado Symphony for over thirty years, but has had to drastically change her lifestyle in recent months.
Nell Salzman
Tisherman reiterates how much he misses playing; he says it gives him purpose and identity. He’s been staying busy by offering free entertainment over Zoom to residents at nursing homes, but says that work won’t pay his bills.

“To have my career ripped out from under me and to have no control over when it will be back is very painful,” he says. “I can’t get through this without some federal aid.”

In addition to her job with the Colorado Symphony, McDermott is part of a string quartet that is currently rehearsing and doing outside performances, but she misses playing with the whole orchestra. And though she also teaches viola lessons, she thinks that not many students like to learn over Zoom, so her numbers have significantly dropped.

There was no response when the Non Violins called both Gardner’s Denver office and his Washington, D.C., office with their “violagrams,” or singing telegrams; they left the senator two voicemails of their parodied tunes. McDermott says she emailed Gardner a few days earlier and received a generic response about the crisis, with no explanation of steps he's taking to help Coloradans.

Gardner's office did not respond to requests for comment.

When asked about what will happen to the Colorado Symphony in the coming years, McDermott says that she is unsure. Last week, there was a small outdoor concert at the Denver Botanic Gardens, but there hasn’t been much else.

“In the short term, we really need to be thinking outside the box,” she says. “I think we just have to be flexible until we’re past the pandemic...and at that time, I think people will be really eager to go to live music performances.”

Tisherman adds that he’s hopeful the Colorado Symphony can do what it can through live events, outside concerts and other alternatives. But he notes that it will be a while, if ever, before these creative solutions are lucrative. “We want so deeply to provide music and entertainment and solace for everyone in the area,” says Tillerman. “We’re so starved for performing opportunities.”

He admits that he was more excited to come out to protest Monday morning than he should have been. “This was the first time I was able to wear a sash,” he says, looking down at the pink fabric draped over his shoulder. “It’s a big honor.”

Without work, McDermott is finding peace by walking her dog, cooking, practicing with her quartet, teaching lessons and participating in the occasional Non Violins event. While her husband isn’t a musician, she says she often worries about families where all the breadwinners are musicians.

“You can’t make ends meet just with state employment benefits, although I’m very grateful for those. We musicians need federal help. A lot of people are struggling,” says McDermott.
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