Salem Symphonic Winds musician Alicia Rasmussen tries to play through her "flute boot," a device intended to minimize the spread of aerosols (Courtesy/Alicia Rasmussen)

When Covid struck, the musicians of Salem Symphonic Winds had to get creative.

Alicia Rasmussen, a flautist and piccolo soloist, bought a specialty face mask and a “flute boot.” The bag encompassed her instrument and trapped her hands while she played - an attempt to minimize any potentially virus-spreading aerosol spray. 

“I wanted to play so badly, I bought them all,” she said. “How do you even turn the page?” 

To pass the time, woodwind specialist Kevin Vaughn took up whittling. He spent months sequestered in his home perfecting his reed-making skills. Devoid of any opportunities to play with others, he also doubled down on solo practice, putting his 10-volume collection of difficult clarinet excerpts to good use.

“I decided that every day, I was going to pull out one of those books, open to a random page, and master it,” Vaughn said.

After more than a year spent practicing solos at home, the band’s fifty-plus musicians are looking forward to their first chance to play together in front of an audience. Their inaugural performance will be held Aug. 15 at McMinnville winery Youngberg Hill.

They’re aiming for a more relaxed atmosphere than a formal concert hall performance, said Artistic Director John Skelton, giving audience members a chance to enjoy rock, jazz and Broadway tunes that pair well with a glass of wine. 

The benefit concert also provides an occasion for the band’s musicians to shake off the cobwebs and enjoy a long-anticipated reunion. 

“That emotional impact of not being able to have that connection, and not being able to share their gift with people in the community is certainly something we all grieved,” Skelton said. “We are looking forward to resuming.”

Time to rebuild

Since 1975, Salem Symphonic Winds has used live music to bring audiences together. Being stripped of that last year was heart-rending, Skelton said, but it also dealt a major financial blow to the nonprofit.

In March 2020, the group had been rehearsing its long-anticipated performance of local composer Kevin Walczyk’s symphony, “Freedom from Fear.” The concert would have featured a collaboration with Salem Big Band, a female soprano soloist and a boy soprano.

They had to cancel just two days before curtain. Skelton estimates that rescheduling would cost $40,000.

Another slated spring performance, a joint concert with the Oregon State University women’s choir, was also postponed indefinitely. The band had already allocated

a $10,000 grant from Salem’s Transient Occupancy Tax program into production and marketing for the event, as well as the organization’s matching funds needed to qualify for the grant.

“Covid really did hit us very hard financially,” Skelton said. “We’re looking at rebuilding, so our benefits are a big deal for us.”

Skelton and the organization’s board of directors are counting on ticket sales from the benefit concert to help jumpstart the upcoming season. The performance - titled “Chant at the Moon,” in homage to a regional legend that claims fruit should be harvested ahead of the full moon to maximize its sweetness - will also feature vocal soloist Jeff Witt and xylophone soloist Tim Sasaki.

“We have some very special people joining our regular players for this concert,” Skelton said. “That kind of thing just makes the joy of getting together that much richer.”

Once the band resumes its regular season, Skelton said he plans to design a set list of music that appeals to children - "to get them away from their Zoom screens" - for the first concert. 

While a typical season would usually include four concerts, the remainder of this year will depend in part on ticket sales from the Youngberg Hill event, as well as the fate of an Oregon Cultural Trust grant application.

In the meantime, the upcoming benefit performance represents a light at the end of a very long tunnel for the band’s musicians.

On top of Salem Symphonic Winds, Rasmussen and Vaughn also play together in a quintet. The group got together in one of their homes for a socially distanced session a few months ago, once all five members were vaccinated.

Rasmussen laughed when she recounted the layout of that first rehearsal -- her stuck in the kitchen, watching her colleague keep the downbeat in the dining room, trying to listen to the other players in the living room.

Not ideal, as far as acoustics go, but no matter. It was a revelation.

“It was amazing. Because for me, playing music -- you’re a part of the whole. It's not just all about one individual, and you form friendships and bonds, and you have to listen to each other,” Rasmussen said. “You don’t want to take it for granted anymore.” 

Salem Symphonic Winds will perform "Chant at the Moon" 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 15 at Youngberg Hill winery, located at 10660 SW Youngberg Hill Rd, McMinnville. Adults tickets are $25 and children's tickets are $10, available online at salemsymphonicwinds.org/make-purchases/

Calley Hair is a Portland-based journalist. Contact her at calleyhair@gmail.com or via Twitter @CalleyNHair.

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