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Performers in the Time of COVID: Manny Arciniega

I talked to the incredibly skilled and versatile percussionist Manny Arciniega on Zoom from his home in Silver Spring, Maryland in the week before Christmas. He was surrounded by interesting equipment so I asked for a virtual tour. He picked up an electric guitar from a stand and pointed to a coffee machine behind him (the most important bit of gear of all, Manny informed me) but most impressively he showed me the modified guitarist's pedal case he had built to house a complicated arrangement of loopers, mixers and faders. Using this rather daunting contraption he was able to transport his gear to his weekly residency at a DC arts coffee house where he played as a duo with his friend Chris, a bassist. Until Covid struck of course.

Manny explained that in the few years before March 2020 life had settled into a comfortable pattern. His wife had set up a successful business running walking tours, he had become a father times two and he had been performing regularly both with Chris and as a percussionist for musical theatre and for the many community and regional theatres in the area. In fact at the beginning of 2020 he was part of a small onstage orchestra providing incidental music at the Olney Theatre for a play called Miss You Like Hell. Manny said that in the last weeks of February the show was wrapping up and they were just discussing extensions. 'It had become stressful,' Manny said. 'We were having to clean everything all the time and report any strange symptoms. And then it all went up in a puff of smoke!'

At first Manny and his wife panicked. Her business had to close and all his performing ground to a halt. He had been doing very little teaching and found himself with one student when all other sources of income were suddenly unavailable to him. 'We had savings of course and support, but there were some very dark days.' But the couple's resourcefulness saved them. Manny's wife applied for grants for small businesses and a PPP (Payment Protection Plan) loan. Both of them were eligible for unemployment insurance but juggled that with trying to earn as much as possible.

'My wife has wonderful organisational abilities and was able to find work helping small businesses. And my tech skills were good enough that the pivot wasn't as jarring as it might have been.' Manny invested in some high quality microphones and an interface and quickly found work making video content for bands and theatres to use on social media. He also was employed as a video editor by a wonderfully inspiring arts Institution called Arts for the Ageing ( where he had previously been performing regularly. And best of all, the DC based Levine School for Music with which he has been associated for many years, commissioned a virtual performance to celebrate the centenary of the Argentinian composer, Aster Piazzola ( So Manny has been busy arranging parts, practising and recording.

'Just before the pandemic struck,' he explained, 'we had bought a place in South Virginia with some friends and though the additional mortgage looked frightening when suddenly we had no income, it has really saved us. My wife took the kids there for a weekend so that I could practise the Piazzola. It was such a joy to be playing vibraphone hour after hour. On the second day I woke up with blisters and aches but even though I wasn't always as technically proficient as I might have been, the music was so satisfying. The energy was fluid.'

The property in Virginia has been a wonderful investment in other ways. In the summer the family formed a bubble with friends and stayed down there for two months cleaning and fixing. 'It was very peaceful. There was not another soul in sight.'

As Manny described his happy summer his face lit up. In fact, when I asked him if these difficult months have taught him anything, it was the joy of being close to his family that he talked about. 'As musicians we can be so pressured and busy all the time. It's been such a privilege to be with my kids full time and to watch them develop. There was something devastating going on all around us but we managed to find ways to grow together and to see the brightness. I feel thankful for that. I feel thankful for the wonder and amazement of watching them grow up.'

Manny told me that he's interested in what things will look like in 5 years. He is wondering if the performing arts will embrace virtual reality. 'I think it's going to be scary and exciting at the same time.' Whatever the future holds it's clear that Manny with his versatility and ability to embrace the unknown will find a way to make it work.


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