Notes from a Pandemic

By Charles McKenzie, November 24, 2020
The healing power of music.

Nearly 500 years ago, King Henry VIII of England dismissed his court and pulled together a quarantine squad, which included his doctor and his top musician. Across the world and throughout time, musicians and music fans have used the art to soothe their isolated souls. And these days, music to the ears might even take the form of a chime, a horn, clanging pots and pans, or a soothing cacophony of them.

Can You Feel the Love Tonight?

At 7 p.m. in New York and other cities, horns honk, sirens blare, and pots and pans clang a patchwork of gratitude that blankets semi-muted cities in a heartfelt attempt to salute the work of medical personnel. Although these essential workers are the guests of honor, the hoopla is a gift they didn’t ask for at an event they never imagined they’d have to attend. Their goal every day is to save lives, eradicate the virus, and render the greatly appreciated nightly celebrations unnecessary. So while they work long, hard hours in a city not often known for its effusive praise, they soak it all in. 

doctor at the piano

Dr. Edward Goldberg ’83 practices medicine in Manhattan.

“Hearing the seven o’clock cheer is really overwhelming,” said Madeline Arena ’13, DPT ’15, a physical therapist in Manhattan. “Sometimes I just stand in my window and cry because I’m shocked at how much people appreciate what we’re doing, and sometimes I don’t even have to go to the window. It’s super loud. People are outside dinging cowbells and banging pots and pans, and yelling. 

“The only thing that keeps me going, honestly, is the 7 p.m. shout-out,” said Dr. Edward Goldberg ’83. “I’d say at least three times a week, that brings tears to my eyes.” On some nights, he joins in with a pot and a pan. The gastroenterology and internal medicine doctor has seen the virus from two perspectives. After catching it from an elderly patient, he spent two lonely but asymptomatic weeks in his Manhattan apartment, away from his fiancé, Ron, and his two dogs who remained in their home upstate.

Goldberg would sit at his piano noodling or playing his favorites. “Any Elton John, Billy Joel, or a good Sondheim song. He has a song called ‘Being Alive,’ which I’ve found myself being attracted to.” In it, the singer proclaims: “Alone is alone, not alive. Somebody, crowd me with love. Somebody, force me to care. Somebody, let me come through. I’ll always be there, as frightened as you, to help us survive, being alive. Being alive. Being alive!”

Spring Awakening

But nowhere celebrates being alive like the hospitals. Many have a special song or sound they play when a COVID-19 patient is released or extubated. Cheering health care workers sometimes line the halls as triumphant patients are wheeled out. One woman rose and briefly danced her way into her car. Physical therapist Victoria Rainaud ’13, DPT ’15, listens for the sublime chimes at CentraState Medical Center in New Jersey. For Arena at New York–Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia Medical Center, it’s the Black-Eyed Peas singing, “I’ve got a feeling (woo hoo) that tonight’s gonna be a good night.” Arena keeps a rough mental count of how often it plays in a day as a kind of barometer.

“At the beginning, it was very rare, but now I think I hear it like 10 times a day, which is awesome,” Arena said. “When I hear it, it kind of puts me back into my groove.” She said at the peak, she was having horrific days, “and then I would hear that song broadcasted, and I’d be like, ‘Okay, good things are happening. I have to keep going. Let’s do this!’ It was just kind of like a reset moment when you heard it.”

Give My Regards to Broadway

Fran Toscano ’14 is glad that the night before the theatres went dark, she got to see Hadestown (with producer Larry Hirschhorn ’80 and assistant scene designer Lawrence Moten ’12). Outside of the theatre that night, she was wearing a mask and gloves as part of the Red Bucket Brigade and collecting money for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. It was the first and last week of what was supposed to be a six-week campaign to raise money largely for AIDS causes but also for other types of health issues and emergencies in the entertainment industry—such as when a pandemic forces all of the theatres to go dark.

Each week Broadway is closed, an estimated $33 million is lost in ticket sales, affecting almost 100,000 jobs. As a result, Broadway Cares and Toscano, who was an integrated marketing communications major at IC and is now a communications specialist, switched fundraising gears. She moved the effort online and launched a special COVID-19 Emergency Assistance Fund to help those in the entertainment community who need emergency financial assistance, health insurance, and counseling. All of it is administered by The Actors Fund, which also raised money in a special return episode of The Rosie O’Donnell Show, guest-starring Aaron Tveit ’05 and Jeremy Jordan ’07. Tveit’s Moulin Rouge: The Musical! went dark after 10 months when a castmate contracted COVID-19. Tveit appeared on Rosie from his Manhattan apartment.

“The thing that I miss the most about live theatre right now is the connection to our audience and the connection to people,” Tveit said on the show. “So, what an incredible thing for us all to be able to come together to raise money…and help people in crucial times like these.”

His debut in Little Shop of Horrors delayed, Jordan also helped The Actors Fund by putting his Tarrytown songs on the music streaming service Spotify and appearing in a Smash reunion. He said, “There are so many people out there who are struggling, and we all know that this might be one of the last jobs to come back online after this whole thing has passed,” Jordan said. “Thank you all for being so incredibly supportive of the Broadway community during these crazy times; we all can’t wait to get back to Broadway to entertain.”

Jessica DeShong ’07 created a parody music video called "Part of That World," which lamented being socially isolated last spring.

Life Is a Cabaret

In Los Angeles — where almost all production came to a halt — actress, singer, and musician Jessica DeShong ’07 spent three days producing a music video, a commentary on her social isolation that contained a shout-out to frontline workers. 

The song, called “Part of That World,” is a parody of “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid. She sings from her couch, “I wear PJs and slippers aplenty. I stream Disney Plus all day long. Want some toilet paper? I’ve got 20. But who cares? I have way too much time to create this song.”

Because IC’s Commencement was virtual, choral professor Janet Galvan asked DeShong to record a congratulatory speech for IC School of Music graduates: “You are now equipped with a superpower. That is to create music, and to foster the love of music in others. So no matter what’s going on in society, remember that you have the power to heal and the power to refresh and to energize others through the music you create. You will always be needed. So go out, live your life, love what you do, and never stop making music.”

DeShong also collaborated with former classmate Zack Ford ’07, who began the Coronavirus Cabaret (, where friends — and even strangers — could pick a song for Ford to record on his piano and send to them. They could then record themselves singing along with the piano music, and Ford would post it to the YouTube channel.

His idea started when the quarantine did.

“I love getting folks together to sing, and I knew that would be one of the first things that would go during the pandemic. I wouldn’t be around people making music in the same way, and so what could I do to still make that happen?” 

Zack Ford ’07

The musical theatre major thought about his ensemble of friends in the Washington, D.C., area, many of them professionally trained but not all of them working in musical theatre. They are people like Ford, who works as a press secretary for the Alliance for Justice, an advocacy group dealing with the justice system.

“I love getting folks together to sing, and I knew that would be one of the first things that would go during the pandemic. I wouldn’t be around people making music in the same way, and so what could I do to still make that happen?” 

The answer debuted March 15 and was a hit—at least on YouTube and especially with Ford’s fellow IC alumni. As of June, they had sung about a third of the 44 songs, which at $10 per song, led Ford to donate $440 to The Actors Fund. Viewers were encouraged to donate directly. 

“There are definitely ways that people are using music that I think really stand out, and then you’ve seen all kinds of concerts and alone-together projects. I think people are recognizing, ‘Well, I can’t be around people. But one of the things I can still share with them is music.’”

Erin Jacobson ’05 and Krista Donough ’05 were best friends who lived on Ford’s floor in Terrace 4, but they had more than that in common. They had each planned to perform solo, and then a funny thing happened on the way to Ford. 

“I thought it was hilarious that they both requested the same song within hours of each other without having discussed it in advance,” Ford said about their choice of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” In his introduction to the duet, he noted, “They agreed to the challenge of figuring out how to sing it together. I guess you’ll never walk — or sing — alone!” 

Matthew Hill ’03 is a choral music teacher and drama club director in West Chester, Pennsylvania. “I jumped at the chance,” he said of participating in Ford’s cabaret. “It gave me a chance to sing a song from one of my favorite shows [City of Angels], and it gave me a creative outlet that I’m missing now that I’m not able to direct my middle school students,” whose performance of Aladdin Jr. was postponed indefinitely.

Some of the recordings are more polished and highly produced. Some are interrupted by little ones—toddlers and pets. They include an insurance agent, a Hollywood actress, a five-year-old, a new dad, a curious cat, and a 14-year-old whose school production was canceled because of the pandemic. 

Noting all of this from nearby at the Library of Congress Music Division, Melissa Wertheimer ’08 contributes to a new web archiving project documenting life during the pandemic. The former flute performance major is now an archivist and music librarian leading a team of two colleagues who select internet content to archive that “represents what the performing arts world is producing right now, how the performing arts world is affected by the pandemic, where music is going, how our lives are going to change, which organizations are raising money,” Wertheimer said, pointing out that some items are creative in nature, but others include news, scientific studies, blogs, and more. 

“I love that there are a lot of initiatives in the music world especially that are bringing people together to be creative but also to have a sense of community in isolation. That was actually why I selected Zack Ford’s initiative, the Coronavirus Cabaret,” said Wertheimer, who also included DeShong’s quarantine parody. “It’s evidence of musical creativity that is influenced by the very condition of quarantine. But also it shows evidence of community and fan music-making and engagement.”

So, next year, when the Library of Congress is no longer competing with internet sites that are still live, the archived websites will be entered into the library’s digital collections. Thanks to Ford and Wertheimer, this will give a digital legacy to the Coronavirus Cabaret recordings right next to performances from orchestras and internationally renowned musicians. 

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