It’s easy to lament the COVID-19 pandemic as the dark ages of Toronto’s music scene. Live music is a distant memory: 11 venues have closed, others are teetering on the brink of shutting down, and in-person teaching and collaboration are gone for the moment. Nonetheless, Toronto’s musicians and aspiring professional musicians here at U of T are persisting — even challenging the white and cisgender-heteronormative structures of the industry. 

The Varsity heard from two members of the Toronto music community and two members of U of T’s music faculty to find out about how they’ve adapted to the new COVID-19 reality.

A virtual venue

Ceréna is a solo recording artist from the city who has been active in the industry since 2012, though she noted that her time has been spent mostly in “trying to appease to the white, cis-het industry.” 

“It almost killed me,” she wrote.

In 2019, she came out as transgender and then changed her name the following year. She is set to release her first album as Ceréna later this year. 

Ceréna wrote to The Varsity that, at the beginning of the pandemic, she felt “very sad because here I was thinking that the best years of my life were going to be spent in lockdown.” However, that changed when Ceréna helped to found a nightclub for the LGBTQ+ community: Club Quarantine. 

Club Quarantine, hosted on Zoom, sees hundreds of virtual partygoers gather to connect with other members of the LGBTQ+ community from social isolation and watch artists as popular as Charli XCX, who performed a 30-minute set on March 25. 

“Building a global community of people who are just like you has been incredibly healing… it’s also been very inspiring to connect with the queer underground scenes from all over the world,” Ceréna wrote. 

LGBTQ+ venues, such as the hugely popular Crews and Tangos, were already struggling prior to the pandemic. COVID-19 “was the nail in the coffin” for those venues, Ceréna explained.

Ceréna noted that LGBTQ+ talent in the city is thriving, and she’s excited to see the community create in-person spaces when it’s safe to do so. However, she added that those “in charge of this city” don’t care about “preserving the culture and creating space to support the people that make this city so special. I really love this city,  this is my home… but we need a revolution.”

Creating and reflecting

Cat Montgomery, also known by her stage name Cat and The Queen (CATQ), is a Toronto-based singer-songwriter. She misses performing at live venues; however, she wrote to The Varsity that she’s taking the pandemic as “an opportunity to get real [and experience]… what life is like out of a service industry job – like what life is like if I spent less and had the time to work on art and music.”

Like many other musicians, CATQ has embraced online platforms to share her work. Every Sunday, she hosts a morning show on IGTV. 

“I’m releasing my third album February 26th – and I created it up north, in a cabin in the woods – it’s low fi – and it feels like every song on the album is a snapshot, tracking my experience during this wavy, chaotic, paradigm shifting time,” CATQ explained.

CATQ is also taking this time to care for herself by “walking by the toronto waterfront,” “[engaging] in active addiction recovery,” and connecting with loved ones. 

She wrote about the future of Toronto’s music scene: “Honestly I hope there is live music on every corner and people are fucking in the streets.”

Music education online

While students at the Faculty of Music may not be as impacted by venue closures as Ceréna and CATQ, this past year’s online reality had significant ramifications for them. With in-person learning, collaboration, and concerts no longer a possibility, music students had to adapt to maintain the level of creativity and innovation required of them.

Emily Tam is a fourth-year student in the music education program at U of T. Despite the fact that the Faculty of Music is fully online, Tam wrote that there are still ways to collaborate with other musicians. 

For an upcoming performance with another musician, Tam wrote that “although we can’t record and perform in-person, we are individually recording our parts and with some audio and visual editing, it is going to sound and look like we are performing together… it usually involves a lot of trial, error, and practice!”

Tam believes that despite the fact that “the act of making music has changed, music making has continued through different forms and functions throughout the pandemic.” 

In addition to her studies, Tam is also the president of the Faculty of Music Undergraduate Association (FMUA) and maintains that “students at the Faculty of Music are still creating music during lockdown.” 

Alongside the newly formed Faculty of Music Anti-Racism Alliance (FoMARA), the FMUA will be highlighting racialized musicians on its social media accounts leading up to March. At that point, the faculty’s Benefit Concert Series will commence, and performances by racialized musicians will be posted on Instagram and Facebook every Monday.

The Benefit Concert is an annual event for the Faculty of Music and has previously been a one-off performance; this year, however, organizers opted for an online series. All proceeds from the Benefit Concert Series will go toward the Faculty of Music’s Black and Indigenous Musical Excellence scholarship.

Calls to action

It is not only the pandemic that changed music students’ experience this past year. Calls for racial justice in the faculty have arisen following the killing of George Floyd by a police officer, and the subsequent protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020. 

Inspired by this movement, 170 U of T students and faculty signed a letter demanding the Faculty of Music head institute anti-racist changes. 

The FoMARA emerged from this letter. When The Varsity heard from the FoMARA at the beginning of the academic year, it was committed to continuing to dismantle the racism and Western bias permeating through the program and providing a space for student voices to be heard. 

Anika Venkatesh, Vice-President of Events on the FoMARA and second-year student studying Classical Voice Performance, gave The Varsity an update on the club’s progress. 

“In the classroom, I’ve definitely seen a shift in how some professors are teaching, centralizing the music of [Black, Indigenous, and people of colour] composers and trying to incorporate different kinds of music to teach various concepts,” Venkatesh wrote.

However, Venkatesh noted that this is more of an individual shift, and that “curriculum changes we would like to see implemented are based upon a more holistic approach to incorporate anti-racist practices and discussion across all departments within the music faculty.”

Despite the fact that the pandemic forced the club into a virtual existence, Venkatesh explained how that “has allowed for a very broad reach for our club.”

They wrote, “Launching this club during COVID has been a really interesting experience, and we’ve been able to achieve a lot more than I think any of us imagined initially.”