By Martin Boncia
As Loudoun County marks the passage of one year since the COVID-19 pandemic locked down much of the United States, musicians are taking stock of the performing arts landscape still hamstrung by social distancing protocols and restrictions on public gatherings.
In March 2020, the concert calendar was wiped clean, as booked shows were canceled and venues closed their doors. In the time since, professional musicians like Loudoun jazz pianist Quentin Walston have navigated the pandemic by playing to their strengths and passions, renewing their emphasis on songwriting and composition as a way to connect with their audiences.
In late 2019, Walston, pianist, composer, and bandleader, was promoting his debut solo album, “Play.” The album, assembled from his backlog of songs and recorded with an assortment of musicians, touched on a variety of genres and styles. “Play was more a compilation of my compositional voice at the time,” Walston recalls. “Here’s what I sound like as a composer.”
He was beginning to book shows where his compositions would take center stage, as well.
“That was when I was really starting to want to perform in bigger venues, and start to get away from only doing what I’d call background music kind of gigs,” he said. “I have nothing against background music. I did that for years, and I think it’s necessary to do those kinds of gigs as you hone your skills as a musician.”
At the end of that year, he was given a residency by the Loudoun Arts Council to write a suite entitled the “Loudoun Pastorale,” a through-composed piece which he describes as “jazz-adjacent.” The piece, originally intended to be unveiled in March 2020, has yet to be performed in public; like so many other events that year, it was derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Walston still expects it to be released, someday; “Whenever the Loudoun Pastorale will be performed, it’ll be performed, and I’m excited for that.”
Walston, a teacher at the Catoctin School of Music in Leesburg, spent much of the spring of 2020 adjusting to teaching his students online. He describes that transition as a success.
“I feel super fortunate that we’re able to teach,” he said. “We’re so fortunate to have this Zoom technology and all this stuff. I have a MIDI keyboard that I can plug in, so that they can actually see a keyboard on my screen, and they can see every single note that I play. This technology is amazing. Even ten years ago, when I was graduating high school, I don’t think we could have done this kind of teaching.”
The absence of concerts led Walston to put renewed emphasis on his composition
“My teaching was able to blow up, I expanded with forms of classes. Even though I lost a lot of the gigs, I was able to refocus.”
He began work on his latest work, a four-movement jazz suite called “The Good Book”.
“Over the course of the summer I’d been writing, and little elements started to pop up, and then the idea of the suite came,” he said. “Christianity is a really important part of my life, and I was trying to think of a way that I could highlight some of those aspects without being preachy, and make things accessible while at the same time lifting up my God.”
Walston regards “The Good Book” as a diverging point in his career, as well as a testament to his current band.
“It really highlighted a change in my writing style. Before that, a lot of it was a lot of complexity, and trying to really stuff in as much as I can. Especially coming out of the pastorale, which was through-composed for five more traditionally classical instruments such as bassoon and cello, and I was writing very cerebral music. With the Good Book suite, I was more laying back and focusing on these themes, these motifs that the Trio would explore further.”
The Trio, composed of Walston, drummer Daniel Kelley II, and bassist Ben Rikhoff, rehearsed the piece just a handful of times before performing it to a socially distanced audience (and, digitally, to an audience streaming it at home) at the Franklin Park Art Center near Purcellville in November and again this March.
Walston credits the trio with the successful execution of the piece.
“These guys are such amazing players, that I could rely on them, and we could really come up with something well-executed without having a lot of rehearsal because of the nature of the genre and their musical intuition,” he said. “I was really lucky in that regard. I can’t speak highly enough about those guys.”
Looking ahead to 2021, Walston expects to record “The Good Book” in the studio. As venues in the area gradually begin booking shows again, he expects to return to his pre-pandemic goal of playing shows geared towards a jazz-listening audience, even if that means fewer gigs overall.
“One of the positive outcomes of the pandemic was it put a greater emphasis on artists to be more versatile and more broad in their business,” Walston said. Musicians can’t just focus on gigging as the main form of income. I think the pandemic proved that. Since I’m able to still support and provide for my family through music, through teaching, and over avenues, that does allow a little bit more selection in venues. I don’t absolutely need to play at “brewery X” to pay rent. I really don’t want that to sound arrogant in any way, because I absolutely love playing music, so I don’t want to dismiss that whatsoever. I have a little bit more freedom. It’s not that I don’t want to take gigs because I’m above that; I think that by being more selective about the gigs I take, I can help reach a better potential audience and play to those who are truly there to enjoy the music that I put out.”
Walston describes Loudoun’s pre-pandemic venue circuit as more than vibrant enough for him to find the right kinds of shows. He cites B Chord Brewing and Franklin Park Arts Center as “strong beacons,” with an intense focus on music, as well as Trungos’ “Jazz Jam Clubs” events, as evidence that as wineries and breweries look to differentiate themselves.
“Loudoun County doesn’t have to build a multi-million dollar performing arts center. I think they can adapt current spaces for focusing on music,” he said. “That is where Loudoun is, and where it can continue to expand; and I hope it does.”
Walston worries about the impact the year of lost social contact will have on the next generation of musicians.
“Especially for kids that are in elementary school, a year feels so much longer than a year when you’re out of college or something. For that, it can have a huge impact,” he said. “There are critical moments that are lost.”
He cites the experience of overcoming stage fright as something that may not translate into the socially distanced digital learning environment most students find themselves in. “Positive memories, positive aspects, the feeling of accomplishment. For some of these kids, it might seem to be continually going on and on with no clear goal in mind.”
“I think, too, realizing how cool it is to see live music might be lost,” he said. “That in-person, seeing someone’s hands on the fingerboard, seeing them actually pluck the strings has something … there’s something that’s tactile that might be missed.”
Quentin Walston’s next performance will be April 10 at the Barns at Rose Hill, for which tickets are available both in-person and for a livestream.
His music can be found at quentinwalston.com.