Pandemic strikes sour note for Memphis musician’s big plans

Feature Image: Rachel Johnson, performing at University of Tennessee, Knoxville, is maintaining her entrepreneurial drive while responding to barriers presented by the pandemic. Photo courtesy of Johnson.

Rachel Johnson watches income sources dry up while she still works to provide creative solutions for her students.

By Rachel Johnson, for MLK50

I am dealing with so much disappointment and anxiety due to unforeseen events as we turn more toward digital day-to-day interactions and restrictive travel. It all just seems so unreal. You lose some realness when you can’t interact with your family, colleagues and students in person, I believe.

I am a 26-year-old classically trained viola player, graduate student, music teacher and social entrepreneur. As an independent contractor, I depend upon day-to-day social interactions and relationships with my community to earn my income. If I can’t teach in person or play in person, it’s difficult to earn the same income I’ve been making.

I left my comfy, well-paying teaching job at Power Center Academy to pursue my graduate degree full-time at the University of Memphis. I also became a Memphis Music Initiative fellow where I teach and mentor. I do other kinds of consulting work, such as researching funding opportunities for public school music programs.

During a virtual music lesson, Rachel Johnson realized one of her student’s needed a piece of equipment to make her violin play better. Johnson ordered the item, called rosin, and dropped it off at the student’s home in a socially distant manner, complete with a mask and gloves. (Rachel Johnson)

Pre-COVID-19, I taught about 80 students at Central High School and Bellevue Middle School how to play string instruments, such as the violin, viola and bass. This was four days a week.

I also taught evening music classes at Metropolitan Baptist Church and worked with the Harmonic South Strings Orchestra program to teach children music in the South Memphis area. The program provides transportation and meals to kids on Monday and Tuesday nights. To help motivate students to learn classical instruments, I implemented Taco Technique Tuesdays and would provide tacos for all the students who came to practice both days out of the week. The kids were usually hungry because they had long days, and they were already walking everywhere.

I’m used to not being paid during the summer as a former charter school teacher. Being in graduate school and financially responsible, I just knew I would be able to sustain. When students and teachers left school for spring break in mid-March, no one anticipated we would not be returning.

The pandemic brought all of my plans to a halt, like my nonprofit, Memphis String Project. In its infancy, the initiative aims to help teach music in underserved communities, such as East Memphis. It also brought to a halt my spring break mission trip to Jamaica.

I planned to spend July and early August in Tanzania in East Africa volunteering with the Daraja Music Initiative. This student-teaching experience would have counted toward my master of arts degree. Now the organization has cancelled this year’s trip due to COVID-19.

Payments are due. I keep getting emails saying so.

Without this opportunity, I cannot register for any more classes to be at least a part-time student this summer because the ones I need are not available. Because I won’t be enrolled, my student loans will kick in and loan forbearance lifted. Payments are due. I keep getting emails saying so. Graduation is delayed by at least one semester.

On top of this, my Memphis Music Initiative fellowship is a 10-month contract ending in May. In the summer, I usually replace missing income by playing gigs and working at local music camps. Those are out of the question this year. My income has been cut in half, and more than likely will drop to zero if COVID-19 persists through the summer.

My income has been decimated. I live alone and am responsible for paying rent, utilities and health insurance. I went through private insurance to get a plan that is on the pricey side, and you have to renew it every six months. The Affordable Care Act marketplace is trash. If you make too much money, they want you to pay $300-$400 a month. Their idea of “too much” suggests you’d have to make zero money to get affordable coverage.

After this, we need to do better

Though I’ve heard on social media and in grocery stores that many believe this epidemic is a hoax, it is not. It is actually very real to me and the community I serve. COVID-19 sheds light on an economic system that is inequitable and one that calls for drastic change — felt by all people — while it disproportionately affects black communities in Memphis and other U.S. cities.

I’m finding how little broadband internet access people have in Memphis. For example, 82% of South Memphis and 57% of Whitehaven homes don’t have broadband access, according to the U.S. Census.

I’ve been talking with many of my students and their parents on FaceTime and Zoom. Students in my community have been cut off from the technology and resources available at school, and as an educator that is heart-wrenching. Even when I teach face-to-face, I often loan instruments that have been given to me to kids who don’t have one.

I’m also doing virtual lessons and asking how my students are doing and what they’re eating before I listen to them play and give them constructive feedback.

I’m also doing virtual lessons and asking how my students are doing and what they’re eating before I listen to them play and give them constructive feedback.

I have a lot of beginner students who can’t tune their instruments yet. It’s difficult, but we work through that. I help my students with their bow strokes and break down music into chunks so they can focus on technique, like I did with one student who was playing music by Mozart.

In a photo taken by Johnson, her student now has what she needs to make her violin bow and strings play better.

One of my students told me she couldn’t practice because she could barely hear her violin. It was because she was out of rosin, a natural resin that is rubbed on bows to create friction on strings and create sound. I ordered some from Amazon for $7.99. I would normally buy locally, but that’s not possible now. When it arrives, I’m going to cover my face and wear gloves, and drop it off outside of her house.

Just as many of my career plans have come to a halt, so has their education. In response, I spearheaded a special project called that provides teachers with engaging resources to help students keep creating music from home. I know many kids do not have their school-loaned instruments at home or access to a computer, but many resources can be used on a smartphone. For example, students can download apps to access self-guided lesson plans as teachers focus on boosting creativity within this challenging time. Despite the financial calamities and interrupted plans, I remain hopeful and active in making a positive change in my community through this pandemic.

Where do we go from here?

This piece is in partnership with Memphis Music Initiative. High Ground News and MLK50 are running first-person essays from area workers whose income and livelihoods have been rattled by the coronavirus pandemic. Here are some of their stories.

This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation, the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund at Borealis Philanthropy, Southern Documentary Project at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, the American Journalism Project, the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, and Community Change.

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