"Music Haul is a reminder of who we are"

Monday, May 4, 2020

Brent Hallenbeckwrote this story for The Burlington Free Press on May 1st:

Vermont organization finds way to conduct music tours during pandemic

Photo: The Yellow Barn Music Haul stops by the Putney General Store in Southern Vermont

It’s been a while since you’ve seen a musical touring act, hasn’t it?

It has been for just about everybody, since the COVID-19 pandemic ended all public gatherings in Vermont in mid-March. One entity in southern Vermont, however, is keeping the concept alive.

Yellow Barn is a chamber-music center and artist retreat based in Putney. Since 2015, the organization has had a tricked-out former U-Haul truck dubbed the Yellow Barn Music Haul that brings recorded music and live classical musicians to neighborhoods around the country.

With almost all gatherings off-limits these days, Yellow Barn is driving the truck to hospitals, assisted living facilities and other institutions in and around Vermont to infuse these dark times with the joy of music.

Executive Director Catherine Stephan said recent visits in southern Vermont featuring pre-recorded music have included assisted living facilities where residents, some of whom can be seen dancing, listen with the windows to their rooms open. The Music Haul stopped by Brattleboro Memorial Hospital to play for staff coming and going during shift change.

“You can tell that it changes what many people find isolating, which is the routine” of life during the pandemic, according to Stephan.

“We’re all experiencing a different sense of time,” she said. “There is a natural coming-together of focus. We’re all experiencing something similar. I find myself experiencing the same thing throughout most of every day. With music we’re all experiencing something together, but it breaks that routine.”

The Music Haul, Stephan said, reminds listeners at a time we are distracted of why music is so essential to our lives.

“When you’re fighting for life – in some cases literally at a hospital – there is the thing that makes it worth fighting for,” she said.

Music from Brattleboro to Baltimore

Yellow Barn began in 1969 and draws professional musicians from around the world for residencies and performances including a summer festival. The Music Haul was conceived of as a way to take music out of the sometimes-intimidating confines and etiquette of a concert hall and bring it to the people, often when they least expect it.

“It’s in our DNA to educate, those of us in the music world,” said Seth Knopp, who's been Yellow Barn’s artistic director for 22 years. “Music was not written to educate, it was written to communicate.”

The Music Haul often goes into neighborhoods where the arts can be hard to find. Knopp said Yellow Barn spent a couple of months in residence in the Baltimore neighborhood where Freddie Gray died in police custody in 2015.

By going into economically depressed neighborhoods where residents have an “everyday awareness of the tenderness of life,” Knopp said it’s easy to see how music brings “all colors of the rainbow” together simply to enjoy music.

“It has been quite extraordinary to see how that neighborhood is transformed just by having that music from the Music Haul,” he said.

Performances available throughout Vermont

Because of state-imposed limits on the number of people who can be near each other in a workplace at one time, Stephan said the Music Haul is only playing recorded music for now. When musicians perform from the truck’s built-in stage, that setup requires a sound engineer and small crew.

Stephan said the hope is to have musicians perform this summer in a way that fits with COVID-19-related guidelines in place at the time. The Music Haul is available to play at institutions throughout Vermont for no fee, according to Stephan. The repertoire includes music played by Yellow Barn musicians and ranges from Beethoven to The Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel.

Knopp said the touring Music Haul is important because music is a communal experience. He said this in a conversation with the Burlington Free Press that began as a video conference call that cut out three times before the conversation was carried over to a phone call.

“(The Music Haul) is a reminder of who we are as a culture,” Knopp said. “This is who we are. We are not the virtual beings we have become.”

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