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Making Music in Alaska Means Resilience

Updated: Jun 30, 2021

2020 was difficult for us Alaskan musicians.

COVID-19 eliminated most of our gigs or shifted them online. In that new context, we struggled to find audiences, compete with popular media, and make money. To do that, we needed a new skill set, and we had to attain that and use it from home. Even though we got creative and kept our careers afloat by making and sharing music in new ways, many of us wound up feeling somewhat empty and isolated—exactly the kind of feelings for which music otherwise provides the antidote.

The pandemic wasn’t last year’s only curse, nor will it be the only one to stick around. Our entire country, Alaska included, is still facing the consequences of social injustices that have long festered like a national wound. We have also experienced local tragedies, both public and private. During such times of tension, music can bring us together by opening up discussion about important issues. But it can also be emotionally taxing for us to lead those discussions. Adding our voice to the chorus is a privilege, to be sure, but the weight of it can add to the burdens we already carry.

Yet we have shown resilience. Not only musicians, but also the entire community -- the ecology -- that supports our work offered inspiration and ideas for overcoming difficulties in the upcoming year. Festivals reorganized to provide content online or gather outdoors safely. Funding opportunities sprang up to distribute much-needed grants where they would make the most difference. Bands, ensembles and symphony orchestras restructured to provide new kinds of performance opportunities for players and engagement opportunities for audiences. Venues found creative ways to stay safe and open to the public - at least for a while. Now they are finding ways to stay afloat financially while waiting for the day they can safely reopen. And, of course, music teachers - both inside and outside the school system - adjusted and expanded to serve changing student needs.

The music community is an obvious place to look for adaptability and creativity, because music itself connects us and promotes mental health and self-awareness. Musicians make a habit of practicing the sort of creativity that helps us respond to challenges in everyday life. Even if these tangible -- and lately very useful -- abilities were not what drew us to music in the first place, we should nourish them and make them visible to others through our audience engagement and music scene advocacy. Let’s face the public showing how creativity drives the inspiration and the ideas that can overcome difficulty!

2020 may be over, but we will continue to need the inspiration and innovation that music and the arts provide. Such fountainheads of resilience ought to come from within. Because Alaska doesn’t have big cities, we cannot expect random opportunities to show up on our doorstep. Alaska is a different place entirely, and we Alaskans are proud of it. Making music here means working together across disciplines, organizations, and politics to understand and celebrate our circumstances and draw on our unique resources. Supporting one another in response to this place is how we can build something special that is all our own.

Michael Dickerson is an Anchorage composer, writer, and educator. He is a board member at Northern Culture Exchange and a 2020 Rasmuson Individual Artist Award recipient.

This blog post is an adapted excerpt of an article published in The Alaskan Landmine on Dec 28, 2020:

The resilience of Alaskan Music Communities by Michael Dickerson. Thank you to Michael Dickerson for his permission to publish this edited version.

In future blog articles, Alaskan musicians share their stories about facing 2021 with new skills and energy to overcome the ever-evolving pandemic challenges.


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