COVID-19 Impact on CNY Arts and Culture: Gig Performers Stuck at Home With No Gigs

Apr 17, 2020

Ronnie Leigh, right, and Oliver Wiggins.

Syracuse’s freelance singers and musicians are among those whose gigs all but evaporated after COVID-19 began shutting down bars, restaurants, casinos, banquet halls, and music venues.  Here's the next story in our series on how live performers are coping without places to perform. 


Long-time entertainer Ronnie Leigh had been following the news leading up to…and upon his March 12th return from a gig in Florida, and was getting ready for weekend shows at Del lago Casino.

"I fully expected the cancellations that started to roll in.  I had no idea how long it would be, but it felt pretty intense because I had lost some things just the same as everyone else, up until the end of May.  So, here I am today, sitting the same as everyone else, trying to use my time as wisely as I possibly can.  

For example, Wednesday night, he and other musicians performed separate sets on Facebook live in a tribute to late Syracuse street musician Elijah Harris, Jr. He was struck and killed earlier this month while riding his bike. 

Freelance trombonist Melissa Gardiner recalls gigs were disappearing as she arrived in Metro Detroit for her final performance the second weekend in March.   

"I remember going through the stages of grief, where initially, I thought  'oh my gosh...everything I do revolved around social gatherings and revolves around people.  I'm going to lose all my work.'  That realization transitioned into 'OK, how are we going to  make this work, how can we get creative.'  I got a call from Chad Lefkowitz-Brown, who's a jazz saxophonist in New York City to be part of this virtual big band, and he was on it right away."

Melissa Gardiner
Credit Michelle Van Dyke / via

But, none of this pays the bills…at least not yet. Gardiner says it’ll be a long haul to think of how to create an income online.  Meanwhile, she realized so many others are in the same boat…and things will be OK.

"The day the federal government allowed self-employed and gig workers to claim unemployment was the day I was finally able to breathe again, relax and not stress, be more present, and be creative again.  It freed me up to go back to my artistry without the extra pressure of financial concern."

Gardiner says she’s trying to balance staying engaged with fans and home-schooling her children during the pandemic.  For Ronnie Leigh, he’s never seen anything like this in his over five decades of performing.

"The only thing I can liken this to is many, many years ago, not being able to get as much work.  But at that time, it wasn't as bad, beacuse, even if I didn't have work for 2 or 3 weeks or a month, or if it looked really dire, I took it upon myself to find a job doing something."

Leigh says with the pandemic, that’s much more difficult.  But amid the uncertainty, he and others he’s talked to are in relatively high spirits, knowing we’ll come through this.

"There will be for all of us, a lot of reinventing going on.  We're just trying to keep a smile on our faces and move forward," Leigh said.

"In the short term, it won't be the same.  But in the long term, we sure are going to appreciate the little things a lot more.  Just being able to connect and everything we miss now, we hopefully won't take it for granted in the future," Gardiner said.

Special thanks to promoter Tom Honan for help with this story.