Dec 22, 2020

The New Normal Q&A: Production Manager David Costello

In The New Normal—our new interview series—we speak to the musicians and staff of Tafelmusik, to ask how working and performing in new ways has changed our routines, and our operations as a performing arts organization.

In this interview, we sat down with David Costello, our Production Manager, to hear his perspective on how this “new normal” has affected his work and life.

Elisa Citterio, David Costello, and Marco Cera in Jeanne Lamon Hall

Tafelmusik: The phrase “the new normal” has become a staple of our everyday vernacular. What does “the new normal” mean for you, as it relates to your life, and your work with Tafelmusik?

David Costello: I am grateful that I am able to describe my life as “normal” in any way, new or otherwise. I’m still very aware that for many, these past couple of months have never normalized, and remain an ongoing crisis. I am thankful that I am still able to work, and work in an environment where I feel safe. It’s kept my life in some semblance of a comfortable rhythm and provided me with stability and security. I am very lucky to have that. 

The work we do at Tafelmusik really does feel like “normal”. Yes, if you ask me to think about it, I can list all the changes, both big and small, from how things were a year ago. And occasionally, I do catch myself noting how quiet it is at Trinity St-Paul’s, noticing not just the absence of our audiences but of all the groups that make use of the space. All that activity created a real sense of vibrancy and life in the building. These days it feels almost dormant. 

But I don’t dwell on that too much during my day to day, oftentimes because I’m too busy. As a Production Manager, my work is best described as project management mixed in with the day to day hands-on work of keeping things running smoothly on and off stage. Much of the work of presenting a digital concert looks very similar to putting on a live concert. There are schedules, rehearsals, tunings, and all the rest of it. Filming our work for digital release has meant that we bring in a film crew a couple of times each month, but it’s a real testament to the work of our film teams that they’ve integrated so well into our process. All in all it’s kept me just as busy, if not more so, and because of that I’m so wrapped up in the present I don’t dwell on the past. 

In my personal life, I’ve missed summer and its warm weather even more this year. Losing comfortable access to the outside has made socializing in person impractical for the most part, which has been hard. A lot of things that have been taken from us during this pandemic such as going to the movies, eating at restaurants, visiting the AGO, can be swapped out for at home activities. But a zoom call doesn’t quite feel the same as being in the same room, especially with a group of people.  

TM: What does working as a production manager in a digital capacity look like? What’s easier, and what’s more challenging? What are the biggest differences, versus producing a live event?

DC: As I alluded to earlier, while the specifics of my day to day may be a little different, the overall feel of my job remains the same. My responsibility is to make sure everything is in place so that our musicians and singers can create amazing music together. By swapping out an audience for a film crew, some of those pieces do look a little different, but the main question remains the same, “How do I create the best environment for the work?”

The big difference between the work we’re doing now, and a live concert, is that you can work in live performance and be a perfectionist, but at the end of the day, each performance is immediate and ephemeral. Mistakes happen and there is nothing you can do about it.  When recording, you feel like you can always do another take and fix a small error. But you only have so much time, and so you have to let some of that perfectionism go, which is hard. It also means that the most critical days are when we record, not the concert nights, and it means that instead of two hours of intense focus, we stretch that out over two days. 

From a logistics point of view, space has been the hardest piece of the puzzle. When you put two meters of distance between each orchestra member, even our fifteen person orchestra takes up a lot of room. Add in a camera team, and you end up needing a very large space to record in. But that space also needs to have good acoustics, be well ventilated, climate controlled, and have space for people to distance when they’re not playing. You’ll be surprised to know that some of the largest venues in Toronto have the smallest dressing rooms. Finding spaces that fit that description and are available has been difficult at times. In this respect, our long standing relationship with Trinity St-Paul’s has been a godsend. Without their hard work and flexibility, we could not have done everything we accomplished this fall.

TM: You have been working back at our home base, TSP, since September, in advance of our first program Mozart Together. How did it feel returning to our physical workspace for the first time?

DC: A big part of why I can describe anything these days as normal is because for most of the fall I was going into Trinity-St Paul’s and being in rehearsal each day. It was wonderful to work out of somewhere that wasn’t my kitchen, and to get back to working on something physical. Part of the reason I enjoy what I do is because I’m not stuck in front of a computer all of the time. During the summer, all the work I did was on my laptop, and by August I was getting tired of it. Even the simple act of setting up chairs and stands for rehearsal felt great. On top of that, it was nice to see all our musicians in person, and I felt privileged that I was able to hear live music throughout my workday. 

TM: What do safety measures look like for you as a production manager? Have there been any parts of the safety protocols which were surprising or challenging?

DC: I’ll say that the majority of the safety protocols we follow here at Tafelmusik shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s reading this. We’re wearing masks all the time, and we’re keeping our distance as well. We also thought about ventilation and air flow a lot, especially as we were getting ready to start in September.  In terms of challenges, I think the barriers for the wind instruments and singers have been the biggest. Even though we picked a material to have the least impact on our singers and musicians as possible, it’s still been a struggle for them to hear each other when they play.

They make it much more difficult for the ensemble to play together and it can’t feel great for our wind players to be stuck in a little box every time they play. 

As for surprises, the shifting nature of the rules and regulations around our response to the pandemic has made things quite fluid at times. Cutting 5 or 6 musicians from a program at the last minute because gathering restrictions have changed has knock on effects that can change things that we had planned months in the future. I think we felt this the most when we were about to go into rehearsals for Passions of the Soul and the gathering restrictions changed somewhat suddenly. It meant reconfiguring that program on short notice, something I think none of us want to go through again. It’s a testament to everyone in this organization that what Passions of the Soul eventually became was such a success.

TM: In terms of adapting to overseeing online production and streaming, what have been the biggest surprises or challenges?

DC: During a live concert, you’re in the same room as the audience. You know you’re all having the same experience (without getting too post modern). When we host a digital concert, if something goes wrong, the why and the how can be really difficult to track down. This is because the path that the streamed concert takes from Trinity-St Paul’s to your home passes through so many layers of technology. It’s difficult to ensure that everyone is enjoying the best version of the concert that we’re trying to share with them. Something can look and sound perfect from where I’m sitting, can be out of sync or distorted for someone else because of a unique interaction between their internet service provider, YouTube, and the web browser they’re using. A small example is that for one concert YouTube displayed  everything as slightly redder then it should have for no clear reason. I don’t think it impacted people’s enjoyment of the concert, but I’m sure some long time subscribers noticed that Brandon Chui’s viola had a bit more of a fire truck hue than they’re used to. 

But contending with these challenges, big and small, has meant that many people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to see a Tafelmusik concert can join us. People from across the globe, as well as within our city, are tuning in and enjoying the work we do. We have many audience members who live in long term care homes who are feeling very isolated these days and write to let us know that watching our concerts brings them immense comfort these days. Feedback like that reaffirms for me why it’s important that we keep making music, even during these exacting times.

TM: Are there any socially distant activities you have been enjoying? How have you been keeping up, outside of work?

DC: When I lived in St. Catharines, I used to scuba dive with a club down there. When I moved to Toronto last summer that wasn’t as easy to do, so I’ve taken up surfing on the Great Lakes. I’m still very much a beginner, but it’s been great to get out on the water and have that separation from the world. It’s also pushed me to see new parts of the city, as some of the best spots are in the east end. Being born in west Toronto, and living there now, I’d never been to the Scarborough Bluffs before this year. Seeing new places and doing new things has helped keep this year feeling fresh, and not like a lost year that I’m just writing off until things get back to normal. But now that it’s getting colder and colder, it’s a bit chilly for me to surf. Though if you head down to the lake on the right day, you’ll still see some diehards out there. So instead I think I’ll be staying inside and catching up on my backlog of movies and maybe get more adventurous in my home kitchen. 

TM: We at Tafelmusik will be taking some much needed time off over the holidays. Do you have any big plans?

DC: My partner’s family has a cabin that we’ll be staying at for at least two weeks, just the two of us of course. It’ll be great to have a chance to really disconnect (there’s no internet) and be out in a bit of nature. For the first little bit I’m sure I’ll just lie around the house being a couch potato, but once that gets stale there’s a couple of cooking projects that I’ve been putting off because they’re all day affairs and I haven’t really had the time. First on the list will be making my own ramen broth from scratch, which I haven’t done for years.

TM: Anything else you’d like to share?

DC: I just want to wish everyone reading this a very happy holidays and thank you all for the support you’ve given Tafelmusik since March. Those of us who work here really feel the love our community has for us and it’s been a huge boost for us and the work we do. Here’s hoping that 2021 brings us back together in person at some point. 

New Normal