Vaxxed & Amped: Rehearsal Spaces Are Filling Up With Artists ‘Dying to Play’

In their tiny rehearsal space in an old Birmingham, Ala., shopping center, where a mystery critter nibbled inside the walls, all eight members of the soul band St. Paul and the Broken Bones spent three-plus hours in mid-April playing their songs — without masks or social distancing. The band members are fully vaccinated, and with outdoor tour dates planned throughout the summer, they needed to get back to business.

“You get a little teary eyed,” says singer Paul Janeway. “Nobody was rusty. Everybody kept their skills sharp.”

After a year of surreal isolation, concerts are trickling back, from 25%-capacity shows at Red Rocks Amphitheatre, in Morrison, Colo., to outdoor festivals like the Gulf Coast Jam in Panama City Beach, Fla., starring Luke Bryan and Brad Paisley in early June. And that means rehearsals. Some bands spent quarantine writing new material, and they have to learn it together; others lost members who liked staying home more than being on the road, so they have to try out replacements; and others need to play for plain old catharsis.

“We feel like, ‘OK, we’re vaccinated. We’ve done our social duty. We’re good,’” Janeway says. “It does feel liberating at this point.”

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With so many musicians of all ages able to get vaccinations, business has returned almost to 2019 levels for rehearsal studios like Third Encore in Los Angeles, which has had a “dramatic uptick” over recent weeks, according to office manager John Hoik. “This weekend we were full — all seven studios going,” he says. “I don’t do a survey, but from conversations, the majority of band members, and crew people, are fully vaccinated, or have had their first shots.”

Because of the uncertainty of scheduled live dates, band members’ ages, the uneven pace of vaccinations, and musicians’ own anxieties about joining others in a small room, artists are all over the place when it comes to rehearsals. Still, some are straightforward, returning to a rehearsal routine as if nothing happened. To prepare for four nights at Red Rocks in late April, the five members of instrumental jam band Lotus stopped by their Denver rehearsal space, fully masked. “Everyone had at least one shot,” bassist and sampler Jesse Miller says. “We were trying to prep about 75 songs. There wasn’t really time to reflect. We just needed to get down to business.”

Elle King, the “Ex’s & Oh’s” singer scheduled to perform several dates in July and August, returned to her band’s airplane-hangar-like Nashville rehearsal space April 13. Half the band members had been vaccinated and everybody wore masks, although King removed hers to sing. (Also showing up: Country star Miranda Lambert, to run through “Drunk (And I Don’t Wanna Go Home),” to prepare for her Academy of Country Music Awards duet with King.)

“To get to be rehearsing and playing with our friends, it feels like the world is waking up again,” says King, who is pregnant but waiting to get vaccinated until after giving birth due to a hormonal imbalance. “It feels like we’re getting some semblance of our life back.”

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Performing music in a small space, especially for singers, has been among the most dangerous activities throughout the coronavirus era — the Skagit Valley Chorale, in Washington state, held a rehearsal in March 2020 that turned out to be a super-spreader event, leading to the death of two of its elderly members. From that point, bands abandoned studios like Third Encore, which lost almost all of its bookings and had to abruptly pivot to its equipment-storage business.

Over the past year, though, University of Colorado scientists found that as long as singers and horn players (and even their instruments) wear masks, rooms are properly ventilated and musicians take breaks, bands can rehearse relatively safely in studios. “You can get HEPA filters for $30. Putting masks on people is cheap,” says Jean Hertzberg, an associate mechanical engineering professor who worked on the study. “Even rock ‘n’ rollers can afford that.”

Hertzberg can’t say whether vaccines will allow bands to rehearse without masks, but they do decrease the likelihood of exposed musicians having to go to the hospital: “That’s not a trivial change.” But to Alex Huffman, a University of Denver aerosol scientist and chemistry professor, vaccinations unquestionably make the rehearsal process safer.

“If you want to be in a band and rehearse in a small space, get everybody vaccinated and wait three weeks from the last dose and you’ll be good,” he says. “I’d feel reasonably comfortable with it.”

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Even if they’re vaccinated, many musicians are taking time to process the idea of rehearsing again with their bands. Marcia Ball, the veteran Austin, Texas, boogie-woogie pianist, is more than two months past her second Moderna shot, but she won’t be able to drag her band from other cities and states to her home rehearsal space until early June. “It would be so much fun — I haven’t even wrapped my head around that part yet,” she says. And the Mavericks weren’t able to rehearse together until soundchecks before three socially distant concerts at the Moody Theatre in Austin in early April.

“Everybody was excited to see each other and to play and nervous and scared all at the same time,” says frontman Raul Malo, adding that the full band is vaccinated except for one younger musician. “Once we started jamming, it all just falls into place.”

Musicians in their 70s, who were among the first to be vaccinated, were in theory able to begin rehearsing early this year. But many have taken weeks to get comfortable with the idea. Felix Cavaliere, frontman for The Rascals, received his first Pfizer dose in early February, but his almost-fully vaccinated band won’t return to the studio until, tentatively, June.

“Dying to play, man,” he says. “We’re just waiting for the doorbell to ring and we’re ready to go to work.”

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