Art in the Time of Covid: Ida Mae Specker
Live performance is a tradition of the highest importance for third-generation fiddle player Ida Mae Specker. Born in a one-room cabin at the foot of Andover’s Terrible Mountain to master fiddler John Specker, Ida Mae has spent her life performing American folk music on stages, in grange halls, and at festivals from the Champlain Valley Folk Festival to FloydFest in Virginia and beyond. Vermont Public Radio’s Robert Resnik called The Speckers, Ida Mae’s band with her father and her older sister Lila, “Vermont folk heroes.” In addition to The Speckers, Ida Mae performs with traditional, old-time string band Terrible Mountain Stringband and with the all-female, folk-punk trio The Break Maids.
For musicians like Ida Mae, the early phases of the pandemic took away everything. No stages, no grange halls, and certainly no festivals. Ida Mae found other ways to connect with audiences and fellow musicians, including guest hosting a radio show and starting to offer online music lessons. With the help of an FY2022 Artist Development Grant, she enlisted Andrew Koss, engineer and studio director at The Studio at Strawberry Fields Lane in Manchester, to record and film live performances of her original music. Ida Mae will use the videos to promote her newest project around the web and also to provide documentation of her work to venues and agents.
These new skills and communication methods have helped Ida Mae keep alive the connections that inspire and enrich her musical practice, but there is no replacement for the real thing. As Ida Mae writes, “all the technical stuff is a means to an end for me. My hope for the future is that we can get back to gathering in person in a safe and sustainable way.”
Ida Mae shared her thoughts on art in the time of Covid.
How has the pandemic challenged your creative practice and/or business?
As a performing musician and an in-person, self-employed music educator, the pandemic has challenged my creative practice and business on every level. Along with so many others working in the arts and entertainment space, my business was completely shut down with the onset of the pandemic. The biggest challenge to my creative practice as a songwriter and musician has been the isolation from my band mates, as I draw a huge amount of inspiration from being part of a creative community. As a full-time parent to a 19 month-old (born in the early months of the pandemic!), I also struggle to carve out the uninterrupted time at home that I find necessary to write new music, run the back end of my business and practice. But with the support of my family and various programs, such as the Vermont Arts Council, I have found ways to transmute the challenges and initiate creative solutions.
I think that whenever we find ourselves in situations where our routine is utterly shattered and our lives are cracked open, we are given the opportunity to reinvent ourselves. As an artist, perhaps I am always chasing this feeling of reinvention on some level. The pandemic has brought challenges, but also a chance to say, “What are my core values that I’m going to rebuild myself around? How can I put forth the truest representation of myself and my values through my art?”
How have you found strength or support since the pandemic began?
My family has been my main source of support since the pandemic began, and I have also been able to access various forms of structural support which truly have kept my business moving forward. In December 2019, I released an album of original material, and last summer I was finally able to tour throughout Vermont and perform the music for the first time. My band consisted of 10 incredible musicians, many of whom front their own projects. I was lifted up above my wildest dreams by their support. The rush of performing live was so much sweeter after a long year with no shows.
I have found strength and motivation from the many positive opportunities that have emerged for me since the pandemic began. I guest hosted Vermont Public Radio’s folk and world music show, All The Traditions, for five weeks last winter. This prompted me to invest in recording equipment and finally learn how to record from home.
Last summer I toured the state with five Vermont bands and dove into the question: What can local artists offer to local people? How can local communities support and benefit from local musicians?
I was also prompted by the pandemic to launch an online lesson platform through my website where people can subscribe to fiddle lessons or pay what they can to support my work and gain access to behind-the-scenes content.
The live performance videos I recently completed at The Studio at Strawberry Fields Lane in Manchester, VT, with funding from the Vermont Arts Council, represent the “seed” of what’s to come for me next year–the next iteration of my original music and my next direction as a folk musician. I can’t wait to share more about this project!
What are your plans or hopes for the future?
As much as I appreciate all the unexpected opportunities that have come out of the pandemic, my heart is in performing and collaborating with my creative peers. I am a LIVE musician. All the technical stuff is a means to an end for me. My hope for the future is that we can get back to gathering in person in a safe and sustainable way. I believe that live music is almost like a form of group therapy for human beings. Live music offers a way for people to gather and feel connected on an emotional level. This group experience builds trust and strengthens our human bond and is an incredibly powerful way to channel our collective energy. I hope that, when I do get fully back to work, I am able to integrate all the lessons that Covid has taught me about myself, my business, and the world at large. I plan to release new music in 2022, launch new collaborations, and tour during the warm season as much as possible. Out of the quiet and into a world of possibilities!
What are some ways people can support your work right now?
You can sign up for my subscription program at www.idamaespecker.com/subscribe or book me for your 2022 season if you are a venue! There are lots of simple, free ways to support my work, such as sharing my music on social media, throwing in a good word with your favorite local venue or festival, or signing up for my newsletter on my website. I am also giving in-person fiddle lessons and leading kids folk music classes at Southern Vermont Arts Center in Manchester, VT, for those of you who are within driving distance. Thank you for your support!
Visit Ida Mae’s website.
Connect with Ida Mae on Instagram and Facebook.
Watch Ida Mae perform her original song, “Almost Lovers.”
Watch Terrible Mountain Stringband perform at Green Mountain Bluegrass and Roots Festival.