Isolation Drills: Gabe Preston (GPS, Stella Ruze, You Do You)

Like the majority of you, all of us in the Philadelphia area are staying at home, learning to adapt to our “new normal.” MAGNET is checking in with local musicians to see how and what they’re doing during this unprecedented time. Photos by Chris Sikich.

Preston: Where do I even begin with what the last year has been like because of this pandemic?

Well, if the pandemic never happened, I would’ve been playing on some big festivals last summer with Stella Ruze, notably XPoNential Fest and Philadelphia Folk Fest. I also would’ve spent all of last fall studying abroad in Amsterdam for Temple’s exchange program with the Conservatorium van Amsterdam. So when I found out last year that these things were getting cancelled because of the pandemic, that really killed my mood.

But despite the complications, this last year really allowed me to pull myself together in terms of trying new things, being able to properly reflect on the times where I made a fool out of myself (both then and now) and being able to work harder from there on.

With all the gigs getting cancelled, one of the first things I had tried at the start of the pandemic was performing solo livestreams on social media in my room. I wanted to be able to make more use out of my loop pedal and other effect pedals as a way to strengthen my independent playing in the event that I ever have to play solo on a gig in the future. As a result, a lot of the playing I did on my livestream sessions was loop-based, and it ended up being a pretty effective way to practice developing melodies and harmonies over specific progressions, as well as developing flexibility in time-feel when playing.

However, as time went on and everyone’s schedules were becoming more occupied, I felt like I was beginning to hit a wall in terms of the consistency of the ideas I was churning out, and I had to tell myself to stop so I could spend more time on regular practicing, listening and writing. It really was fun while it lasted, though, and definitely something I’ll revisit in the near future.

And then came all of the remote recording projects. Even to this day, I still find myself having to record remotely for some other people’s projects, and it’s really proven itself exhausting, but in a satisfying way. In fact, my main project, GPS (Gabe Preston Sounds/Sessions), decided to put together our first two singles, “Yumeni” and “I-76” (featuring Martronimous), through this very process in lieu of us going to the studio together. I can definitely say we don’t plan on recording anything else until all of us are fully vaccinated and able to go to the studio. (Which should be later this year.) But maybe I’ll record myself doing some of those aforementioned solo loop jams for a future track?

This pandemic also marks my first time giving lessons to students online. I lost a significant chunk of my teaching studio at the start of the pandemic due to a handful of students not even wanting to bother with online lessons. But it really reassures me that there have been those out there willing to take lessons regardless of the scenario. And while teaching online is certainly a different animal from teaching in-person, it inspires me that my students online still learn so much and are able to get the work done at the end of the day.

I was eventually eased back into some degree of in-person teaching through places like the Puerto Rican Institute Of Music on Fifth and Lehigh, where I teach flute and basic keyboard/music theory to all ages, particularly those from the communities surrounding those areas. But I have to say that when you find yourself getting into a lot of tight schedules like I’ve been through school, being able to teach someone online can be quite convenient.

Now let’s talk about school. When late August rolled around, I was skeptical about how well Temple’s Boyer College Of Music was actually going to work in a COVID environment, and as a result, I began feeling less confidence in my personality and playing in the first quarter of the year. On the one hand, I could’ve just taken this school year off altogether so I could practice more for next year. But on the other hand, we’re looking at my last year of music school as a whole, and although I had considered taking gap years in the past, I knew deep down that Boyer’s insanely talented faculty and student body were the two factors really pushing me forward as a musician even in the darkest of times.

So I kept moving forward. My practice habits changed drastically from week to week as I became more and more accustomed to what this whole school year was going to offer for me physically and mentally. And yet, it was through this greater acceptance of reality and having to deal with it that my confidence began to slowly build itself back up again. By the end of last semester, I was genuinely impressed how I managed to be able to play socially distanced with a whole big band, pull off playing in a virtual ensemble, have socially distant jams in-person and have the freedom of having lessons either in-person socially distant or online.

As I wrap up my final month of school, it’s no surprise at this point that this semester has proven to be my most challenging one yet. Three big bands, more small-ensemble work than last semester, more students signing up for lessons with me, some of the most difficult lesson assignments I’ve ever received, an upcoming degree recital that I’ve had to make serious preparations for and a whole graduate thesis that took me a bit just to get started on.

Earlier in the semester, I even found myself having to see a therapist for the first time in my life because my self-frustration from wanting to do things right had just gone too far. There have been a lot of times where I felt like I reached my limit despite wanting to do more, but at the same time, I can’t say I’m mad at all about having all of these challenges because these were things that needed to happen to me eventually. If anything, I’m grateful for gaining new perspectives on life through every challenge I face in these times. 

That being said, my master’s recital will be streaming this Sunday, April 18, at 5:30 p.m. EST. (Can’t make it? The replay will still be up after it’s over!) I will be premiering eight new original compositions that were all written at various points throughout the pandemic. Joining me will be Marisa Webster on trumpet, Dan Blacksberg (who’s been running the klezmer ensemble at Temple) on trombone, Jared Radichel on bass and Stephanie Phillips on drums. I will be juggling bari/soprano saxes while also having a flute and clarinet feature.

Undoubtedly my biggest takeaways throughout the entirety of this pandemic have been to not only be really patient with yourself and the music, but to also have faith in yourself and the music. For example, while I’ve been getting a lot more music writing done than ever before, that writing hasn’t come at the cost of me running into numerous blocks and having moments of presenting things wrong due to lack of patience. But that didn’t stop me from wanting to give up altogether. As time moved forward with me studying my music, I felt myself developing a greater bond with what to expect from myself, and as a result, I began having more trust in the music as I accepted my personality with greater honesty.

When last summer kicked in with all the protests going strong, I never thought live music would ease its way back in with bands having outdoor jams and even protest jams. It just goes to show how patient and devoted artists—or anyone who enjoys what they do—can be when it comes to working around big obstacles like this pandemic. When I played in these environments, it felt like starting on clean slate, but in a very fresh way. I’m not sure if it was because my mindset since the start of the pandemic had entirely changed or because I was starting to gain a stronger understanding of music in general through reflecting on my past mistakes, but I could really hear that there were things being said in the notes being played around me. And that was humbling.

Even when things got cold again, I was impressed that various venues eventually figured out how to get live music going in the safest ways possible. In fact, one of my more recent gigs was actually GPS’s first gig since the start of the pandemic! This past March, me and my drummer, Ben Singer, played together inside of the Philadelphia Suzuki Piano Academy on 47th and Cedar as part of the Warp Factor 9 Concert Series led by Erica Corbo, and we shared a bill with Kendrah Butler-Waters. It really was such a fun evening, and it made me feel like I was playing with my own band again, especially when our keyboardist, Anthony Passante-Contaldi, pulled through with one of his backing tracks. While the livestream was incredibly successful, we actually would’ve had a live audience outdoors if it wasn’t for the rain.

With both of my parents and a handful of my fellow peers and mentors fully vaccinated, as well as my full vaccination on the way, it’s crazy to think that things are slowly pulling themselves back together after all this time. But emphasis on “slowly” because this recovery phase could still take a lot longer than we expect it to. Until the day comes when things are absolutely back to normal, we must continue to make the best out of what is in store for us now and be prepared for anything to happen in the future.

I can’t thank my friends and family enough for helping me make it this far in these times. It’s only onward and upward from here on.

GP signing out!

P.S. Be on the lookout for an upcoming You Do You album release this year in the form of Funky Dinos. I poured a lot of sweat tracking all of the saxophones and flute on this pre-COVID, and I only look more and more forward to when everything finally drops!