Isolation Drills: Grace Koon (Grace Vonderkuhn)

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.

Koon: I guess I’ll start “from the top.” (Wink, wink—music joke.) In February 2020, we had just wrapped production on our second album. It was a somewhat tumultuous road getting to that point with the new album, on top of managing our full-time jobs, our various side projects and life in general. But we finished it. Finally.

We had shows scheduled into the spring and summer, labels to shop our album to, photo shoots, videos and album art to create. It felt like things were about to get moving again–and then the world ended. Or at least, it hinted at ending. The panic, the empty shelves, the ghost towns.

My music career quickly jumped back several spaces on my list of things to worry about and obsess over. Success in the music industry has always been uncertain, but now everything was uncertain. “What’s going to happen to my day job? I wish I hadn’t thrown out that soap in the back of my cabinet last month. Should I start making my own toilet paper?” It was surreal and scary and extremely weird.

The first show we canceled was sometime in March, and that made sense at the time. But after a few weeks (or months?), it slowly dawned on me that we weren’t going to play any shows for a long, long time. I started to dread every canceled show date that came and went. The night we were supposed to play with the Districts, I think I drank too much and just stared into the abyss.

Sometime in the spring, I did an acoustic Guided By Voices cover for a Crafted Sounds web stream, and now I can’t look at the video without cringing. My face was puffy from crying, and I was literally sitting in a shadow the whole time. A little on the nose if you ask me. Truthfully, it was difficult seeing the industry I had worked hard in, and sacrificed for, fall apart at the seams. Venues began closing, and a path forward was hard to imagine.

At some unknowable point in time (because, what was time anymore?), I began to question why it was so hard for me to give up playing live shows and, in some sense, give up the idea of success in the music industry. Of course I knew it was tough because so much work was involved and, at the same time, I’d had so much fun doing it. But it was more than that.

So, I dug deeper and discovered another aspect which was kind of uncomfortable. I realized that so much of my identity was wrapped up in being a musician, I didn’t know exactly who I was without it. I relied on the external validation I got from shows to give me confidence. In my mind, I played music that people liked, therefore people liked me. Without the validation from playing, I felt isolated and unworthy.

Suddenly my music career had felt like one big ego trip. I questioned my motives and why I pursued music in the first place. It seemed almost like a crutch I used that kept me from growing in other areas of my life. Rough times. It would suck if the story ended right here. I quit! I’m not a musician anymore! But, that’s not what happened.

I delved into other interests in my life like yoga, hair cutting, baking, hiking, studying French and an addiction to The Golden Girls. I spent quality time with my sweet dog and wonderful partner. I reminded myself that I am a whole person with or without the “musician” label. But through all of this, I kept playing and writing. I kept coming back to it no matter what, not out of obligation but out of want. I started writing some of my favorite material to date and I played it for no one but myself. And I realized something else, outside of ego, outside of validation: Playing music is an act of self love. It’s a processing tool and a healthy coping mechanism, and it always has been.

The first time we were able to practice together again as a whole band, tears of joy welled up inside me. My bandmates, Dave and Brian, pointed out that we were able to experiment more without the pressure of performance. We played one outdoor show over the summer, and I don’t know if I’ve ever had a better time just playing with my band.

Of course, there will always be some ego involved. I wouldn’t be human otherwise. Through this experience, though, I’ve learned to better recognize the craving for external validation. Instead of focusing on it, I choose to view playing music as an act of love. I truly believe music itself has healing power. I’m grateful I was able to connect with other people on that beautiful, mysterious energetic level, and I hope to do it again someday.

The pandemic wrought an array of difficulties for each of us, but one small silver lining for me has been time to reflect and grow a healthier relationship with music. For that, I’m thankful. My band and I still have so much to share, and we couldn’t be more excited.