It starts with a trickle at 7:25 p.m. People walk north from Bloor, some wearing masks, carrying groceries, others carry children. A few ride bikes, but most come on foot, everyone heading toward the same Annex house.
Vanessa Fralick walks with a trombone in one hand, her other hand in her pocket. Neil Deland carries his French horn. Kyle Windjack bikes with his trumpet case in a milk crate. Marcus Thompson leaves his apartment across the street, also carrying a trumpet.
The musicians gather in the laneway and front yard of the home where Adam Seelig and Nomi Rotbard stand on the porch with their teenage sons. The place is blooming with tulips, daffodils and music stands.
More front doors open and porches fill in as Seelig gives last-minute notes to the musicians. What started as a way for his family to thank front-line workers has become a nightly ritual for dozens in this neighbouhood. On this cloudy May evening, they are celebrating their 60th song in 60 nights.
At 7:30 p.m., pots and pans are clattering in other parts of the city, but you can’t hear them on this Annex street as the brassy gallop of “9 to 5” takes over.
The physically distanced crowd members nod, tap their feet, and a few hit the handles of their bikes and scooters in time with the country classic. Some hold up their phones to capture a gathering that none could have imagined months ago, a gathering that will soon dissipate as quickly as it appeared.
“Most of you probably get that that was a song by Dolly Parton called ‘9 to 5,’ ” Seelig shouts, because there is no sound system here. “Something I’m not sure many of you are experiencing right now. It’s more like 24-7.”
People laugh. Their days have been long, their days have been different, but they have come to count on this bright spot.
The newly assembled band — Horn on the Cob and the Social Distance — reprises a song from an earlier show, announces a birthday, and the neighbourhood sings a mask-muffled rendition to a neighbour who can’t believe her parents in Brazil were able to get the message to the band. Then, Seelig closes with a variation of what he says every evening around 7:36 p.m: Stay safe. We’ll see you tomorrow.
When it was clear they were going to be at home for a long stretch, Adam Seelig and his family started thinking about a creative project to add more structure to their days. Seelig is the artistic director of One Little Goat Theatre Company. While he primarily plays the piano, he and his teenage sons can play other instruments, too.
Shai Rotbard-Seelig, 17, plays the trombone in his school band, but picked up the tuba a few weeks before COVID-19 hit the city. Arlo Rotbard-Seelig, 13, brought his trumpet home on a whim for March Break. They decided to arrange and play a different song each night to honour front-line workers.
Their first performance was the first day of spring, but it was still very cold as they stood on the front porch wearing toques and gloves, playing a trombone, tuba and a trumpet. Nomi Rotbard started it off with a cheer for front-line workers, and then the trio played the swelling theme song from 1980s television show “The A-team.”
In the neighbouring homes, doors opened. Tim Hadwen and his family walked outside: “And there they were.”
A couple days later, Toronto Symphony Orchestra musicians Vanessa Fralick and Neil Deland were having a cocktail on Zoom when they heard the live music, something they were both missing. They told their friends they had to go, but by the time they walked a few doors down, the Rotbard-Seeligs were gone. Their front door was still open so Fralick and Deland yelled a greeting, and were invited to join the band any night they wanted to.
“We ended up going every night,” Fralick says.
Not long after, the TSO musicians were in the driveway for the concert when Fralick recognized two young guys getting out of a car across the street. They had both been faculty assistants at the National Music Camp of Canada, and one of them, Marcus Thompson, happened to be moving into the neighbourhood for a summer sublet. “Do you have your trumpets?” she asked. They did.
“Sometimes the band feels a little bit like the Doobie Brothers or the Sun Ra Arkestra, where we have this revolving door,” Seelig says. “Sometimes someone will be away and someone else will come.”
The audience has also grown. (They asked the Star not to publish the street, so they can keep physical distancing manageable.) One day, trumpet player Marcus Thompson saw two nuns on the street and invited them to that night’s concert.
“I didn’t think they were going to come but then a couple of weeks later they came with all the nuns,” he says, counting seven religious sisters in the audience.
They’ve performed the Backstreet Boys, songs by Seelig’s favourite pianist and composer Abdullah Ibrahim, songs for Passover and Ramadan, tributes to musicians John Prine and Ellis Marsalis, who both died of COVID-19 complications. Requests are sometimes incorporated. They never reveal a song in advance. They’ve done “Bobcaygeon” by The Tragically Hip in honour of long-term-care homes, and the personal losses people in their neighbourhood are enduring.
They take turns arranging the music, although most of the work is done by Seelig or his son Shai, says Neil Deland, who is the principal horn with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Each day, they practise their parts on their own and then come together for the performance. Aside from Fralick knowing the guys from camp, they were strangers to each other before this. Deland calls the musical output of the Rotbard-Seelig family “unprecedented.”
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“Especially for two teenage boys to be playing this much new music every day,” Fralick adds.
The Rotbard-Seeligs moved into the Annex neighbourhood about 15 years ago, when Shai was a toddler. Adam Seelig knew his immediate neighbours, but life was busy. It’s different now. The musicians, the audience, everyone knows each other better. They have celebrated at least a dozen birthdays together. They have mourned together.
“Basically, social isolation has brought us closer,” Seelig says. “We’ve become close with neighbours of several generations through music. There’s a paradox there and it’s been a beautiful one.”
Tim Hadwen live two houses away. “You know a lot of days, it’s the highlight of the day,” he says. “We all go back inside feeling a little better.”
Neighbour Stephanie Koenig hasn’t missed a show since her roommate stumbled upon a concert during a walk. Koenig recently posted a few videos to Facebook with a note that read: “In 7 years, I’ve never met my neighbours. Now, seeing them is the best part of my day.”
People from other parts of Canada wondered how that was possible.
“It’s not intentional, I’m sure everyone is really nice, but that is just the way Toronto is. It’s just never really happened,” the event planner explains, adding that like many Toronto neighbourhoods, the Annex has a lot of apartment buildings and multi-unit houses. “It’s not really the same as a neighbourhood in rural New Brunswick.”
But now she knows Seelig and his family, and she’s getting to know more of the others. A few weeks ago the audience serenaded the band with a surprise rendition of The Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends” as their way of trying “to pay back in amateur kind for this professional music that we’re getting every night,” Hadwen explains.
Trumpet player Marcus Thompson, 23, was impressed: “An audience doesn’t get that creative usually. It’s usually a one-dimensional kind of a thing. Super cool.”
Every night at 7:30 (if he’s not working) Toronto paramedic Mark Dempster and his wife tell their children that it’s concert time, and they run outside. Each show starts a cheer for front-line workers.
“It gives you a little bit of chills just to know that people support you and they support what you’re doing,” Dempster says. “My daughter, she says, ‘Oh this is for you Daddy, this is for you.’ ”
Marcus Thompson sums it up: “No one would have predicted that that was going to happen. Adam (Seelig) just thought he was doing it with his kids, and a couple days later TSO musicians come over, and a couple days later we come over.”
Now, Thompson has new friendships and feels privileged to be a part of the nightly show. After each performance he gives 13-year-old Arlo a trumpet lesson in the driveway.
“Even on the coldest day we can hear them playing trumpet down the street for another half-hour afterwards,” Vanessa Fralick says.
Adam Seelig was surprised at first by how meaningful this has been to his neighbourhood, but now he understands. “It’s wonderful to have the regularity, and at the same time something novel and unusual,” he says.
There are layers of gratitude: Gratitude for people working through difficult circumstances, gratitude from musicians for the jitters of playing for a live audience, gratitude from the neighbours for the chance to listen, to be surprised, to think of something else for a few minutes. It doesn’t feel so much like a city street these days. It feels like a village.
Seelig says that even if each show only lasts five minutes, the feeling lasts long after.
“We have so little human interaction, other than within our own small bubble,” he says. “To come out of that bubble a little bit and still do it safely … is a great feeling to just know we are all still connected and music can do that for us.”