HOMEWOOD, Ala. (WBRC) - At the start of the pandemic, musicians around the country found themselves out of work as concerts were canceled and opportunities to play music in person dried up.
Eliza Warden, a professional musician and private music teacher who is originally from Romania but now lives in Homewood, sat outside on her front yard with her husband Justin in the first week of the pandemic wondering what to do. Her wedding performances and church gigs were all canceled and she wasn’t sure yet how to safely teach her students.
Warden grew up in a musical family in Braila, Romania, starting piano lessons at age 4 and by age 7 was majoring in violin. The art school she attended offered music theory, music history, choir and orchestra in addition to all of her regular classes.
“I never really knew a life without music,” she said.
As a teenager she began to write and record music, going on to perform around Europe, finding many fans among the Romanian diaspora, the Romanian people living in several different European countries.
At age 17 she had the opportunity to finish high school in Louisiana as an exchange student. She ended up staying in the States and graduating from Samford University, where she studied voice and violin, earned a master’s in church music and met her husband.
Warden began teaching music students while still a sophomore in college, growing her studio to include 65 students. She taught singing, violin and piano to students between the ages of 5 and 70.
When her first son David was born, she’d wear him in a baby carrier and play her violin until he was big enough to grab the bow. After the birth of her second son Daniel, she took a year off of teaching but had begun to take on around 15 students again when the pandemic hit.
“Justin and I were in our front yard about a week into the pandemic and life just seemed bleak. One of us said, ‘Hey, you could just bring your violin out and play for the neighbors.’ In Europe I visited lots of countries and I played on the streets a good bit and it’s so much fun to play for tourists, I’m totally not ashamed to do that, it’s fun for me,” she said.
Warden said her husband is the brains behind the operation of “Front Yard Tunes,” a weekly concert she began to hold for her neighbors in west Homewood. He got the neighbors' phone numbers and texted them the plans for their first outdoor concert in the front yard. Neighbors brought blankets and chairs, spread out at least 6 feet apart and enjoyed listening as Eliza sang and played her violin.
“I’m a patriot so I love my country where I’m born and I love the country where I am a citizen now, so we do The Star Spangled Banner and Happy Birthday for whoever is celebrating a birthday,” Warden said.
Front Yard Tunes turned into a weekly event, with each concert including a song people could dance to, sing along with, and a hymn. Warden, who is a Christian, uses the concerts as a way to share a message of hope with her neighbors in an especially difficult time.
She said the feedback from neighbors has been overwhelmingly positive, with many saying it’s the highlight of their week.
One neighbor told her that like many families, they’d some ups and downs during the pandemic, but having the consistency of Front Yard Tunes was something they looked forward to doing together as a family each week.
Warden soon learned that two of her neighbors also played instruments in high school, so a cellist and another violinist joined her to make a trio. They practice together outside in their yards before the concert.
Warden sometimes plays the guitar or her keyboard, and her husband joins her for duets, including one on their anniversary.
“Here we are, two parents with two little kids running around the yard,” she said, laughing. Justin livestreams the concerts on YouTube, where they can be viewed after the live performance.
The concerts are open to neighborhood kids and pets, and while Warden enjoys the casual atmosphere, she also takes her preparation seriously.
“I love performing on a stage, organizing a program. I introduce each song and keep the concert going,” she said.
The neighborhood concerts are still going on, but now are every other week instead of weekly.
Warden also had to adapt her private music lessons to be taught outside whenever the weather allows. Both she and her students wear masks at all times, and if she has to correct their finger placement, they use hand sanitizer immediately afterwards.
“It’s hard work, it’s uncomfortable, but it’s worth seeing my students and communicating in person. Physical interaction beats virtual lessons,” she said.
In addition to the free neighborhood concerts and her private lessons, Warden also sings occasionally for churches in the Birmingham area, including Cahaba Park Church. Even during the pandemic, she has sung alongside the Cahaba Park Minister of Music, Adam Wright.
Wright has been leading music at Cahaba Park for 11 years, almost from the very beginning of the church. He also sings and plays for two Birmingham-area groups, The Corner Room and Act of Congress, an acoustic band that’s been around for 14 years.
Wright described the beginning of the pandemic as a “free fall” with everyone trying to figure things out all at the same time. Before the pandemic, his church did not live stream their services, so they quickly had to research equipment and set up a live stream. From March until June, his church pre-recorded all of their services, then released a video on YouTube each week.
“I think the weirdest thing about March through June was leading worship or preaching to an empty room. That was just really strange and weird. There’s this sense of, man, this just isn’t how it’s supposed to be. That was a really challenging time for me,” he recalled.
In June, they started offering services in person again with everyone wearing masks, but attendance was still low.
Wright said the church staff asked themselves, “How can we best love and serve our people and make it where they can safely come back to church and worship together in unity?”
The church decided to offer an outdoor option on a patio with a massive tent overhead, and church members brought their own fold-up chairs.
“Our livestream presentation is better inside, but people feel more comfortable outside. We now live stream it inside and have the service projected outside,” he explained.
The church has seen 90 people attend their outdoor service, and now they are offering two services a week in person, one outside and one inside. Wright said even more people are watching the live stream.
“We’re seeing more views each week than we had people in seats before this happened,” he said.
Wright noted the live stream option is here to stay, which is a big help for many people in the congregation. It allows people who are sick or traveling to still stay connected to the church and worship wherever they are.
“One member who is older sends the staff a message every week, he’s very gracious and complimentary and thankful for what we’re trying to do,” Wright said. He added that his own parents mostly worship from home, and he’s thankful for that option.
As for his band Act of Congress, all of their wedding performances were canceled or pushed back until next year. After June, they had a few more private concerts lined up. He doesn’t anticipate any live performances or concerts in the near future.
“It’s a challenge when you’re used to things being one way. I don’t love extreme change, I get into a routine. It rocked me a little bit,” he confessed.
“On this side of it though, I see how the Lord grew me in a lot of things, technology and systems in place, perseverance to stay with things when it’s confusing. In the midst of it, it was really overwhelming but on the other side I’ve gained a new skill set,” he said.
You can listen to more of Eliza Warden’s music on her YouTube page Eliza Pirosca Warden Official.