Like most people who can see retirement within reach, Deborah Billings had hoped to slide into the final stretch with no hitches.
It wasn’t to be done after the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
As the executive director of Pro Musica, Deborah was faced with decisions neither of her two predecessors have faced.
The classical music organization was nearing the end of its 40th season of concerts when the pandemic hit. Generally, it offers five or six chamber music concerts, plus a jazz concert per season, which runs from September through April.
A double string quartet concert had been scheduled for March as the finale of the chamber music portion of the season. It was to be followed in April by the Brubeck Brothers Jazz Quartet as the capstone of the season.
When the pandemic hit, Deborah and the Pro Musica board had to consider how to handle those final concerts of the 40th season. Should they be rescheduled or be presented virtually?
“The board discussed doing virtual concerts, but a huge part of chamber music is hearing it performed live in a small setting,” Deborah said.
But there was more to the decision than that.
The organization also had to consider the availability of venues during the pandemic, and how easily those venues — generally, churches, schools or local colleges — would allow compliance with the city’s COVID-19-prevention guidelines on social distancing and sanitizing for large gatherings.
The decision was made to reschedule the two concerts to August, allowing the new season to begin, as usual, in September.
That also was not to be.
When COVID cases began rising in the area, the board decided to — once again — reschedule the final two concerts of the 40th season. Now, they have been moved to the beginning of next year, stacking them on the 2021 concert season, which also had to be adjusted since there is no way to predict whether life under COVID will have changed by this fall.
Now, there will be concerts next January through June with two in April.
“Because Pro Musica has delayed the start of the season until January, the schedule will look different,” said Deborah. “It will be a challenging schedule for the new executive director. We are hoping that everyone will be so hungry for the music that they will not be overwhelmed with the number of concerts in a short amount of time.”
With Deborah’s retirement effective at the end of this month, a new executive director is to be announced soon, said Lori Marble, Pro Musica board president. That person will certainly have to hit the floor running to continue addressing the complications of operating under a pandemic.
“This has, indeed, been a strange way to end my time at Pro Musica,” said Deborah.
With a background as a human resources manager and a consulting firm owner, Deborah joined Pro Musica as an administrative assistant. She served in that position for two years before being named executive director in 2017.
As the director of a small nonprofit, staffed by only herself and an assistant, Deborah’s duties have covered a wide swath. She has overseen a budget of between $140,000 and $150,000 a year, supported by businesses and individual donations and grants. She has also been responsible for hiring performers and handling their contracts, creating and printing marketing materials, writing grants, and developing and supervising community outreach programs.
The community outreach includes providing classical music exposure to children and others who may not get it otherwise. Virtually every group that performs under Pro Musica does school outreach, including programming for every fifth-grade class in Joplin and Webb City public schools, plus local parochial schools. They also meet with music students at Missouri Southern.
Under Deborah’s tutelage the outreach went even further— to coffee shop patrons and to youngsters under age 5.
The coffee shop concert didn’t start as an intention of the organization. It came about when a performance scheduled as a house concert was unexpectedly canceled by the house host. The trio of performers was already booked, so the show had to go on. Pro Musica turned to Joplin Avenue Coffee Co. as an alternative. It not only drew a good attendance, but it offered outreach to a new audience.
Last September, Deborah forged a partnership with the Joplin Public Library to present Pro Musica’s first Bach-a-Bye-Baby Concert for children ages 5 and younger and their parents or caregivers. An audience of about 50 was anticipated, but 145 showed up with 70% of them being children.
“We received many positive comments for both the Coffee Shop Concert and the Bach-a-Bye-Baby Concert, so I hope Pro Musica will continue to present performances in those settings,” said Deborah.
Her retirement is certainly earned after wrangling with the unpredictable obstacles of a pandemic, complicated by the death of her husband, Daryl, just when the virus was hitting locally. She admitted that her retirement plans are vague as she figures out her new life without her husband. She’s sure of a couple of things, though. She intends to spend time with the 20 grandkids and a great-grandchild that are part of she and Daryl’s blended families, and she intends to do some writing, something she’s dreamed of for years.
Go to it, Deborah. You deserve it.