A Tiny Spark of Inspiration: Creating Art with Purpose

An essay by alumna Shelbie Rassler (B.M. '20, composition) on what motivates her to create virtual performances supporting numerous causes—from voting to social justice—amid the pandemic. 

February 10, 2021

Looking back at the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, I don’t think any of us knew the severity of the situation at hand. As we trekked through March, the seriousness of it all began feeling more and more real and intense, solidified by Boston Conservatory at Berklee’s decision to move all classes online for the remainder of the 2020 spring semester. Immediately after this was announced, the hearts of my dearest friends and colleagues simultaneously broke, as we all realized we would have to separate for an unknown period of time, and for us seniors, our unfinished journey in Boston was coming to an abrupt end. 

On the flight home to South Florida, I started brainstorming ways in which my colleagues and I could continue collaborating and maintain the sense of community we had worked so hard to build together in the months and years prior. The idea I settled on during the flight was a Virtual Orchestra cover of “What the World Needs Now,” with music and lyrics by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. 

The original intention of this project was simple s, but it somehow ended up turning into something a bit more large-scale. This experience has taught me a million things, but most importantly, I learned that my purpose in life is to facilitate and create art that has the power to convey meaningful messages and themes, and while doing so, the potential to help others along the way, having some sort of impact—be it emotionally, physically, financially, socially, or otherwise.

Being an artist during a pandemic is not something we ever imagined would happen. This unprecedented period of time will be part of our childrens’ history books, but before that can happen, I believe we must stick together and support one another along the way. With that said, it is incredibly challenging to remain hopeful and optimistic about our futures with so many unknowns, not to mention how difficult it is to stay motivated and productive. So, I have spent the past eight months doing everything I possibly can to help lift others’ spirits with musical offerings to distract from the treacherous waters surrounding us, and maybe even shine a glimmer of hope amid so much darkness. 

While music cannot cure COVID-19, it certainly can help touch the hearts of those who are suffering, and I feel an immense need to try and make this happen as often as possible. For instance, this cover of “Fight Song - for Virtual Orchestra,” featuring members across the Berklee community, was created for the Female Quotient’s Virtual Equality Lounge for just this reason. 

In addition to emotional well-being, it is difficult to comprehend the effects that this pandemic is having on our industry. Most artists are currently out of work, with no return date in sight. This is why I am so grateful for people like Seth Rudetsky and James Wesley, who are using their platform to directly help the arts community throughout the nation. Seth and James created “Stars in the House,” a daily show wherein each episode features professional artists, Broadway performers, full cast reunions of various films and original Broadway productions, and arts students. During the show, people are encouraged to donate to the Actors’ Fund, a remarkable organization that is actively helping artists survive by offering financial support to those in need. As of the date this article was written, the show has raised more than $535,000. Pretty incredible, right? I feel so honored and blessed to produce music videos for this special show, featuring some of the most accomplished performers alive, and to have the opportunity to form close relationships with Seth and James, as we all have the common goal of helping others, along with the drive and unwavering support required to follow through. Simply put, Seth and James inspire me in the way I vow to spend the rest of my life striving to inspire others.

Not only are we experiencing a global health crisis, but we are also reckoning with racial injustice and a severe lack of equity in our nation. The Black Lives Matter movement has grown immensely over the last several months, highlighting the unbelievably racist, hateful, terrifying, and outright disgusting occurrences in our country, a nation that is supposed to be the “land of the free.” 

Once again, music cannot stop these things from happening, but I believe it can certainly be a vehicle for change, while simultaneously lifting spirits along the way. Following the unspeakable, tragic murder of George Floyd, I realized I had no other option than to do everything I could to help the situation. I then wrote “Rebuild - for Virtual Orchestra,” which was later performed by hundreds of artists from all over the world as a fundraiser for the NAACP and Americans for the Arts, coming together to help those who need extensive support and allyship. In addition, I had the opportunity to work with Steve Schuch and several members of the Boston Conservatory community to produce music videos of a reimagining of “America the Great” into “America the Dream,” with altered lyrics describing the dire need to fix the injustices of our nation.

And, if you thought at this point that 2020 was done presenting the most difficult challenges to date, let’s throw in the most important presidential election of our lifetimes. As I mentioned earlier, I strive to make art that conveys messages I feel are important, and I cannot think of anything more important than encouraging others to raise their voices and vote. I produced three projects regarding this message: “Take Care of This House,” featuring performers such as Yo-Yo Ma, Judy Collins, Anthony McGill, Lara Downes, Charles Yang, Rhiannon Giddens, and many more;  “Just Vote,” written by Jim Mayer and featuring members of the Coral Reefer Band, as well as several Boston Conservatory at Berklee and Berklee College of Musicstudents; and “Election Day,” an original song I wrote for the Female Quotient’s YOU(th) Vote initiative, featuring members of  Boston Conservatory’s Musical Theater Department. In addition, I recently worked as a music arranger for the United Nations’ 75 Anniversary Celebration, focusing on "how well we handle pressing challenges: from the climate crisis to pandemics, inequalities, new forms of violence, and rapid changes in technology and in our population." 

The noticeable lack of kindness and growing hatred in our country is also evident in bullying among children and teens, leading to my desire to be involved with WNED PBS’ BANDAgainst Bullying, which later resulted in my becoming the music/technical advisor for this year’s program. 

The last several months have solidified how grateful, fortunate, and privileged I am to have a platform to continually produce art during such a horrible time. While these experiences have been incredible opportunities, it is not lost on me how many millions of people are tragically suffering in so many ways; I hope to provide even just a tiny spark of inspiration to those who feel nothing but hopeless. 

"A Tiny Spark of Inspiration: Creating Art with Purpose" first appeared in the winter 2020 issue of STAGES, Boston Conservatory's institutional magazine.