In The New Normal—our new interview series—we speak to the musicians and staff of Tafelmusik, to ask how working and performing in new ways has changed our routines, and our operations as a performing arts organization.

In this interview, we sat down with Giulia Mandel, our Manager of Customer Experience, to hear her perspective on how this “new normal” has affected her work and life.

Tafelmusik: The phrase “the new normal” has become a staple of our everyday vernacular. What does “the new normal” mean for you, as it relates to your life, and your work with Tafelmusik?

Giulia Mandel. A black and white portrait of a young woman in black attire with dark bangs.

Giulia Mandel: I’ve never had a normal at Tafelmusik. I started as Event Coordinator about two-and-a-half years ago, part time, as a way to dip my toes into the arts world after almost 15 years in the restaurant business. Even then, it felt like the whole organization was changing and undergoing a paradigm shift. New ideas were springing up everywhere: we had new leadership, new staff, new positions… and then, at the end of our 2018/19 season I got promoted (thank you!) into a position that had never existed before. And then! Only six months into that position, the pandemic hit. Despite how hard it’s been, I feel terribly lucky that my work stimulates me, and continues to present me with new problems to solve. Every day is a challenge, sometimes rewarding, sometimes frustrating, but it sure beats being bored. What “normal”?

TM: As our Manager of Customer Experience, you went from overseeing our patrons’ needs at live events, to adapting to new needs and considerations of virtual events. How have your day-to-day duties changed, and what is it like working your role in a fully digital capacity?

GM: And how! Before the pandemic, I was learning to strike a balance between in-person work (including staffing concerts, intermissions, events, emergency procedures, managing Box Office and Front of House staff, patron interactions, and more), and all the behind-the-scenes fundamentals that shape the experience.

I’ve always found the in-person work to be the easy part: once I’m in a room with people, instinct takes over, and it’s a breeze for me to get in the zone. This is because I’m a talker, and I’m an aural learner: I talk to strangers, I chat to my office mates, I narrate my activities, I read things out loud. So shifting to sitting alone at my laptop, not yammering away, was hard (although probably a relief to those who have to share an office with me!). After a couple of months I got the hang of it, Zoom and Slack making up for those lost interactions that feed my brain. So now, instead of talking to people, I write emails (so many emails). I set up internal systems to streamline patron communications; I peer deep into our database for the best ways to understand the feedback we get, and how to use that understanding to make things better for the audience.

I work constantly for our audience: how to help them enjoy music online, how to makes things easier, how to effectively communicate with them. It can be really rewarding when done well, because our audience is so generous with the feedback. It stings when we miss (who doesn’t miss?), but the impermanence of these times makes it easier to try again.

I like to think that I’ve adapted well to my job being fully digital, but I can’t get into a flow state these days—that almost “out-of-body” state, when all the balls are in the air and you can do no wrong, and time both slows and speeds up, and I miss it deeply. 

The strangest thing to me was noticing how my working methods changed. I used to be much more of a perfectionist, but the pace of work has been so intense, that I now understand the value of just “getting it out there” as opposed to agonizing over every comma. This is also connected to how strongly we work as a team: I simply can’t do it all on my own (a bad habit of mine!), and since the pandemic I feel my work is more collaborative than ever. Tafelmusik is an incredibly supportive environment, both emotionally and professionally. I feel complete comfort turning to my colleagues for help, and I know how rare that is.

TM: What have you missed most about being away from our physical space, our home base at Trinity St-Paul’s Centre?

GM: Music. Music. Music.The other day, I received a short clip from Tafelmusik violinist Cristina Zacharias, testing out the audio for a lecture she’s filming, and when I opened it up and heard her play the opening bars to one of Bach’s violin partitas, I almost burst into tears. What I wouldn’t give to be sitting at the back of the hall in one of the flip-down seats, relieved that no one can see the unprofessional look of raw emotion on my face, and the goosebumps up and down my arm as the orchestra sweeps me away. Or even just sneaking in during rehearsal when Excel gets the better of me. That, and Meesha—the Centre’s resident cat.

TM: Part of your role is leading our talented Box Office team. How have you adapted, as a manager, to overseeing a team during work from home?

GM: There’s been a lot of letting go, and trusting each other: I’ve always been the kind of manager who likes to know what everyone is doing, where they are, and what they’re doing next. All. The. Time. And now, there are times when I’ll go a whole afternoon without hearing from my team—and I have total faith that they’re doing their jobs, above and beyond the call of duty! Management now is all about results, not about just “showing up”, and I think that’s a major improvement. I really don’t care if you’re at your desk 10 minutes early or 20 minutes late, as long as the work is done. It’s liberating! Martin Reis and Adrienne Scott—our Box Office Manager and Coordinator, respectively—astound me with their professionalism and work ethic every day: overseeing them is the easiest part of my job.

TM: We’ve just finished our Fall Digital Season, and are about to begin our Winter digital season. What do you consider to be the biggest challenge so far? The biggest success?

GM: Just the fact that it happened is a major success. I considered it a definite possibility that our leadership would simply say “nope”, and put the whole operation on hiatus at the end of the 2019/20 season. The sheer guts it took to completely transform our entire organization, while keeping the artistic core meaning intact—my biggest success is being a part of the team, and helping it happen from my kitchen table.

The biggest challenge? Doing it all so far away from that core meaning. It’s a lot easier to work for Tafelmusik when you get the instant gratification from an applauding audience, and you know you contributed (even if just 0.5%). Staying motivated, finding the meaning—it can be disheartening when you stare at a screen for eight hours a day. The salve, however, is opening up our customer service feedback email, and seeing how much our music impacts our audience, and how much beauty and joy Tafelmusik brings to the world, despite the state of the world.

TM: Are there any socially distant activities you have been enjoying?  

GM: To be perfectly honest, no. It holds almost no interest to me to play cards online, or do Zoom yoga. It’s like looking at a photo of a great work of art, or eating Tofurkey (I’d rather eat tofu, or turkey): I prefer to wait for the real thing. Maybe that will change if this goes on much longer, but for now books, movies, walking, playing my piano, and cooking seem to be enough. I have never had this much quiet time, and I think it’s a good exercise for me, someone who is rarely, if ever quiet. Then again, who knows what kind of internal damage I’m sustaining by not making more of an effort to engage? I guess I’ll find out.

TM: What aspect of our next concert, Il Seicento, are you most looking forward to?

GM: I am excited for this one! I know Elisa was inspired by Caravaggio, who is also a favourite painter of mine (I’m looking at a print of his Bacchus on my wall right now) when she curated this concert, and I love seeing artistic intersectionality! No spoilers, but I think it’s going to be a highlight of the year.


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