I'm throwing a bunch of people on this email who do wonderful work supporting musicians in community contexts through nonprofit organizations.
As some of you know, I've been doing a lot of reflecting and some writing about the important opportunity found in creating one-to-one connections, never more important than during a pandemic. Here's an idea that I think is important enough to disperse widely into the field.
Along with work for Emmanuel Music, I've been keeping busy supporting a number of colleagues, including myself, to experiment with offering both virtual and live one-to-one music-making. During this time of social isolation, creating human connections to combat loneliness (and the associated negative health effects) is a really important societal issue that musicians (all musicians, any musicians) are well-positioned to help address.
The summer months provide the perfect opportunity for orgs to deploy their musicians to connect in personal, meaningful ways with longtime supporters (board, volunteers, donors, etc), an essential constituency for each of our nonprofits. Also because we need to be concerned about the potential for things to get very difficult again in the fall/winter from a public health perspective.
I know that some are currently raising needed emergency funds for musicians. That's really the first priority right now. However, over the summer and into next year, it would be wonderful to have a way to continue to pay interested musicians for an ongoing performing activity that simultaneously bolsters the org's relationship with its community of supporters.
There is tremendous potential for finding additional philanthropy to support such an initiative. Consider one idea: offering an option of "gifting" musical visits with isolated grandparents, relatives, friends, elderly neighbors--either online (less $) or in person (more $). This is something that we can all appreciate, as we all know people who are vulnerable and cut off from useful human connection.
Importantly, this is not only a caring thing to do that provides some benefit to the recipient. Rather, it deepens the org's relationships, and it is also the beginning of experimentation with two kinds of performing that may well be essential performance-related skill sets for us to be honing for the foreseeable future:
1. virtual performing over Zoom/FaceTime (what makes it successful as a "live" music experience, how do you create empathy digitally?)
2. in-person, socially distanced performing in outdoor spaces (e.g. driveways, front yards, sidewalks)
It is also, I've found, a pretty significant way of helping musicians feel more optimistic, valued, and socially connected themselves during this time.
I've been reflecting the most on the challenge of creating "live" musical experiences during this time. There's plenty to think about. Happy to think more specifically with any folks about this. Feel free to circulate within your professional networks.
I hope everyone is staying safe while making the best of such strange times.
Prelude: This scenario is rooted in a philosophical belief in the importance of relationships and acts of generosity (rather than transactions) as the foundational orientation that will allow an enterprising musician to thrive in this new reality. After all, everything is based on relationships.
During the pandemic, there are still opportunities for musicians to create an income stream through performing, but now the platforms for performing “live” music are different: FaceTime, Zoom, driveways, sidewalks, and backyards.
In your immediate vicinity, there are likely hundreds, if not thousands, of isolated individuals. In the coming months, everyday life will be going on around them as they strive to stay safe by adhering to strict social isolation guidelines, especially if they have an underlying vulnerability.
Meanwhile, life continues. This includes birthdays and anniversaries, among any number of reasons why people may wish to gather and share a meaningful experience together. And if they can’t, a musical performance, specifically created to connect with, recognize, or honor an individual, may provide something of significant value and affirmation.
How might this work?
In Sun Valley, for instance, Deborah has a local network through her daughter’s school. Each of the other families that she is connected to has their own birthdays and anniversaries to celebrate, along with parents (grandparents), friends, and neighbors who they care about.
Deborah offers to play ten minutes of Bach on her violin for her friend’s neighbor who is elderly and isolated. Her friend connects her with the neighbor, and they set up an appointment. One sunny afternoon, Deborah drives over to the neighbor’s home and sets up her music stand on the driveway, while the neighbor sits on the front steps, twenty feet away (and Deborah’s friend peers over the hedge—or whatever people use as the dividing line between properties in Sun Valley).
Deborah chats with the neighbor, acknowledging the unusual situation, asking her a little bit about her life, her family, her musical interests (if any), how long she’s lived in Sun Valley, etc. [See Nina Simon’s The Art of Relevance for why this kind of empathic connection is important to establish before engaging in the artistic experience.]
Next, Deborah chooses from several pieces of music that she has prepared, responding, in part, to what she has learned about this individual audience member. Of course, any piece of music can be relevant simply by being offered up as a beautiful aesthetic gift, but there is also the possibility of forging a more specific connection now that Deborah knows something about the individual who is listening.
Deborah asks her friend (who is still peering over the hedge) to take a photo with her iPhone that, with permission, Deborah and her friend can share on social media.
After performing for the neighborhood and exchanging a few pleasantries, Deborah returns home. Meanwhile, the neighbor is on the phone with her personal network telling them about the beautiful, uplifting experience that she was privileged to enjoy—just for her!—that afternoon.
The next day, Deborah receives two requests from people she doesn’t know (friends of friends), asking if she could do the same thing for a grandfather, an aunt, a wedding anniversary, a neighbor who is living alone…
Deborah decides to send the photo and a short message out to her person network, including all of the families in her daughter’s school that she has gotten to know in recent years. It might read something like this:
Your move, Deborah.
* Alternatively, should this become something that catches on and there is increasing demand for your services, asking for a voluntary contribution, for those who are able, to your personal bank account by PayPal or Venmo is the next step. I recommend that you 1. begin by offering this service freely in order to make clear that it is about the mission (not the money) and then 2. build a “suggested” fee structure once you have gotten started and begin to see that there are going to be continued requests for performances.
A really nice thing to be able to do would be to always offer the option of a freely given performance, should someone need music who can’t afford to make a donation. Perhaps online performances can remain available for free, if necessary, while an in-person visit—clearly the more labor and time-intensive version—has the expectation of a fee.
I've been musing with colleagues about what is "live" online vs. "live" in person, with the assistance of anecdotal data provided by The Late Show's Stephen Colbert.
Please enjoy this ten minute video of Stephen Colbert interviewing John Oliver. While, on one hand, it is simply entertaining, there's also something valuable in here for our planning. These two men have a
real, authentic relationship, and part of what I found moving about watching them interact is that I could feel it, and that meant something to me.
With our programming online, how do we accomplish this? I think feeling that human connection is so important, if not essential, and we will need us to get comfortable being vulnerable in ways that are
not standard practice for presenting live music. "Live" online is going to be different from "live" in a hall. For starters, rather than speaking to the camera (a generic audience), maybe everything that is
spoken about online is shared through the format of a conversation.
Please enjoy this segment from Wednesday's A Late Show with Stephen Colbert. I believe that the show's director is purposely putting Evie, Stephen's wife, into the room with him so that she can be his audience, giving him someone that he can speak to directly. This creates the vulnerability and empathy that was absent when he was speaking directly into the camera and telling jokes. She continues to be present, briefly, throughout the segment. I think it really makes a difference.
I have an idea that I think can contribute to societal wellbeing, as we look to combat the negative health effects that will come from loneliness and social isolation in the coming months.
Building on the impressive outpouring of musicians sharing their music widely through social media during this pandemic, there is a next step that I want to advocate for experimenting with: one-to-one human interactions, through music, and especially for the most vulnerable segment of society, older adults.
This is about prioritizing empathy. It's one thing to perform Bach into the camera for an audience of many. It's quite a different experience to perform Bach into the camera for a specific person. That person receives a very significant benefit of individualized empathic connection... but so does everyone else who views it, even though their participation is vicarious. We feel both the music and the human connection that we are witnessing. (There's more detail to add, and Sherry Turkle and Nina Simon can support this way of thinking.)
I'm asking if you would kindly share this email with Yo-Yo because of the incredible platform that he has to influence musicians, from students of all levels to professionals. If he leads the way by experimenting with this format of performing/presenting online, hopefully others will begin to do so as well. I would love to see thousands of individual musicians (think of all the music students out there stuck at home) doing their piece to contribute during this crisis in the coming months.
I've been thinking about this all day and I think its worth a discussion about the kinds of relationships that one-on-one programs works best for. There is definitely an element of friendship and an element of professionalism needed to make this work. What's the magic ratio and how do you translate that through a video or digital program?
I've got a few personal examples that I've been thinking through recently:
1) Even given all of my work, thinking about doing a concert like this for my own grandmother, who's still alive, makes me uncomfortable. I wonder why?
2) I had no desire to play for my Mom while she was in her final months. It felt more important to just sit and talk with her. Again, why didn't that feel right?
3) I also think about you playing for Varda. That seems to be the perfect kind of relationship. A mixture of close friendship and professional respect.
I think this will come up with a project like this, where you're asking people to think about their own networks. I also think it raises a larger question that the field (and general society) about cultivating long-term relationships with older adults outside of our families.
A secondary question will be access to content. How will older adults get these concerts, especially the ones living alone? Should musicians go and play on their front lawns? Or is there a digital way to make this work?
Thank you for being supportive and interested. In a sense, as you wrote in your email, we are all "friends in need" now, especially those who are the most isolated and vulnerable.
I'm sure you know the research that former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has often quoted about the public health concern posed by loneliness. A study showed that the mortality impact of loneliness is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Looking ahead, sadly, a mental health pandemic is expected to closely follow this viral pandemic...
What I'm asking you to consider doing is modeling (publicly) what so many other musicians can do (privately). I think that, if you experiment with these ideas using your social media platform, it will normalize them and make them possible for others to consider.
It's basically a musical "care package" with something chosen to warm the recipient's heart. I feel strongly that anyone else who witnesses it online gets to vicariously experience that heart-to-heart connection. This is potentially much more powerful than a heart-to-"everyone out there on the internet" connection.
Two brief examples:
1. On Sunday evening, my daughter held up her iPad and recorded me playing the G Major prelude in her bedroom. Nothing fancy. I emailed it to the rector of Emmanuel Church. I wrote to her:
Dear Pam, I've been safely at home for a month while you and many others are bravely carrying out your roles, taking care of so many people who are vulnerable and at risk. You've been on my mind, and I wanted to simply offer three minutes of Bach that I recorded for you this evening. Three minutes of Bach, hopefully to be enjoyed in three minutes of peace. Sending my best wishes to you and your family.
2. I had a conversation with a young resident musician in Providence who is feeling like practicing has no meaning anymore. She's feeling hopeless about her future as a musician. While she's right to feel scared about her professional prospects, she's not at all in touch with just how valuable she is as a musician--right now.
Through our chat, I found out that she and her husband had recently befriended an older couple in Providence through their church. Now they deliver groceries to them. The upshot is that she hadn't thought about this before, but now she's considering how she might play a short online concert for them every Sunday evening. Also, importantly, this idea is renewing her sense of purpose, motivating her to practice and feel agency as a musician during this pandemic.
So what am I specifically asking of you?
As you continue to offer the same #SongsOfComfort repertoire that's easy enough to share and appreciate through social media, please consider experimenting with personalizing at least some of them.
This has to be based on real relationships to be meaningful (duh). Providing an anecdote that helps explain WHY you are playing music for someone brings it home emotionally. I recognize that this is not the same when you have thousands of social media followers, but for the sake of modeling, I think you can make a personal message while still preserving someone's privacy.
Speaking directly into the camera to deliver your message would be the most vulnerable way to do it, but if that feels uncomfortable, posting/tweeting the personalized message along with the video also works.
"Hi Manny, I miss seeing you and being able to play sonatas. I wish we could be together, reading the Brahms e minor and sharing a meal. I'm sending you the opening theme because it reminds me of you."
"Hi Judy, I miss seeing you. Remember when I played that beautiful Borodin quartet melody at your son's wedding? Well, I'd love to share that with you again now."
"Heath, I remember how poorly you played the C Major allemande for me so many years ago. Let me take this opportunity to remind you of how it's supposed to sound." (just kidding, don't use this one.)
I'm thinking of all the conservatory students at home these days (and their teachers), the freelancers, the teaching artists, the Broadway pit players, the orchestral musicians. Everyone knows at least a few people who are vulnerable and isolated. It would be so meaningful if many, many musicians felt empowered to reach out, using their musicianship, and make this pandemic into an opportunity to create empathy and combat social isolation.
I’m writing from the comfort of my living room, having just watched pianist Igor Levit perform Bach’s Chaconne (the piano arrangement by Brahms) in a Munich studio via Periscope. To be candid, I found it too difficult to concentrate for twenty minutes; I couldn’t manage the entire performance before switching over to reading more urgent headlines on Twitter.
I recognize that we are currently in the jarring, shocking phase of having our everyday reality turned upside down. Sadly, today does not feel anything like last Sunday. Most musicians are rightly anxious about lost income and what that will mean for their families. In light of this, what I’m sharing is something for us simply to begin to consider, to the degree we are able to focus, in order to be ready to experiment and adapt in the weeks and months ahead. Finding ways to be productive and positive, together, feels important right now. After all, there’s only so much CNN that one can watch.
It’s heartening to already see many musicians and organizations offering free online access to their music, from the biggest institutions with international reach (e.g. Berlin Philharmonic, Metropolitan Opera, Yo-Yo Ma) to smaller-budget, local enterprises and individuals. This is a significant way that musicians can continue to contribute to the greater good, and it is very valuable.
This public health crisis is making me think of what the climate scientist/musician Richard Heinberg presciently shared in his Music in 2050 Forum speech at NEC three years ago:
"Artists will have the opportunity and duty to translate the resulting
Today, as we enter this uncertain period of self-imposed isolation, I’m wondering about our collective opportunity/duty to find creative ways to help sustain our audience members, our students, our community—including, importantly, each other—throughout a very difficult time.
These initial thoughts are based on a last week's conversation with the Community MusicWorks Fellows combined with my recent thinking about how a local music organization (Emmanuel Music, in my case) can continue to provide something of value to its constituents during a period of social isolation, either elective or mandated.
If you know other musicians who may find my musings helpful, you are welcome to share them. This is an all hands on deck moment for our society, and that includes—potentially—its artists.
Musicians and human connection
As I noted earlier, a virtual trove of aural riches is already widely available. For those who treasure attending concerts, they will still be able to get their fix of fine artistry through a myriad of online performances, not to mention the already vast resources of YouTube and other sites. But what about the human connection, the sense of community, that is synonymous with attending live music? How do we continue to experience that?
Even when limited by social distancing, we aren’t prevented from human connection. It’s just that we must adapt to new circumstances. For me, the key word is empathy, meaning the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. We build empathy when we learn about people and begin to establish a connection with them on their terms, rather than ours. A silver lining may be that a world of opportunity opens up for artists who are able to experiment and develop new best practices.
We each have an opportunity to make a real difference in someone’s inner life, and it starts with being willing, as an artist, to both receive and respond to another person’s lived experience. As Nina Simon writes in The Art of Relevance, our challenge, whether individual artist or arts organization, is to “try to understand not just the surface of the individual’s personality but the fundamental way that person sees the world.”
Admittedly, this is a process. Achieving an empathic connection means that both participants become vulnerable. Far easier to connect meaningfully with people that you already know well. We need to feel safe in order to be vulnerable, and to help someone feel safe requires taking the time and care necessary to build trust. Does this sound like something musicians can do? I believe so. It may not have been part of our formal training, but it certainly has been present in our lived experience, in our relationships. At least for me, sharing my musicianship—not necessarily limited to my playing but my feelings and ideas about music—almost always leads to a deeper and more meaningful connection.
One opportunity: Older adults
There's a specific initiative that I want to propose, among any number of others that will hopefully become widely embraced. (For instance, did anyone catch Laura Benanti’s invitation to high school students on Twitter? So beautiful.) My biggest concern is for older adults, including those who are the most at-risk and, therefore, most likely to be socially isolated. There is such a significant overlap between this segment of the population and our dedicated concert-going constituency.
Yes, let’s keep streaming performances and opening up our archives to share recorded music. Along with those efforts, this is a proposal to be more targeted and specific. We all know older adults in our communities, especially within our concert audiences. Let’s figure out how to connect, one-to-one, with them and use our musicianship to help them emotionally navigate this stressful time, including letting them know that they are not alone.
There is no stage; there is no audience. This initiative requires us to reach out and make personal contact, something that musicians don’t necessarily practice in an intentional way, but we shouldn’t let that get in our way—especially now. I’m not suggesting reaching out randomly (see my earlier comments about building trust). It would feel artificial to cold call someone with whom there is no prior relationship. Rather, the opportunity here is to identify the specific members of our community who most depend on their relationship with us for their well-being. We already know who they are. If not an arts organization’s community, then for sure among your community of family, friends, and neighbors.
There are more or less involved ways that I imagine this can be accomplished. Here are several rungs of the ladder to consider. Let’s start with the first rung:
1. Sharing curated playlists of existing online performances. This could be a general playlist curated by an organization’s staff, or better yet, it could be individual musicians (and others) who create personal playlists (What are the pieces of music that mean the most to you? Which artists do you seek out, no matter what work they are performing?) along with written and/or spoken commentary, depending on the medium. And it doesn’t even have to be an entire playlist; it could be a single viewing or listening recommendation. The point is that this is a personalized, not general, recommendation.
Here’s a response I received after sharing the link to Igor Levit's performance with an isolated older adult close to me: “Thank you for sharing that video...so beautiful and so compelling just to see how the music took over his body and at the end, his right hand....trying to express the emotion. I will forward it to Hans whom I think will appreciate the performance.”
2. If there is enough personal/staff capacity, the playlist might evolve into an ongoing (weekly?) opportunity to connect and share solo performances and conversations. At Emmanuel Music, with such depth of experience and expertise around Bach’s sacred cantatas (including the recently published book of founder Craig Smith’s essays), I can imagine a series of recorded conversations between artists and academics, performers and clergy, that serve to engage our core audience of devotees. We could temporarily re-focus our efforts on providing meaningful content (shorter, more personal) that can be posted online for our community, rather than full-length concert programming. For instance, twelve recorded segments could be shared judiciously over three months. A Far Cry, for one, already appears to be moving in this direction.
3. We could also create opportunities for our community to participate, even if remotely. For instance, at Emmanuel Music, using chapters from the book of Craig Smith’s essays, we could launch a moderated online "book club" with participants sending in questions and comments. Perhaps we could identify a number of non-commercial recordings and (with permission, if needed) share excerpts of archived performances paired with commentary from the musicians who participated in them.
4. The furthest rung on the ladder, and likely the one that has the biggest potential effect, is to reach out to an individual—audience member, friend, or neighbor—with the offer of creating a personalized musical gift. Just the act of reaching out is itself meaningful. And if your offer is accepted, the resulting virtual interaction needn’t be long or perfectly* executed. To be meaningful, it does, however, need to feel relevant to the recipient, and this is the reason for my emphasis on developing empathy. (My thinking here is deeply informed by Nina Simon, OF BY FOR ALL founder. Please take five minutes to read Relevance for One from Nina Simon's book, The Art of Relevance, in which she describes what is, for sure, an extreme example. But isn't it amazing to contemplate?)
In my experience, this initiative puts us in uncharted territory for classical musicians, and maybe for other musicians as well. I don’t have enough personal experience to tell you exactly how this experiment plays out, but by sharing my ideas with you, I’m committing myself to exploring it.
Will you join me?
I would love to hear recommendations from performing artists who have successful experience with making one-to-one connections online. Also, in this time of great uncertainty, if you are inspired to try something new but feeling hesitant and want to talk through your ideas, I’m happy to be a sounding board and support for you.
* Technical considerations
My friend and Boston-based cellist Jacques Lee Wood has experience with performing music via Facebook Live on his iPhone. He recently shared with me the following list of equipment that he invested in to take his ability to stream music up a level. Not necessary, but if you (or, more likely, an organization with which you are affiliated) wish to invest, he told me that the total cost for his gear is around $500. All of it is available on Amazon.
1. IRig Duo
2. Rode M5 paired condenser microphones
3. 2 XLR mic cables
4. Mic stand with stereo mounting bar
Sharing project documentation and examples of student thinking, and my own.