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.