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
I'm grateful to Nate Martin of Palaver Strings for including me in his new podcast, Resonance: Conversations about Life and Music. As I share with Nate near the beginning of our conversation, hearing my voice and having to wonder if I sound smart is not something that has been on my bucket list. However, I'm sure glad that I took him up on this opportunity to say out loud in my own voice--and preserve--what is ultimately guiding any words printed on these pages: my personal story of a life shaped by music.
I tried something new yesterday, drawing inspiration from Nina Simon's The Art of Relevance. Before the season's first major event, I instructed the team of volunteers directing patrons to their seats to ask, "Is this your first Mass in B minor?" If it was, they were offered this one-page note of welcome. It's too soon to know how this experiment landed overall, but my early indications are positive. This absolutely gave people a point of connection that led to conversations during intermission and after the concert.
My first Mass in B minor
A welcome note from Heath Marlow, Director of Development
Thanks for joining us for this evening's performance! We've been looking forward to sharing this exquisite music with you for some time now. Our musicians have been preparing together all week, attempting to create the most meaningful musical experience that they can provide for you, our valued listeners.
As Ryan, our artistic director, likes to say, we welcome you, wherever you are on your musical journey. People seated near you may have grown up listening to—or even singing!—this music. For them, this concert may summon nostalgic memories of people and places from their personal histories. Others in the audience may have been introduced the music of J.S. Bach later in life, either through friends or through their own exploration of classical music. Still others may be encountering this music for the first time tonight.
If you are new to Bach, I’d like to share a perspective that you may find useful. First of all, performing this piece of music is an enormous undertaking. This evening’s performance will last nearly two and a half hours. There are not many things in our lives that require us to sit still and pay attention for that long. You may experience moments of rapture; you may experience moments of boredom. Either is possible across an entire evening's worth of listening to music.
This is my first time hearing this music performed live. I'm hoping it will be a memorable evening. Sometimes I find that, just by noticing that we are all sitting silently and sharing a communal experience in a space of incredible physical and acoustical beauty, I begin to relax and listen more deeply. I think that this may be because I’m reminded of how uncommon this experience is, and how the rest of my daily routine is so very different.
For all of us in the room this evening, music has the potential to affect us in personal and powerful ways. And sometimes not. After all, there’s no right or wrong way to experience music. We may each come away from this performance with a few moments that stay with us. I hope that you find—and keep—whatever it is in this incredible work by Bach that is of most value to you.
If you wish to share it with me, I'd love to hear about your experience, either directly after the concert or by email. I’ll be curious to learn what makes this evening memorable.
Sharing project documentation and examples of student thinking, and my own.