Tag: COVID-19

Choral Singing on the Brink of Delta

Concinnity singing with masks on at Twain House in May 2021

The resurgence of positivity rates and return of mask mandates in recent weeks has become a huge tug on the loose thread that has been holding choral directors and singers from unraveling during this pandemic.  Concert cancellations are likely to commence in the coming weeks and we should be concerned for the musicians and the small choral art organizations who support them. Even if choral music may not be your jam, over 54 million Americans sing in a choir and an even greater number enjoy watching and listening to choirs, ensembles, and a cappella groups. You may even have shared one of those inspiring virtual choirs videos during the height of the pandemic isolation. A number of choral ensembles have a mission greater than cultivating singing, such as creating community for marginalized groups or a vehicle for exploring social justice. Thus, the latest COVID trend is just one more reminder of the trauma that has perforated the choral landscape these past 18 months and decimated many small community choirs. The general public is likely unaware of the carnage or how to help.

From the start of COVID-19, choir became labeled as unsafe, with singers being inappropriately branded as “super-spreaders”. This admonishment really only presented singing groups with two options during the pandemic: go dark and wait out the storm or reimagine choir by transitioning to a virtual model. Neither option was desirable as a hiatus bred despondency for singers and virtualizing choir accelerated burnout for choir directors. But, the choral world stepped up regardless and gave tirelessly during a tumultuous time to soothe and offer connection through music by sharing it virtually. The rate at which choir directors became sound engineers/video editors by proxy in 2020 to keep their singers and community connected virtually was an impressive feat of strength. Choristers braved all types of weather and nature to safely sing and record outside. Directors employed complicated formulas to calculate air exchange rates and hepa filter strength to gauge the safety of  inside rehearsal spaces. Some musicians even harnessed long forgotten sewing skills to produce special singers’ masks for their ensembles.

From the start of COVID-19, choir became labeled as unsafe, with singers being inappropriately branded as “super-spreaders”.

All of these impressive undertakings were often accomplished with little to no financial support for these choirs, which was especially true for small community choirs and choral arts organizations who were not eligible to receive state or federal aid. It is akin to a tree still managing to grow upward when the earth has been washed away underneath. The branches continue to extend skyward, but the possibility of the tree being able to survive for long without soil foundation is debatable. 

Photo by Sarah Kaufold (2021)

Nevertheless, many choirs innovated, collaborated, and stepped out of their comfort zones in 2020 to keep the greater community engaged while singers quietly mourned the loss of “choir” from behind their home computer screens. Let’s face it: choral singing while wearing a face mask, singing outside, or recording virtually is not a particularly enjoyable endeavor for the singer.  This type of choir fits into the “better-than-nothing” category or checks the “it-makes-our-audience-happy” box.  Many choirs managed to endure, but at a significant financial and emotional cost.  It is no wonder that after navigating through the stages of grief since March 2020, many choral musicians found themselves settling into the acceptance stage of the grieving process toward the end of the year—life without choir.

Many choirs innovated, collaborated, and stepped out of their comfort zones in 2020 to keep the greater community engaged.

But then came the light at the end of the tunnel in 2021: vaccines. Virtual rehearsals over Zoom or outside/masked choir sessions concluded with the gleeful countdown of when the singers would be eligible for their shot. The possibilities of a performing season for 2021-22 seemed within reach. The vaccines did allow for a return of singing safely for the vaccinated, but only for a very short time in the early summer. We fell prey to hope that vaccines would open the door to our concert halls, but any plans for a permanent return of communal singing were dashed on the wave of the Delta variant.  If we did not express trepidation before these virus variants took hold in the US, you can bet that choral directors and singers everywhere are calculating how much more disappointment and letdown their hearts can take. Choir is not only our livelihood, it is deeply connected to our identity, health, and emotional well-being. Planning in earnest for the return of choir has become wrought with apprehension because we now know how quickly it can be taken away. Yehuda HaLevi once wrote, “Tis a fearful thing to love what death can touch.“ Choral singing has become capricious.

As we stand on the precipice of the 2021-22 concert season, the anxiety and unease about the future of the choral landscape is palpable. The difficulty extends beyond losing the opportunity to sing together… once again. The revenue streams we had anticipated with a return of in-person performances this season to keep our choirs afloat are uncertain once more. For many small choral organizations, ticket sales and donations to support performing activities are the main source of revenue. If performing is not available… you can surmise the outcome. Also, there are significant costs associated with creating virtual content; however, virtual concerts do not yield much in the way of revenue.  As for balancing the ventilation calculus in our rehearsal spaces and concert halls, the process and equipment is cost-prohibitive for most choirs under normal circumstances let alone after 18 months of barely scraping by. Many small ensembles rent rehearsal and performance space, which compounds the issue. As previously mentioned, most small choral organizations did not receive any state or federal pandemic aid because they do not have full-time employees nor own a venue, both of which do little to measure the impact these choirs have on their community. Although grant opportunities did exist, not everyone is chosen to receive the funding and each application requires herculean effort. 

Most small choral organizations did not receive any state or federal pandemic aid because they do not have full-time employees nor own a venue.

For many choral musicians, the thought of another virtual choir season in the wake of the Delta variant conjures feelings of dread.  The amount of hours and funding a choir director needs to invest to create one 3-minute remotely recorded virtual choir video is considerable. There is an added cost of procuring a sync license per song to place the video online, which mounts quickly, especially for those choirs committed to sharing music by living composers. In addition, the process to create the virtual choir is stressful on most choral singers as they need to sing alone, which is exposing and time consuming to get the perfect take. 

Singing in a mask to record the choir to share virtually is a possible solution, but masks are uncomfortable, vocally tiring, and hinder the choral sound.  Specialty singers’ masks exist to mitigate these issues, but they are pricey (multiply $20 by 40 singers to get an idea).  Recording outside without masks is possible, but comes with a long list of vocal production constraints and numerous recording difficulties (the wind is much louder than you think.) Most unfortunately, some choir members have recently professed they will not commit to another season of singing in a mask, virtually, or outside. The confessions of these dedicated singers suggests a trauma response to having the craft they love taken away again and provided a substitute that offers reduced benefit to the musician. If producing virtual content does not yield much, if any, revenue for the choirs and the process is not as fulfilling for the singers, what is the purpose?  The benefit of virtual content is to continue that which choirs have cultivated all along – connection, collaboration, beauty, and hope.  How do we continue with exhausted singers, directors, and coffers?

Masks are uncomfortable, vocally tiring, and hinder the choral sound.

It is as if we have reached a choral impasse in the wake of impending virus variant waves. As a society, we need the essence of choir to help evoke community and hope. Directors and choral organizations want to financially support their professional singers.  But, forging ahead for singers and community choirs is colored by trauma and compounded by financial fears. Many choral directors are currently managing their exhaustion as they desperately rework the upcoming 2021-22 season to be safe for singers and audience members. Choristers are weighing the emotional cost of virtual participation or singing in masks or outside while still working through the grief of losing choir.  In addition to considering the emotional component, choir directors and boards are calculating the extensive financial costs of the now ever-changing choral landscape.  Many choirs have committed to adapting, but may not survive the next onslaught without significant support from the community and considerable additional funding. Choirs want to offer connection for the singers, share music with the greater community, and financially support their professional musicians this next season.  But, to be brutally honest, community choirs cannot do it without additional funding, especially from local and state municipalities. The good news is that we can all be part of the solution to this problem: donate to your local choral organizations and contact your local governments requesting they dedicate funding to the arts. Alleviating some of the financial burden of sustaining choir through this next season would be the easiest way to support your local community choir.  Help replace some of the nutrient “soil” washed away with the pandemic so the communal singing in our communities can endure.

Upon Arrival: Experiencing My First Live Concert in Over 15 Months

It feels like old news at this point to say that I have struggled during the Covid-19 pandemic. There are days where getting out of bed has felt like a chore and where my fears, both irrational and not, have consumed me into a spiral of anxiety. There are days where practicing clarinet, writing, working on projects, and teaching my students helps me find calm. However, a cloud of ambiguity tends to dissipate that calm and instead fuels anxiety as to when my next live performance will be. Like many, I have not-so curiously wondered where in the world the end to this global health crisis is, and why it hasn’t arrived sooner.

It also feels like old news to say that the pandemic has made me reflect on my artistic practice. I have felt empowered by improvising, by creating my own layered recordings, and even by writing the words you see here, but have felt insecure about my ability to do such in a world that is healing from unimaginable loss, pain, and grief.

Within days of restrictions being lifted in New York, ads for ticket sales and tour dates began populating my newsfeed. With cautious optimism, I thought, is live music really back? I was waiting for a point where another bar would close or a party would get too out of control, forcing me to be in the confines of my childhood bedroom once again. I had already wondered where my work as an artist fits into the ever-changing world, and with the dichotomy of student versus performer I assigned to myself, I pondered whether my art would be taken seriously, even as I chose to continue my studies.

  • Within days of restrictions being lifted in New York, ads for ticket sales and tour dates began populating my newsfeed.

    Michelle Hromin
  • I was in awe of the artists who I only knew virtually until that day making music so beautifully and authentically.

    Michelle Hromin
  • I want to be creating performances where people are not only called on to be present, but feel welcomed into doing so.

    Michelle Hromin

Working two jobs hasn’t given me much free time, so when I miraculously woke up to a Saturday with nothing on my schedule, I almost laughed. What should I do? Should I hang out with a friend, go get my nails done, catch up on my email? I went with the obvious choice and met up with a good friend who recently moved back to Manhattan. While sipping our coffees in the park near his apartment, I realized that there was free, live music happening in Astor Place that night, including two fellows from bespoken, a mentorship program we’re a part of that supports female and nonbinary musicmakers, who run the The Juneteenth Legacy Project. I debated whether I should go solely because I thought the more responsible thing to do would be to catch up on work, but it was Saturday, and I knew in my heart I needed to be out and about.

The energy was euphoric on the 6 train to Astor Place. With baseball fans chattering and families laughing, the subway felt far more alive in comparison to when I’ve taken it in months past. This felt familiar, reminiscent of what my “old life” resembled, but intersected with gratitude for even being in a dinky subway car with all of these strangers.

Walking up the stairs and out of the station was like a pantomime. I was immediately welcomed to the sounds of violin, piano, voice, and even electronics from The Red Stage, an outdoor pop-up space in Astor Place created by artist Rashid Johnson, blending with the hum of passing vehicles and the energetic laughter of passersby. Isn’t that fascinating – how the sounds from around us can add so much to a concert or a show? As cliché as it sounds, I don’t think I would have considered that had it not been for the pandemic. I never thought I would feel so grateful for the small sounds of people coexisting with me, yet there I was, bobbing my head along, feeling pure contentment and gratitude for sharing this space with all of these strangers. All of the fears and doubts swirling around in my mind left my body; instead, I was in awe of the artists who I only knew virtually until that day making music so beautifully and authentically. For how many people was this their first taste of live music again? Surely, not just me.

The Red Stage’s mission is to invite artists to create freely and authentically after a year of such immense anxiety. I had originally come to see the Juneteenth Legacy Project featuring Nnenna Ogwo, Erika Banks-Alvarez, percussionist Donnie Johns, and the Sterling String Quartet, and was delighted to also hear multi-instrumentalist and singer/songwriter Celisse, violinist Ché Buford, and genre-bending artist mal sounds, whose sounds greeted me as I first arrived. What I loved was how open the environment felt, not only because of its outdoor location, but because of the programming and energy generated by the artists themselves. There was no rushing to change over artists, no “shhs” when people clapped more than once; rather, there was space for each listener, whether there for a minute or an hour, to experience movements between experimental, classical, and even pop music. The concert was about 2 hours, featuring music by H.T. Burleigh, William Grant Still, Lizzo, Ché Buford, Childish Gambino, and more.

There were about 50 people in the audience, with benches dispersed near the stage, but many, like myself, took the option to stand amongst friends and enjoy the music in our little cohorts. From time to time, a light drizzle pushed its way into the atmosphere, but most paid no mind; there was a collective feeling of gratitude for being able to hear these artists do what they do best.

The Juneteenth Legacy Project (Photo credit: Jelani Thompson)

When I think of this concert and this time I carved out for myself to experience the thing that inspires me most, music, I smile from ear to ear. All I kept thinking while the show was going on is: “This is how concerts should feel.” The vulnerability of the artists to share this music with us in such a confusing time had me thinking about the idea of being present–at an event, a dinner, and in my daily life. I want to be creating performances where people are not only called on to be present, but feel welcomed into doing so. I don’t want to be limited to one genre of music; I want to be at the forefront of all the artistic possibilities I saw, heard, and experienced that night at The Red Stage.

Joy has always been the thing I have wanted to be at the center of what I do. The idea of cultivating a space for joy, to not only feel joy while creating sound on clarinet or writing these very words, but sharing that with the world at large, is fuel for me. Being at this concert brought me back to that part of myself. The world is healing, and so am I. I have the power to spread that joy–in whatever medium, in-person or online, right here, right now.

Road From Heiligenstadt: A Composer’s Perspective on Surviving COVID

A masked Dalit in Forest Hills (October 2020)

I had just spent a joyous half-hour at the piano with my son, introducing to him the score of Beethoven’s First Symphony. It was a rare moment, when I was actually able to forget my now habitual caution, so necessary since the resurgence of my symptoms this past October: the need to weigh each word, to assess the value of every conversation, to allot the days of rest necessary to prepare for that next class, or Zoom meeting, or phone interview. For one brief half-hour, I was able to simply revel in the moment of allowing my voice to follow the dictates of my mind. My health was improving, as I had been on vocal rest the whole previous month: my chest pain upon speaking, a raw, knife-like soreness so singular to this virus, was waning, as were the low-grade fevers and debilitating chronic fatigue that accompanied it. But then, the familiar burn reared its head once again.

On April 4, 2020, I was diagnosed with COVID-19. I began exhibiting symptoms on March 26, and started my self-isolation at home before moving elsewhere, to maintain the health of my husband and son after they tested negative. This was before it was determined that infectiousness ends after 11 days: as my symptoms were not abating, to ensure my family’s complete safety, I remained away in quarantine for over four weeks.

This virus affects everyone differently; there can be no presumptions about what to expect. Upon diagnosis, it is futile to then neatly pencil 2-3 weeks into one’s calendar for recovery, scheduling life to resume as planned once the aforementioned time limit is hit. This disease does not answer to deadlines: it lingers, even for those fortunate enough to exhibit mild or moderate symptoms, not extreme enough for medical facilities to help. We were so fortunate to even procure tests, as none were available in the early stages of the pandemic. We were able to locate a private doctor who traveled to people’s homes to administer them, for the sum equivalent of a 13-week seminar’s pay.

I am aware that in certain ways I was blessed. Blessed with options. Blessed with the most beautiful-spirited and loving husband and son, without whom I could not have endured this: my Angels. Blessed that the virus, initially headed toward my lungs in the more dangerous “inflammatory phase” of the second week, then “seemed to change its mind,” in the words of my doctor, although—while an initial X-ray showed clear lungs—a subsequent CT chest scan revealed that they had indeed been affected.

At first, medical presumption held that my experience would be relatively light, and my symptoms were indeed mild. As for self-isolation, composers are generally quite comfortable with this status quo, even to the point of seeking it out, and so I decided to take the Romantic view: I had just been granted an unexpected artist residency! To my new quarters I brought two large pads of manuscript paper and pencils, with which to explore the beginnings of a new work, inspired by Beethoven. The piece, conceived the previous summer at MacDowell before the pandemic even began, would be an exploration of how infirmity might paradoxically inspire and enable one’s creative need. It would illustrate how isolation, induced by both society and self, could breed a passionate, yearning love for humanity, and a fierce drive to enable and universalize communication and connection through one’s art.

The following convergence of events were most likely serendipity. (That said, I do wonder if we as creators—especially at the earliest stages of writing—tend to invoke these paranormal occurrences, rendering every gift provided by the universe as creatively meaningful, no matter how trivial!) From the outset, I marveled at how my experience seemed to match Beethoven’s in certain ways. We were both exploring ideas in complete silence (not least as my temporary residence had no piano). We were both handicapped in such a way that alienated us from basic human communication: Beethoven with his encroaching deafness, I with my increasing difficulty in breathing and speaking without pain. On my first day in quarantine, I was practically certain that Beethoven’s spirit, over in Elysium, had mandated an unforeseen 12-hour break in Internet service, to ensure that I was truly internalizing his own silence! This was followed by a hail storm later that day, which began just as the “Tempest” Sonata—the very work Beethoven had completed before writing his famed “Heiligenstadt Testament”— resounded from a radio in the next room. Isolation seemed to heighten my awareness and appreciation of these mundane incidents, and the need to conjure whatever spirits necessary not only to feed my art, but to lend poetic value to an otherwise sad and pointless experience; they struck me as a heavenly gift.

But then, I entered a new, unforeseen “inflammatory stage,” far more dangerous, which I was told could last 2-4 weeks. Apparently, while improvement was possible, one also could experience setbacks, or “plateaus.” I was prescribed hydroxychloroquine, cautioned that a significant side effect could be vision loss, a terror for any composer. I elected not to take it, skeptical yet rattled by the public unfolding of Boris Johnson’s own bout with the virus, which landed him in the ICU on a ventilator after he had refused the drug.

My place of convalescence, while comfortable, was unfamiliar, and could only be reached via a steep and narrow staircase and a series of doors. In retrospect, the way into the apartment from the street entrance was not very long, but due to my vulnerable state, which included dizziness and vertigo, it seemed overwhelmingly labyrinthine. At night, as I tossed—ever-cognizant of my state of breathing even in half-sleep—I had visions of medics unable to reach me, should any emergency arise, as I would be too physically weak to toss them the keys to these various doors from my window. The prospect of losing the ability to breathe while completely alone was terrifying. I found myself h thinking of those suffering from AIDS, during the early days of the epidemic when there was so much confusion, helplessness, and fear. It was also not difficult to imagine that grim awareness of those elderly or already with pre-conditions, who find themselves being wheeled to the hospital, in complete isolation, everyone around them masked and bedecked in astronautical gear, their loved ones unable to be near them. I realized that, in addition to the actual physical havoc wrought by the virus, this was a disease of loneliness.

I went “there,” perhaps inevitably as, at this time of world-wide fear and foreboding, along with the relentless telling of somber stories, it was impossible not to. I allowed myself to imagine the various predicaments that earlier composers had faced at the end, each in their mid-forties, each an idol and inspiration: Scriabin at age 43, accidentally nicking himself during what would become his last, deadly shave; Berg, aged 46, attempting to ignore the inconvenient festering of an eventually fatal insect bite… First, the incredulity — how silly, to fall ill over such a trifle! Surely our spirits are more powerful and transcendent than this, and must prevail? Then, after a rallying of fierce determination and hope, the gradual sobering. The daze of disbelief. And, finally, the pained horror, and clarity, of… “This is it.” Submission.

I wonder if, whenever one must reconcile with such fate, there is an irony. The irony of details, that this is, after all, the way it ends: a bed, a lonely room, the lack of touch, the struggle to speak, to breathe. Or, there is another more existential irony, perhaps akin to what Haydn had felt, as he wistfully mused about how then, only then, did he truly begin to comprehend writing for woodwinds.

My husband was my Knight. He would visit me each day, masked and at a distance, delivering nourishing home-cooked dinners in Tupperware. My quarters were near enough that he and my son could take daily walks to visit, calling up to me beneath my window so that we could view each other unmasked. While they maintained brave demeanors, their eyes bespoke such sadness.

My ultimate salvation was music. It was especially important to return to those native energies that had so fueled my original creative impetus, especially as there were few other pastimes that could deeply transport me for which I had energy. In particular, I had the pleasure of listening to the latest CD collection of the great thereminist Clara Rockmore, entitled Music and Memories, which features interviews and newly unearthed, astonishingly profound performances: the most notable (to my mind) are her second movement of Bach’s Double Violin Concerto, which she plays in dialogue with herself via overdubbing, and her rendition of the Franck Sonata, both violin and cello versions combined, due to the scope of the theremin’s range. To be brought so close to Clara, one of my dearest, most profound mentors and inspirations as a musician, through her music, her lilting voice, her grace, felt to me like a resurrection or visitation, a centering, a true gift.

By June, I seemed to have recovered fully, and I enjoyed the summer and early autumn months in a state of restored health. In the ensuing months, I grasped at the blessings and even the silver linings: after all, didn’t Tolstoy claim that “illness can liberate the power of the spirit in us”? I relished every precious moment at home with my dearest ones (what paradox, that hardship can enable beauty to be experienced all the more vividly!), and welcomed a rigorous teaching schedule at the two institutions where I serve on composition faculty. In those particular days of national unrest, it was a joy and a blessing to dissociate from it all through work with my students. Every composer-professor can doubtlessly relate to the tug-of-war of energies that arises as one must balance not only time and mental space, but also the constant shifts in the way one engages with the world. (I’ve noticed, too, that teaching and composing can be unexpectedly symbiotic.) That said, convening with my students – all excellent, particularly focused and inspired – was a true balm for the spirit.

Dalit at the Piano

First premiere post-Covid: “Resurrection,” from Different Loves, at the Cell, presented by Bright Shiny Things. Sept. 9, 2020.

But then, in October, the symptoms returned, causing lecturing to be especially difficult. Each two-hour seminar seemed an Olympian feat, prompting bouts of chest pain, severe fatigue and low fevers that would last as long as 36 hours, and demanding days of recuperation. At the time, the syndrome of “long COVID”—or any awareness that there might be a long-term impact from the virus—had not yet been discovered, although COVID survivors whose onset of illness began before April 2020 (who term themselves online as “Long Haul COVID Fighters”) were describing dismaying symptoms of relapse at the seven-month marker. By November, it had come to the point where I stayed silent except for when teaching my classes. To my own family I would whisper, until I learned that doing so causes more strain. Every occasion to speak was accompanied by the prospect of danger, the dread that the chest pain will return. Increasingly, I would teach via email correspondence, and a composer colleague was on-hand for any last-minute substitution, which was increasingly necessary. I had a podcast interview scheduled, and then a pre-concert talk, that month: preparing for each necessitated a week’s vocal rest. I felt in quarantine within my own physical being.

Communicating through music, therefore, was truly my sustenance. Music has the capacity to penetrate and surmount the limitations of spoken language, a reason why I am addicted to writing it and exploring its endless capacity for emotional wisdom (all-too-often revealing and teaching new significances to the composer during, and long after, the process).

I noticed how, as a composer with a propensity for introversion, it was not very difficult to cocoon back into the safety of one’s interior existence. The repertoire I gravitated toward brought about unexpected discoveries of light. I rediscovered Liszt, specifically his Consolations and the Harmonies Poetiques et Religieuses for solo piano, surprised at the spiritual depth and capacity for simplicity in both works. I loved the freedom with which Liszt alluded to liturgical texts within the piano line, almost as an invisible voice, and the joy with which he conjured different composers such as Beethoven and Palestrina; I also heard him foreshadowing Wagner, not just spiritually but in structural scope. I reconnected with Schubert, Faure, Messiaen, and both Schumanns, feeling myself able to access each composer’s spirit and intent in newly intimate ways as I myself experienced their music through ears, fingers, and mind: I was sure that the Consolations were written by Liszt as consolation for himself. I believe that one of the miracles of being a creator is to be endowed with the gift of healing oneself from within: one’s music, in the most ideal of scenarios, can take others—and the composer—through an emotional journey, even to catharsis when necessary.

So what sort of music does one write during a pandemic, and during the course of such an experience? I can liken my recent creative impulses to those I had in the year following 9/11. Some weeks after the Twin Towers fell, I flew to Israel on a Fulbright Scholarship. It was a time and place particularly rife with turmoil. At times, I found myself unsettlingly close in proximity to the latest calamity, and was also—as it happens—battling a chronic illness.

  • As for self-isolation, I decided to take the Romantic view: I had just been granted an unexpected artist residency!

    Dalit Warshaw
  • Communicating through music was truly my sustenance.

    Dalit Warshaw
  • One of the miracles of being a creator is to be endowed with the gift of healing oneself from within.

    Dalit Warshaw
  • To function as a composer in our era and society, an essential requirement—one not much mentioned—is that of basic physical health.

    Dalit Warhsaw

Did my music express tragedy? Not at all: I ended up composing works of fierce, defiant celebration, of deep and ecstatic joy. I believe that the act of composition was the most profound medicine, providing me with an overwhelming strength and invincible energy, and provoking an intense liberation of voice, tremendous self-discovery and reconnection with something deeply intuitive and visceral.

I realized, back in 2001, something I have been reacquainted with now: that Music—creating it, playing it, receiving it any way that it may be experienced—is the ultimate antidote. It is our lifeline, our “best friend,” the ultimate expression and reflection of our souls, of the best of ourselves. And then, there is the beautiful irony that what arises from the most internal and vulnerable place within us then serves to reach others, crossing barriers of language, culture, and politics, reaching people as individuals and embracing them in communal understanding and togetherness… at least for a moment.

On the academic front, this past year’s experience has brought me uncomfortably in touch with the precariousness of the adjunct professor’s—and, indeed, the freelance artist’s—lifestyle. Having taught composition full-time at a reputable conservatory in Boston for ten years, in 2011 I had relocated to my native New York for the sake of both my musical and family life, carving for myself an active and multifaceted identity as a composer, academic, and performer (on both piano and theremin), and teaching composition at multiple institutions, along with an independent studio of private students. At the two institutions where I am currently on faculty, my students, colleagues, and department chairs could not be more understanding, flexible, and sympathetic, and for that I have been deeply grateful. That said, I discovered that there are no options in place for adjunct faculty when catastrophe hits, such as the need for paid medical leave, even during our current crisis: the system is simply not set up for such situations. To function as a composer in our era and society, an essential requirement—one not much mentioned—is that of basic physical health. One must have banks of energy in reserve supply, a surplus, and there is no room for illness in this equation. In the absence of a full-time academic position that would allow for a more flexible teaching load and manner, it occurs to me that there are so few alternatives for composers—aside from receiving a sizable grant or a large orchestra or opera commission—that don’t mandate the regular use of one’s voice.

At the time of this writing, I have mostly recovered. After some months of being able to rest my voice, my fatigue has now ebbed. Each day yields improvement, thanks to a regimen of rest, patience, an altered lifestyle, voice healing work, and a seemingly beneficial bout of Prednisone. I am lucky to have basically avoided the characteristic “brain-fog” and work as I can, passionately, while parenting a gifted sixth-grader who needs my nurturing, guidance, and energy. Composing has sustained me, kept me joyful, idealistic, and sane. This March, practically one year after my initial diagnosis, I will return to a limited amount of online teaching, and am increasingly confident I will be able to do so. With the onset of spring, I am filled with renewed hope and anticipation.

Virtual Premiere of Different Loves, A Cycle of Classical Portraits (2020-21) by Dalit Warshaw
Composed from Jan. 2020 to Jan. 2021, Different Loves explores the seven Classical Greek Loves through this seven-movement cycle of musical portraits. From friendship, to family devotion, to altruistic love, to Eros, we are taken on a journey through the spectrum of human emotion and experience, culminating in intimate and reflective self-love. The undertaking of composing and performing this work served as a spiritual antidote to the challenges of this somber time.

Emerge, Bridge, Connect

growing_tomatoes

The task of “emerging” artists is to slowly grow into their industry. To create their community, one conversation at a time.

This process relies upon human hugs, handshakes, and the, “Oh! I’ve heard so much about you and how amazing that we’ve just run into each other at the same tuba and microtonal keyboard concert!” But during quarantine, this spontaneous growth of our root networks has slacked for some and completely stalled for others.

Throughout 10 weeks of quarantine, I’ve felt the urge to isolate myself completely, definitely more than “being safe” necessitates. Some of it comes from fear, or from lack of confidence.

By shutting out my friends and connections, I put off the psychological work of believing in myself, promoting myself, and sometimes even writing music.

I am isolated in Los Angeles, where I daily write morning pages, grow tomatoes, and sprout lettuce from a severed romaine stem. The tomato plants are stalling at about 3 inches high, and the romaine has shot up 8 or 9 inches, almost defiantly.

I started therapy. I exuberantly shaved half of my head.

I cook complicated as well as simple dishes, and voraciously type into a document called “Ak’s growing cookbook.” I first opened it in 2016 when I began my masters in composition and started trying to remember the dishes I would create.

I still write music, but quarantine gave me the motivation to hit the gas on my side job. I’m seizing my new path with passion. After months of silence, I’m listening to music again (at hilariously low volumes) while I organize my to-do lists.

It’s a relief to be a beginner again. I am energized by the fact that I can develop new skills over the course of a few weeks. We (all of us), truly, no longer have to be disheartened, thinking that every worthwhile skill must be taken up at age 3 or 5.

I sometimes doubt if I can call myself a composer when I’m spending more than 50% of my time on my side-hustle as a freelance writer / virtual assistant. But as more emerging artists turn to other forms of employment, we will challenge our own notions about what artists are supposed to do. We will redefine how we spend our time and intellectual resources.

And having a double-barreled profession title doesn’t make us any less creative. We will still call ourselves what we know we are.

  • I’ve felt the urge to isolate myself completely, definitely more than “being safe” necessitates.

    Akshaya Tucker
  • Having a double-barreled profession title doesn’t make us any less creative.

    Akshaya Tucker
  • We need to remember that we create community.

    Akshaya Tucker

In fact, bridging professional worlds may force us to confront the shortcomings of existing arts institutions. We may actually gather wisdom from people working outside the arts.

As I learn more about the small businesses who are my clients, I fantasize about bringing what I’ve learned back to the arts. Someday, I tell myself, the skills I’m gathering will coalesce into purpose and benefit the artistic community.

In the meantime, they are helping me survive.

***

While grieving human-to-human music-making, don’t lose touch with those who inspire you.

We are grieving together. Performers are grieving lost performances, composers are grieving lost premieres and commissions. And although the next concert series won’t be able to hire us, we can still send a friendly note checking in on staff members and performers.

In the end, we need to remember that we create community. Your “new music” community might just be a handful of friends. They might not even listen to new music. They’re probably the people who make you feel safe and supported. We shouldn’t wait for a group of (possibly intimidating) people to find and accept us. Right now we just need people, not “important” people.

When you have energy to spare, offer it up to your friends.

Most of them will say, “Oh, thank you for reaching out!” with a genuine sigh of relief. The relief is gratitude for that one thing you did: you gathered the materials — which you can both use, now, to build bridges between each other. When you return to that pit of loneliness, craving people, or just craving — your friends will walk back towards you along the bridge.

Maybe performers, composers, and commissioners can pick up the emotional pieces from projects that have fallen through. Maybe we can focus on getting to know one another. Maybe we actually can still make something together, even if it’s two different batches of odd, dry-looking bread. If we can spare the time for each other, our relationships will be that much deeper. Our community will thrive.

In our subsection of Los Angeles, we are making a return to the hyper-local. We are bartering homemade lemon cake for toilet-paper, a haircut for homemade pierogies, or a Zoom weight-training session for original “relaxation” music. The personality of it all feels delicious. Money never left me feeling this way.

Our hyper-local sound-making leaves me with a newfound curiosity about the lives of the people living in my neighborhood.

At exactly 8:00 pm every night, a steam vent opens and my neighborhood explodes with shouting, bells, and the banging of pots and pans. It’s cathartic. (A Ph.D. student could write about the importance of our exuberant yowls: a post-verbal communication style.)

Even without a (musical) performance, here is an audience.

Yes, we’re buffered by a bit more space. But sound forms a transient bridge between us.

“Thank you, health-care workers!” my neighbor shouts at the top of her lungs. Sometimes her toddler shouts the phrase after her, a tiny yet powerful voice breaking through the dusk.

This is the kind of sound-making I want to be a part of.

It requires us only to be where we are.


Support for the writing of this article was provided by the ASCAP Foundation Irving Caesar Fund.

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For Our Courageous Workers

A screen shot of a video depicting frames of 29 different individual musicians performing on various instruments in front of their windows.

For Our Courageous Workers is a 4-movement, 11-minute long graphic piece I conceived which was composed together with Hajnal Pivnick and Dorian Wallace, realized by musicians of all levels in New York City and beyond, and performed at 7pm—the time of the daily “Cheer for Front-Line Workers”—on April 29, 2020, during the period of our COVID-19 virus “stay-at-home quarantine”.

It was intended to fulfill many purposes. To call attention to the risks that front-line essential workers face, doing the jobs that allow us to live and survive through this virus period, and to celebrate them and their work. To inspire the people of the city, isolated by necessity and decree, and bring them together through music. And to allow musicians to do what we do—make music! (For many New York musicians, accustomed to playing with others on an almost daily basis, this was the first time they had played live with others in almost two months.) Hajnal Pivnick, Dorian Wallace, and I saw our roles as being both composers and directors of a ritual, spectacle performance.

  • We chose instructions that anyone could achieve at their own level.

    Frank London, trumpeter and composer
  • Any attempt to have a synchronized rhythm or pulse would have failed.

    Frank London, trumpeter and composer
  • We have received almost 100 performance videos.

    Frank London, trumpeter and composer

The composition presented a number of challenges. We had to ensure that it was not only playable by all levels of performers, from amateurs, students, and rank beginners to the world’s finest professional, performing musicians, but would also be enjoyable to perform. To this end, we chose instructions that anyone could achieve at their own level.

It needed to both grow out of and function as an extension of the daily “Cheer for Front-Line Workers” ritual that takes place in NYC. Michael Brodeur, in the Washington Post described it as follows:

New Yorkers have established their own socially distanced approach to celebrating the efforts of health-care workers—cheering them every evening at 7 from their windows and rooftops with a clamor of pots, pans, songs and applause.

We began the piece with this clamor of pots, pans and applause, and added a jubilant major fanfare. The drummers used only cymbals, reminiscent of the explosive percussion in Chinese New Year’s celebrations. Then, instead of ending at around the time the cheer would normally subside, we went into a contrasting section.

We chose a four-section structure to give it both musical shape and a narrative focus:

1) CHEERING (for the workers);
2) REFLECTING (on the devastation and loss);
3) CATHARSIS (“a full-blown play anything, glorious, jubilant, ecstatic, cacophonic, sonic catharsis” to release pent in feelings, be they anger, grief, rage, frustration); and
4) GRATITUDE (for the workers, for our lives, families, loved ones, health, community).

Any attempt to have a synchronized rhythm or pulse would have failed, as would having the length determined by a number of bars. We defined the four movements through clock time not metronomic time. (Although, in order to give a sense of slowness, the 2nd movement has the instruction to the drummers: “Quarter note pulse = 60 bpm”. This was meant to be taken either literally or figuratively.)

A hypothetical listener hovering above the city would hear 3 minutes of Bb major, with an emphasis on the Bb major seventh chord (Bb-D-F-A), fast and explosive; morphing into 3 minutes of slow pensive D minor; a sudden eruption of 3 minutes of total noise and chaos; and a final coming together into one unified pitch and sound. E Pluribus Unum, out of many, one. In determining the home pitch for the fourth section, we debated using D (easy for the string player) or Bb (for the winds). Bb was chosen because I remembered reading somewhere that New York City vibrated to a fundamental bass tone of Bb (possibly from the electrical grid or subway vibrations).

Limiting the pitch sets for the 1st, 2nd, and 4th movements ensured that it would work as an ensemble piece (if the performer heard others playing it), while allowing players to treat it as a solo performance (if they did not).

Courageous Workers poster

My personal performance went thus: 3 minutes of free blowing Bb major jubilant energy, reminiscent of Albert Ayler’s “Bells,” accompanied by Tony Geballe’s Frithian guitar feedback drones on the next roof. 3 minutes of spiritual, meditative D minor melodies reflecting the sadness of losing so many greats to this virus. Then chaos and release! Allowing myself to vent the frustration of being led through this crisis by a mendacious, self-serving national leader, I ended up screaming uncontrollably while playing the ratchet as fast and loudly as possible—my personal catharsis. The last few minutes of unison brought me down to earth, and I realized that dozens of people in adjacent buildings, hungry for live music, were applauding.

We don’t know exactly how many people participated, but we have received almost 100 performance videos of For Our Courageous Workers. Weaving these together videos affirms that our compositional choices play out: it is a coherent work performed by musicians who for the most part could not hear each other.

I suspect that we will create a number of iterations of For Our Courageous Workers using the submitted material. But it’s going to be a while before we have something complete to share with the world. In the meanwhile, here’s a sneak peek at the first 30 seconds.

For Our Courageous Workers could not have been successful without having many participants. As the entire project went from its initial conceptualization to the performance in 10 days, we relied upon our co-sponsoring organizations—each with a wide reach into diverse New York musical communities—to get the word out to the public. We feel a deep gratitude. All of them, along with the hundreds of people who performed the piece, brought together undzer kleyn shtetl New York (our ‘little village of New York’) through sound.

[Ed. Note: To access the single-page, text-based score for the composition For Our Courageous Workers, click here.]

Pandemic, Blind Spots, and the Story of Ignaz Semmelweis

Doctor Semmelweis examines a patient.

SEMMELWEIS, a music-theater work I created with my writer collaborator Matthew Doherty, premiered in a fully-staged production in Budapest in 2018. The work centers upon the story of Ignaz Semmelweis, the 19th-century Hungarian physician being talked about a lot these days as the pioneer of hand washing and antiseptic procedures in preventing the spread of deadly infection. Until May 31, 2020, the complete work is streaming for free online.

Until twelve years ago, I had never heard of Ignaz Semmelweis.  One day, I read a passing mention of him in a book about innovators, with a very brief summary of his significance: Working on the front lines of a devastating epidemic, and watching midwives’ practices closely, he came to believe that the deadly disease was being spread to healthy mothers on the unclean hands of their doctors. Having tried as hard as might to tell the world, he was ignored, even scorned, and died alone in an asylum, ironically of the very condition he’d found the simple solution for. Though medical personnel learn the basics of his legacy in their training, Ignaz Semmelweis remained an obscure figure to most, until around March 2020.

Today, in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, we can scarcely imagine how, back in the midst of a horrendous and baffling 19th-century pandemic of childbed fever, which killed as many as one in three new mothers, something so simple—clean hands—could be have been so foreign as to not even merit consideration as a potential solution. It was not even worth trying, as far as the medical establishment of the 1840s seemed to be concerned. Remember that these were dedicated and brilliant people who seemed ready to try anything in their desperate hunt for the cure, people who had worked their utmost all their lives to be able to save lives. But the hypothesis of this one Hungarian doctor working then at Vienna’s top hospital, that there was something deadly on the doctors’ own hands, was too far-fetched for them?!  How could this be?

What struck me about the story is its demonstration of our incredible human capacity for denial. Doctors were being introduced to a truth that could simply not be tolerated: that their patients, new mothers and their babies, had all along been dying because of something transmitted via their own “healer’s” hands, that the harder they had worked to try to solve the problem—cycling between performing autopsies in the morgue and examining mothers in the obstetrics ward—the more death they were causing. The longer it took doctors to accept the truth, the more deaths they caused.

One can surely empathize with the intensity of their mind’s desire to have this not be true. For many physicians, when they ultimately could no longer deny this sickening truth, the psychological impact was devastating; suicides occurred. Sheer self-preservation in the short term was a powerful force in holding open this gaping blind spot, until it could finally be denied no longer. But this took decades, the changing of a generation, and mountains of more evidence, including the landmark germ theory of disease finally put forth in the 1880s.  Emotion held sway over logic for decades, even with the world’s top medical minds, with countless deaths resulting.

Our human history is filled with such examples of stubborn blind spots.  In our own time we have seen issues like the climate crisis, racial and socioeconomic injustices, and LGBT rights take decades and generational turnover to uncover our eyes. As hard as it is to even accept the unpleasant reality that the environment we will leave our children is badly deteriorated and getting worse, that their lives will be less abundant, safe, healthy, and peaceful than ours have been, harder still is it to face up to the likelihood of our own collective and individual culpability, to recognize how indulgent we’ve been, how much we will have to relinquish of our treasured status quo, in order to stand even a chance of reversing it.

Facing such massive anxiety-inducing possibilities, the mind desperately looks for any glimmer of hope that this may not be true. And one self-soothing response is to act as though it weren’t true, continuing our status-quo behaviors, even leaning into them, for the short-term psychological self-preservation that a fantasy-reality might provide. Sadly, of course, this worsens the problem, just as it did for the doctors of Semmelweis’s time. The attitude of the time was that a good doctor’s smock should be so filthy it can stand on its own when removed, as a sign of how much he (doctors were all male at that time) worked.  Soiled and foul-smelling hands were a point of pride, a mark of toughness and selfless dedication. These norms were very hard to break, just as we continue to be terrible as a society at recycling, avoiding disposables, and energy conservation; just as even the most progressive among us unwittingly harbor unfair biases.

The Semmelweis story also speaks to our response to others’ denial. We can choose empathy, for we are all equally capable of living in denial. Semmelweis, in his desperation, could not muster much empathy, and instead denounced non-believers harshly. He was shunned as a raving lunatic. Denial had something to sustain itself, an imperfect prophet of the truth, and a foreigner no less. Thankfully dismissible! Could diplomacy and patience have changed minds sooner and saved lives?

  • Today, in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, we can scarcely imagine how clean hands could not even merit consideration as a potential solution.

    Raymond Lustig, composer
  • We are surely all living in denial, right this very moment, of some new dreadful blind spot that will appall future generations.

    Raymond Lustig, composer
  • Art explores the intangible realms of emotion, and in shining light there, perhaps helps us recognize them and their effects on our thoughts and actions.

    Raymond Lustig, composer

We are surely all living in denial, right this very moment, of some new dreadful blind spot that will appall future generations. We are the next generation’s clueless, biased dinosaurs. By its very nature, a blind spot is something that goes unnoticed. But someone will notice it, at some point. How will we treat them? Who will be the first to believe them? Who won’t accept it, and why not? How will we deal with them? And if that someone is our own self, is there any hope for us, or will we go down in history as villainous, the problem rather than the solution?

As artists, we consciously and unconsciously process the often intangible or hard-to-articulate emotional lines of the things we experience and learn about, and it’s this that’s so important about art, because human beings and our society are complicated. Emotions matter in all human affairs, usually a lot more than we’d like to think, and can be the hardest part of all for us to understand. Fear, hubris, misunderstandings, mistrust, inertia, guilt, chauvinism, political loyalties, memory, and fear are all working on us all the time, threatening to get the better of our relationships and efforts. Art explores the intangible realms of emotion, and in shining light there, perhaps helps us recognize them and their effects on our thoughts and actions.

One thing this pandemic is making so clear to us is how deeply our fates are intertwined. Our front-line health workers, the sick, our economy, and society, are all facing huge uncertainty every day. The answer may be out there in someone’s head, and it may not be the person we imagine. Will we listen to them?


Support for the writing of this article was provided by the ASCAP Foundation Irving Caesar Fund.

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From the Corner (Home) Office

Edgar and Rosie

Every day, I look forward to seeing Edgar and Rosie. Before you worry that there’s been a social distancing breach, I should clarify that Edgar and Rosie are the geese that live on the roof of the office building across the street from my apartment. They are fat, loud, happy geese that patrol the air along the short block between the milk factory and the real estate office. Each day at around 10:30 am they glide ungracefully onto that roof and we sit there staring at each other for a few moments. In those moments I wonder silently to myself if everything will be okay.

Typically, this scene unfolds during one of the many virtual meetings that fill up my calendar. Check-ins, board meetings, one-on-ones, sales pitches, introductions, happy hours, planning for in this time, in this time, in this time. This time that marches on. This time that makes us pause. This time that we fill up with fear or sorrow or dread or joy or hope or love.

At the beginning of March, when I moved out to Boise from Seattle to become the new Executive Director of the Boise Phil, I was preparing myself for the toughness of change, the steep learning curve of a new job and the loneliness of figuring out how to live in a new city. It’s laughable now to think about how I worried whether I had the right shoes as I stare out the window of a different kind of corner office and wait for the consistency of the neighborhood geese.

  • It’s laughable now to think about how I worried whether I had the right shoes as I stare out the window of a different kind of corner office.

    Laura Reynolds, Executive Director of the Boise Philharmonic
  • How do you know you are you?

    Laura Reynolds, Executive Director of the Boise Philharmonic
  • We have some big questions to answer and lots of love tsunamis to start surfing.

    Laura Reynolds, Executive Director of the Boise Philharmonic

The anxiety of starting a new job has been replaced by the constant flood of information and an inner monologue that wonders who is doing what and when and how and should we do it too and have you talked to so-and-so and is it safe? Through that din, I am reminded of something I was asked just a few months ago during a meeting at the Hibulb Cultural Center on the Tulalip Reservation in Washington, “What does it mean to be an orchestra? How do you know you are you?”

To be honest, I wasn’t sure how to answer those questions. We take for granted that we exist. We have these monuments built around us to hold up our pristine performances, our egos, and the high tower of art that we like to perch ourselves upon. (I’m the first one to admit to my perching.) This pandemic has taken most of that away and left us with the question: How do you know you are you?

So what does it mean to be an orchestra? What could it mean to be an orchestra? Who are we?

Orchestras turn ideas into sounds and experiences.
There is so much to observe and process during This Time – from the individual to the collective. The range of sounds an orchestra can create, the skills of the musicians, and the weight of our institutions can uniquely interpret and help us all sort out this experience. After this is over, we must ask ourselves what ideas do we champion? Whose experiences do we memorialize? How can we help our community heal? How do we write our history?

Orchestras show up for and stand with the community.
What if “community engagement” was the job of the institution and not the job of one department? I really do believe that an orchestra’s purpose is to be in service to its community through art. That means everything from curating stories that are meaningful to the specific place where you live (which is why we need orchestras in every corner of this country) but also to share those stories outside of the concert hall, directly in the places that we all actually live, work, and play.

Orchestras add wonder and spark curiosity.
The most magical things orchestras do is to surprise us with new ideas and ways of thinking, especially with works we’ve heard a thousand times and thought we knew. If we looked at every experience as an opportunity to add wonder and spark curiosity how would we change?

Orchestras create love tsunamis.
This last one is inspired by the many conversations happening inside the Boise Phil right now. One of the cultural shocks I’ve experienced moving to Boise is the sheer abundance of kindness and warmth that the team shares with each other. Our musicians have started to send each other little gifts of food or wine or plants, especially to folks who are living alone, just to show that they are thinking of each other. The board practices this too – our treasurer literally cheers for, texts, shouts out, and love bombs people throughout the organization for their good work. It’s moving, it’s infectious, and we should always do this, not just in This Time.

Of course, SO MANY orchestras are already doing many of these things. This isn’t questioning what kind of education programs or community advisory groups or initiatives already exist – what I’m asking myself right now is: can these ideas be at the core of what it means to be an orchestra? Will this help us understand who we are? And what kind of incredible art could this inspire?

Edgar and Rosie honk wildly at a flock of passing geese and I remember that I have 72 more emails anxiously waiting for a reply. I’m grateful for the perspective that this pandemic has brought because we have some big questions to answer and lots of love tsunamis to start surfing.

Edgar flies

6 Strategies for Using Time Effectively During COVID-19

Juhi Bansal essay

When the first chatter about Coronavirus started in the U.S. about seven weeks ago, I was in Hong Kong. There they were better prepared for it, having gone through the SARS pandemic in 2003. People went everywhere in facemasks, cleaning protocols had been increased in every open public place, and many non-essential venues had already been closed back in January. Schools that had already been shut for much of the year due to the protests managed to switch early to online teaching. At that time, there was still a hope that Covid-19 would remain quarantined into a small number of affected cities.

Clearly, that hope was misplaced. I returned early to the U.S. when countries all over the world started locking down their borders, to find that the situation was becoming very serious here as well. This brings us to now – friends, family, colleagues all locked down in different cities, performances and projects canceled, and perhaps more worrisome than anything is the uncertainty that permeates the whole situation. How long will this continue? Will friends and loved ones catch this? Will I catch this? How can I make up for the lost income through this time? My fears come from both the personal and professional directions and mingle in anxiety-inducing ways.

I feel incredibly lucky in that so far no one close to me has become sick, so my most critical fear, while still looming, has not developed into an immediate crisis. And looking at the situation in places like India, where more than 400 million people are struggling to find food as a result of the lockdowns, I’m reminded just how lucky we are simply to have reliable shelter, food, and our health. My worries seem so small compared to the intensity of problems facing so many people. Many of the issues I face are things I can actively work to address, and so that has become my focus through this lockdown.

  • My worries seem so small compared to the intensity of problems facing so many people.

    Juhi Bansal, composer
  • I have been trying to treat the lockdown as an opportunity rather than an imposition.

    Juhi Bansal, composer
  • This is a situation where we can make our own opportunities if we are creative about it.

    Juhi Bansal, composer

The personal side is perhaps the more easily handled. I’ve had to make peace with circumstances I can’t change. I worry about family and friends spread out around the world and have instituted weekly Zoom dates to check in on everyone. I worry about family nearby getting sick, so we are religiously practicing social distancing and obsessively cleaning. I and my husband are both working from home through most of the day, so to battle the claustrophobia of being indoors we go for lots of walks and take frequent yoga breaks while working. With myself (a composer) and my husband (a pianist) now both working from home, there is now music in our house around the clock and not a lot of silence. To create a quiet space in our home, I invested in an affordable set of noise-reduction headphones. I’m worried every time I hear about the lack of supplies available locally at hospitals, so we have been donating masks and blood.

Professionally and economically, my concerns are more within my control, so I have been trying to treat the lockdown as an opportunity rather than an imposition. While I am certainly frustrated about canceled concerts and events, one unexpected bonus has been the time that lockdown has created where normally I would have none. (In less-stressed moments, I can almost pretend that this is a composer retreat – after all, there are few distractions, many opportunities to go for long walks, an instrument and computer at my disposal throughout the day.)

In my lockdown-imposed, self-guided-composer-retreat, these are the strategies I’ve found to make the best use of time:

1. Reconnecting with the music community

One big part of this has been using this time to reach out and connect with my community, particularly since I tend to fall off the radar in the middle of a normal season. This has involved email, social media, Zoom calls, and phone calls to see how old friends and colleagues are doing, to catch up about life and what each of us is working on.

2. Self-directed composing – writing for fun, writing as gifts, writing in styles I wouldn’t normally

I’ve been taking some of the time during these past few weeks to write short pieces as gifts for friends, colleagues, and mentors, and – as these are self-directed projects, they don’t come with a lot of compositional parameters in the way that commissions sometimes do. So I’ve been using this as an opportunity to stretch myself in terms of technique – writing in styles that I wouldn’t typically, limiting the materials I can use in unusual ways, pushing myself to write to tightly restricted sets of performance standards. Not only is this forcing me to dig deeper before I put pen to paper, but also pushing me towards ideas I wouldn’t have had otherwise. It has been a challenging process, but a great one to break out of the habit of reverting to what comes easily, and to express gratitude to people in the community who have helped me in the past.

Cimbalom inspiration

Stravinsky wrote on cimbalom for many of the same reasons.

3. Discovering and listening to new music

I’ve been listening to a lot more music – the number of virtual concerts appearing in the last few weeks has been wonderful. Everyone from the Met to LA Opera to NPR to American Composers Forum to individual artists are streaming music online, in versions ranging from full productions to solo living-room concerts to virtual ensembles. It’s been a great chance to not only hear new music but also to peel back the veil from some of the larger companies and artists and see them making music in the simplest possible ways. It has also given me the chance to dig through lesser-known music on other platforms – YouTube, Spotify, iTunes – specifically to create playlists for music by women composers in various genres, something which has been a passion project of mine for a while.

Free livestreams from the Met

The Metropolitan Opera is offering free livestreams of many operas.

Free livestreams from the Met

NPR’s website with an up-to-date list of virtual concerts from many genres

4. Tackling freelancer administrative tasks

I have to admit that website maintenance is not usually the task at the top of my list during a normal season, but it is nonetheless an essential one. In catching up on administrative work, I’ve updated my website, created and uploaded long-overdue projects to YouTube, prepared, sent out and shared digital scores, and caught up on social media.

5. Learning new skills and technology

The speed with which so much of the world has had to switch to teaching and learning online means that the number of online classes and webinars available for almost anything increased exponentially over the space of a few weeks. From learning new technology to methods for structuring online teaching to software and apps to use in making and disseminating music, there are suddenly not only quick ways to learn things but more importantly, often live people on the other end you can reach out to with questions. Many organizations have additionally made recorded lectures and classes available for free in response to Coronavirus. Udemy, Coursera, edX all have extensive lists of courses in various fields, as well as recorded lectures from renowned speakers such as Leonard Bernstein, Toni Morrison, and Carl Sagan. I’ve been working my way through a variety of these offerings to improve my online teaching, to expand my skill set in terms of business and marketing, and to learn from authors speaking about the craft of writing in ways that suggest interesting analogues for the writing of music.

6. Contributing to the larger community

This final point is admittedly a little esoteric, but in watching the ways this crisis is playing out across multiple communities, I’m reminded of what it means to be a part of each one, and I feel driven to help in any ways that I can. Of course, this pandemic impacts me as a musician, but also as an Indian watching the fallout there, as a Hong Konger seeing the repercussions there, and as a teacher watching the impact on my colleagues and on my students. In whatever ways I am able, it has been important to me to contribute something – tutoring students struggling with the sudden digital switch in their class environments, sharing what supplies we have at home with friends and neighbors, trying to raise awareness of the unintended side-effects of lockdown on the most marginalized people.

This is a strange time to be living through, and one that is stressful in visceral, uncomfortable ways; but for myself, I’m trying to mitigate this fear by finding opportunities to control what I can. While I very much look forward to the return of things to normal, at least as a freelancer and a musician I feel like this is a situation where we can make our own opportunities if we are creative about it. None of this allays my fears for loved ones, fears about sickness, about the economy, or lack of hospital beds, or anything like that – but these are at least ways of focusing on what is in my hands during this unprecedented situation.


Support for the writing of this article was provided by the ASCAP Foundation Irving Caesar Fund.

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Beginning Again

Beginning again

I am, once and for all, the eternal beginner. – Gustav Mahler, 1909

I read this sentence over a century after it was written, six months after leaving an abusive relationship and trying to begin my life, in general and as a composer, again. At that time, everything felt new and nigh impossible; going outside, now ironic, talking, composing, teaching. The quote, later misremembered to “each day I must begin again,” helped reframe my efforts. It helped address the fudge ripple swirl of PTSD running through the classic combo of anxiety and depression and got me to breathe. It gave each day a chance to be another start, without carrying over the baggage from the days prior. Each beginning grew from the foundations of the previous. Life was rebuilt.

When the pandemic arrived, the practice of being an eternal beginner again held particular relevance.

Train to return to attention whenever you become aware that you are lost. And then just do it. Place attention and rest. Return and rest. Again and again. – Ken McLeod, “Forget About Consistency”

As a composer and artist, there is the perpetual problem of the blank page and how to go about filling it. The creative life is one nonstop beginning and the only way to learn your unique way of addressing that blank page is to practice, practice, and practice. And then do it again. I approach a blank page as an architect. An elaborately constructed structure lays out a guideline for the notes so when I become lost, I know where to come back to.

As in music, as in life; in March I returned to structure.

And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look behind
From where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game
– Joni Mitchell, “The Circle Game”

On March 9, I returned from the Darkwater Women in Music Festival. On March 11, the schools I contracted with closed. On March 13, I began again. My schedule was reconstructed to divide the day into manageable chunks, the to-do lists were divided by day, week, and month, and that became the framework to adjust as work from home orders came in, restaurants closed, schools closed for the remainder of the year, concerts and festivals were canceled or moved online.

The arts and artists have all started offering new support in the face of the closures. In my base of Seattle, funds were immediately set up and continue to support local artists. The Artist Trust website currently lists 20 links for funding or resources, many of them new. Live Music Project, an organization which normally posts all local live concerts in the area switched gears mid-March and started focusing on livestreaming concerts worldwide. Where before there was an endless fount of places to look, the search for events started from scratch with an empty Google doc. Two weeks later there were over 100 concerts listed. Further away, LA harp and cello duo and current collaborators, Strange Interlude, have joined in the livestreaming concerts and like many artists friends, local and across the world, have started new projects and posted messages of hope, continuance, and support for each other in the face of uncertainty and loss.

Life has abruptly divebombed into new and unfamiliar territory in this time of corona and we all have beginnings to confront and come up with. We are bombarded with contrasting messages: use this time to create a masterpiece; to do nothing and grieve; to connect with everyone; to meditate alone; the list goes on. Despite all that, begin in a way that makes sense for you. Know what works and if you don’t, experiment. Read all the articles about working from home and try some. Then adjust and retry. Start a weekly brunch and connect with people if that’s your jam but don’t feel pressured. Start a new project addressing the fear of the unknown future. Or, give yourself a weekly laugh by featuring every dinosaur-themed piece of clothing you own on Fridays. Treat each day as a new start or if struggling, every hour. Figure out what you need to carry yourself through the next few months and try again.

In the message of the Joni Mitchell song I heard every night as a child, there is no going back, only forward, and so I look ahead, create my structure, and begin.

Creativity in the Age of COVID-19

Work table with books and blank music paper

It’s interesting how priorities change in this time of COVID-19. My petty concerns seem even more, uh, petty. What’s become important to me is to not spend what remains of my life in bitterness over roads not taken or career opportunities that never have arisen—or that I didn’t cause to arise. And let’s face it, in my early 60s, that remaining time may be much less than I might want. What is an effective way to spend one’s time? As musicians, I truly believe that one of the most important things that we can do is to continue to create. And the many musicians that have been posting joint performances online are a testament to this drive.

  • Maintain a consistency of creative work and to try not and focus on where it may or may not lead.

    Paul Elwood, composer
  • To compose, practice, and play (albeit on the Web) is an act of defiance.

    Paul Elwood, composer

I believe that one guide for productive survival in these strange times is to maintain a consistency of creative work and to try not and focus on where it may or may not lead. My teacher Charles Wuorinen, who recently passed, taught me to not compromise my creative time. “Do something every day,” he said, “even if it’s just for an hour.” Compose, play, write, paint, every day. That consistency is anchoring for us psychologically and important for establishing a daily mental ordering for other work we may need to do on our homes, with our spouses, pets, and families. In the best of times I feel incomplete if I don’t compose in the morning. In the worst of times, I feel incomplete if I don’t continue the habit—it just seems to signify that things are even worse than I’d imagined. I need the diurnal foundation of the creative act in order to deal with the rest of each day.

Also, I try not connecting to the news every morning because that’s causing me to experience a sense of at least temporary despair. Perhaps one shouldn’t completely ignore the news, but we may quarantine media as well as social media items to a specific time of day, perhaps toward the end of the afternoon. If I look at the news early, then my creative concentration is blasted. If I look at it before bed, then I may have trouble sleeping. One article recommended that you rely on only one or two news services you trust so as to not overload and go down the rabbit hole of Internet links leading to this, that, and the other resulting in increased anxiety. And, let’s face it, while a lot of this may not be sensationalism, some of it is. It’s good to filter what we read and see in order to preserve some positive creative energy.

Better that we connect with one another. I’ve discovered that I have an interesting net of friends with whom I’ve been connecting through phone, Skype, Zoom, or messaging. A number of my friends are performing online. I’m planning long-distance recording collaborations with musicians in a variety of locations. This is an opportunity to connect with one or two musicians with whom I haven’t yet collaborated, and, if my stimulus check comes through, those funds will help support those musicians that record my music.

As an aside, I’ve discovered that happy hours with friends are great stress relievers.

To compose, practice, and play (albeit on the Web) is an act of defiance. It’s saying “to hell with despair” and affirming the prospective and, I believe, bright future of creative offerings, concerts held in communion with others, and the potential for a cache of wonderful works created now while social distancing.

Live and create today for present sanity and for the future. This won’t last forever.


Support for the writing of this article was provided by the ASCAP Foundation Irving Caesar Fund.
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