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The past ten months have been unequivocally devastating for musicians of all disciplines. Most of us have not performed for a live audience since early March 2020. Even for those of us who have performed, it is only possible with very specific distancing measures for both the musicians and the audience.
Over the course of the summer, I became increasingly concerned for the future of my orchestra, and the future of the music profession in general. Government restrictions are disastrous to arts and cultural organizations. Musicians have been working tirelessly since the start of the pandemic to come up with ways to make live concerts safe for musicians and audience members. These are often met with opposition when governments impose blanket restrictions on gathering sizes without considering the valiant efforts made by these arts organizations to minimize exposure risks.
Finally, after a summer of uncertainty, my orchestra was set to begin our season in October 2020 with a chamber music series. This is an advantage of having a symphony position; I needed not to pursue the arduous task of planning concerts with extreme caution to Covid safety protocols by myself. At the time, one could have an audience of up to 50 people. Performers and staff did not count in this total. I was over the moon at the opportunity to perform again. I had completely lost all motivation to practice during my seven-month hiatus and needed a reason to get back in musical shape.
Time to practice, for real
I seldom practiced during the initial lockdown. In March and April, I was inspired to use this time to learn new solo pieces and refine my orchestral excerpts. As lockdown dragged on, it seemed more and more unrealistic that I would ever get a chance to perform again. By May, I had let myself go. Instead of getting a “real job”, I took advantage of the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit. I spent my days binge-watching Netflix series and playing Animal Crossing. Essentially, I was paid by the Canadian government for being a professional couch potato. Imagine putting that on a resume!
By late August, we got our repertoire assignments for the chamber series. I was beyond excited to play music with my colleagues again. However, this meant that I had to say goodbye to my couch potato lifestyle and reconnect with my instrument.
I had tried to practice a few times during the summer. It was highly discouraging as I would get too frustrated with how my playing level had deteriorated. This time, however, I had no choice but to work through my insecurities and get back in shape for my upcoming performances.
I was scheduled to play the second viola part in the Mendelssohn Octet in the first concert, so I focused my practice on that. Additionally, I made sure to be extra thorough with my scales and technical exercises. Normally, I don’t practice quite this thoroughly, but I knew it was important to be deliberate in my approach now to facilitate a smooth return to professional-level playing.
The first rehearsal was a disaster
Nothing could have prepared me for the awfulness of playing chamber music in a socially distanced set-up. I was proud of myself for my detailed approach to learning the piece, but this hard work felt like it was all for nothing. Honestly, I felt I would have yielded the same result if I didn’t practice at all.
Sitting six feet apart presents many challenges, as you might imagine. Given that these performing conditions are new to all musicians, I had to jump into the deep end myself. One aspect in particular that really put me off was how well you can hear yourself. I was already somewhat self-conscious that my playing ability was no longer at a professional level so the amplification of every tiny mistake only exacerbated this. I would tell myself that everyone in the group felt the same way about their own playing and that the audience would listen to the whole group, not individuals. No matter what I thought, I could not get over this perceived spotlight.
The balance was also extremely challenging to gauge, especially given that everyone was off-put by their own playing. As a result, I couldn’t hear anyone as they were playing too softly to compensate for the feeling of being too loud. It was near impossible to tell if you were playing together with someone across the ensemble as there was so much delay in the sound across the room. I would get incredibly nervous when I had an exposed part and my fingers would freeze. For example, for my fugal entry in the fourth movement, I would mess it up each time in rehearsal no matter which practice methods I used at home.
Never in my life have I been more discouraged and demoralized after a rehearsal. I had looked forward to this day of getting to play with my colleagues again for months, but instead, it was a day full of failure and dread. It seemed that no amount of practice would get me back in shape from my highly unproductive quarantine. My career ended before it started. I felt guilty for feeling this way as thousands of musicians around the world would have done anything to be in my position.
Concert day was, interesting
Naturally, as we had more rehearsals, things became more comfortable, but I never felt totally secure. The distanced set-up still disturbed me. Even on concert day, I felt like I was flying on the edge of my seat.
As I walked out on stage with my group, I was shaking. Normally, I’m not shaking while playing unless it’s an orchestral audition. I had never been this anxious for a non-competitive performance, so I was concerned for the future of my career in that I could no longer handle performance anxiety.
Performing while wearing a mask was more challenging than I anticipated. It had never bothered me in rehearsal, but with the performance adrenaline, I was hyper-aware of every sensation. The mask kept riding up towards my eyes, obstructing my view of the music. I had to contort my face to try to keep it down while I was playing. It was also the first time I experienced difficulty breathing while wearing a mask and needed several moments between movements and during long rests to focus on breathing.
When the audience clapped, I almost wanted to cry. I felt an immediate wave of relief; I survived my first pandemic performance! The audience was incredibly appreciative of our performance as they had not heard live music since March. Seeing how moved the audience was after our concert made me thankful for persevering through those uncomfortable rehearsal situations.
We played the Octet again the following night. I was back to my usual calm, collected self before a chamber performance. My fingers returned to their normal level of dexterity. It wasn’t until this second performance that I finally felt my intensive technique work pay off.
It’s okay to struggle
Performing chamber music is stressful in the best of times. As an orchestral string player, it takes time to get used to being exposed. The distanced set-up only intensifies the exposed feeling. The good news is that I can confirm the audience will not hear what you perceive as glaring intonation errors. Getting an outside perspective is crucial to properly address balance, ensemble, and intonation within the distanced group as you cannot rely solely on what you hear.
Overall, I am incredibly thankful to continue working as a musician throughout the pandemic. Unfortunately, the second wave of Covid finally took over our city and we have reverted to live-streamed concerts with no audience. The distanced set-up and other safety protocols are incredibly frustrating and intrusive, but a small price to pay for the rare opportunity to perform nowadays.
Personally, I put too much pressure on myself to instantaneously adjust to the distanced set-up. We never stop learning as musicians. Adapting to ever-evolving Covid safety protocols is no exception. Nobody is an expert at playing chamber music six feet apart while wearing a mask. We are embarking on this journey together as we adapt to this new normal. Maybe one day we will resume sitting close together and performing for large audiences, but for now, we must do our best with what we have.