It was a Saturday, and it was cold for early autumn, because I remember I was wearing my coat as I read the message. It was from my partner telling me that he, along with the rest of OV, had been sent home from the State Theatre on what would’ve been our first double-show day of The Australian Ballet’s Volt. He’d headed in early to warm up before the matinee, and also to deliver a batch of banana muffins to our operations team, in appreciation for the extra work they’d been doing in recent days to keep us safe from the as-yet latent threat of COVID-19. I was getting ready to leave, but after reading the words on my phone I instead changed out of my black concert clothes, hanging my dress back up in the cupboard in a daze. It was midday, on March 14th, 2020.
Orchestral working hours are famously non-traditional, but in a ‘normal’ week we at OV might have eight performances, or a combination of rehearsals and shows, combined with daily personal practice, and planning for other upcoming projects. The subsequent closure of the Arts Centre erased a month of this schedule overnight. In the following days and weeks, projects I’d been looking forward to with excitement – the mOVe! education program in Hamilton, Opera Australia’s Lohengrin, Stephen Bayne’s charming ballet Molto Vivace – fell away one by one as partner companies made the heartbreaking decision to cancel entire seasons in order to protect their staff and the public alike. All of our plans vanished, leaving in their place disappointment, confusion, and fear for the future on all sides.
During those strange early days, my GP rang for a routine check. She expressed her sympathy at the situation, before brightly exclaiming how fortunate I was to have a job that could be so easily done from home. I have no doubt she pictured me sequestered from morning til night, buried in solo practice, completely happy.
There seems to be something of a pervasive image that classical musicians thrive in isolation; it makes sense, as so many hours of our lives from childhood onward are spent alone, hunched over a score in a tiny room, practising with diligence, discipline, and dedication. The performance heard by an audience is the tip of the iceberg: professional musicians are elite athletes, constantly training at our instruments to learn, improve and stay in shape, from a young age through the duration of our careers. While absolutely essential for building and honing skills, and notwithstanding the often delicious rewards, this isolation can across a lifetime feel difficult, intense, and lonely. And so, to find our equilibrium, we seek out our teams. Some musicians are fulfilled by a solo career, but even if I’d had the required superhuman levels of talent and ambition it was never something to which I aspired. For me, becoming one piece of the vast, versatile, complex sound of an orchestra has always been the best thing about being a violinist. Our ensemble is a working entity, its objective the creation of an experience far greater than that which we could achieve alone. Without my colleagues sounding around me, I feel bereaved of a fundamental part of our collective musical life.
Also closely tied to our current state of musical estrangement is the subtle nature of creativity. When Stravinsky wrote Le Sacre du Printemps in 1913, he declared that he’d heard the ground-breaking work, whole and complete, in his mind’s ear, and had only to transcribe it. He wasn’t the first composer to describe himself as a creative vessel through which the music flowed. This is of course a gloriously romantic notion, and I like to believe that passion and enthusiasm led us all to this vocation, and remain the driving forces behind our commitment. But while it’s a wonderful aspiration to wake up every morning with as clear a focus, the reality, especially under lockdown, can be more challenging. Inspiration is elusive, and day-to-day routine, just as in many professions, can gradually become repetitive and tedious. Likewise, motivating oneself to practise can be daunting even with a tangible goal or deadline in mind, let alone when faced with an empty calendar and an industry in crisis. Under normal circumstances, time spent alone with my violin is the perfect counterbalance to playing with and for others, but now, in lieu of alternatives and with the fundamental nature of performance being questioned, it can’t help but take on a different energy. For some, the issue of motivation is further complicated by the practicalities of lockdown; instruments are loud, walls are thin, and homes are shared with partners, families and children, all of whom require attention and privacy.
Yet another element in adjusting to this period of physical distancing is the simple fact that I miss my colleagues. All workplaces build communities, with true care and attachment, and orchestras are no exception. The work we do is so personal, requiring vulnerability and sharing of ourselves, often over decades. The stories we tell are heightened and emotional, traversing the most extreme facets of human character and existence. We share the beauty of some extraordinary music, and lift each other through the challenges of the not-so-extraordinary. Through daily discussion and banter we diffuse the intensity of our work, supporting each other in a multitude of small ways. For these reasons and more, we are families on every level of trust, frustration, and loyalty, and our separation feels disorienting and foreign.
So what does it mean, in a practical sense, to be an orchestral musician temporarily orphaned from my orchestra? Some days I’ve looked around at the state of the arts industry, with so many creatives floundering, and fought feelings of despair and worry that live performance will never be the way it was. I’ve left my violin in its case for a week, because I can’t find the spark to take it in my arms and make it sing. Perhaps this is an inelegant admission, but I’m convinced I can’t be the only one. I’ve commiserated with fellow musicians around the world who have no road map with which to rebuild their interrupted careers. In the fog of cancelled seasons, I’ve made desperate promises to myself to never, ever, let myself take our work for granted, not even at 6pm on a Thursday in June, when I’m leaving my warm house and journeying out into the winter darkness for our tenth performance in as many nights. And sometimes the brave face and ‘keep calm and carry on’ attitude slip away completely, and I can’t bear to listen to orchestral or chamber music at all because it makes me too sad.
But in this anxious world, there’s also joy. I’ve spent entire afternoons revelling in the time I have to just play my instrument. I’ve revisited works I learned in high school, or during my uni degree, enjoying the sounds, and the memories woven into each page. I’ve delved into the stack of ‘one day’ pieces that I’ve always wanted to learn but have never made the time for. I’ve delighted in recordings of Vivaldi, Wagner, and Prokofiev, and dreamed of being back inside that sound. I’m lucky to be in lockdown with a fellow musician: as well as collaborating on a harmonically austere birthday performance for my seven-year-old nephew, we’ve spent one ill-advised hour hacking through an arrangement of a Beethoven oboe and bassoon duet, with the Brahms horn trio minus the piano next on the (very short) list. When it comes to OV’s digital content production, I’ve watched in awe as my colleagues swiftly re-train themselves with patience and enthusiasm, becoming impromptu film directors, videographers, journalists, editors, authors, school teachers, chefs, presenters, counsellors, and innovators. In particular, I’ve been buoyed by the incredible generosity and compassion of the other members of OV’s online writing and interview team: these beautiful women, with so much talent beyond their musical skill, who encourage each other and maintain our closeness in spite of the separation. I have no doubt that the connections we have fostered will remain.
Back in March, as orchestras around the world received the order to go home and stay home, a new kind of video appeared on social media. Players from Amsterdam to the Arctic were recording individual lines of a score from inside their homes, then splicing them to create a virtual ensemble performance. Powerful, emotional works – Mahler 3, Beethoven 9, Boléro - were painstakingly stitched together, piece by piece, until the sound of many became one. The results were imperfect, sometimes even scrappy, but in an industry of self-critics, perfection was for once not the point. Considerations of practicality and professional pride were overtaken by the need to play together, the impulse to send sound out into the darkness and join it with others. Just as we always have, just as though everything was normal. This is our reason, this is our urge. I can’t wait to do it again.
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