Avocational Music Making —While Social Distancing
by Amy Nathan
"The need to make music with other people is such a deep ache. We miss it so much," said Kathy Fleming, a Baltimore arts administrator. She used to sing in a church choir and loved playing recorders and viola da gamba with others in her spare time. COVID-19 social-distancing ended in-person group music-making. Online music-making with others is nearly impossible, too, because of the limits of technology. A lag time in sound transmission between online devices makes it hard for those on either end of an online connection to play or sing in sync.
That didn't stop Kathy Fleming. She isn't a professional recorder or viola da gamba player, having only learned to play them as an adult ten years ago. But playing those instruments with others creates a sense of wellbeing that she doesn't want to lose, especially not during these stressful days. The same is true of other avocational musicians I contacted. They may not be professional musicians, but they're pros at keeping the calming power of music in their lives. Many do this with music lessons, now online, or by signing up for online versions of what normally would be summer music workshops (see Resources List below). Here are other ways people have found to thrive musically during these challenging times.
Virtual chamber music: "A friend calls me via Zoom once a week and we sight-read duets," said Fleming. To get around the lag times between their phones or computers on Zoom or other video-conferencing programs, they take turns putting their microphones on "mute." The one with the "live" mic plays the piece. The one with the "muted" mic can hear what the other is playing and joins in. The "live" mic player, of course, can't hear what the muted-one plays until they switch roles and try the duet again. Cardiologist Lili Barouch uses this strategy for her violin, cello, and piano trio. They had been meeting in person every week, through Peabody Preparatory. Now they meet online. "Two of us mute our microphones while hearing the third person play," explained Dr. Barouch. "We can't hear all three parts at the same time, but it's better than nothing."
Virtual choir practice: Retired nurse Mary Cunningham had been singing for several years with a chorus for seniors, run by the San Francisco Community Music Center. When COVID-19 put an end to their weekly rehearsals, the chorus director, Martha Rodríguez-Salazar, recorded videos of songs that she sent to chorus members so they could keep singing via Zoom. "We're glad to be back together again," said Cunningham. They connect via cell phone, tablet, laptop, or landline. Each rehearsal starts with a check-in, with all mics "live" so they can chat. Then chorus members' mics are muted as Rodríguez-Salazar leads them in warm-ups, followed by her singing songs while chorus members sing along at home. She can't hear them but can see they're having fun, often dancing, too. "If they have questions, they raise their hands and I unmute them and show how to do something." Other choirs and community bands and orchestras have also been holding video-conferencing rehearsals. Some use a different strategy—muting all members and then un-muting one at a time to have each one perform a section of a piece for the director to comment on, while others play along at home. Rodríguez-Salazar decided not to put her seniors on the spot like that. "Part of the joy of being in a choir is that you can hide," she said. "You can join in and get supported by the others." She didn't want to ruin that feeling by making them sing solos for her, which is often uncomfortable for struggling avocational singers.
Something new. "I had always wanted to compose music but had no idea where to start," said Carol Katz, a retired special education teacher in Québec. She began playing guitar in her fifties and for a while was in one of the New Horizons bands that are geared to people age 50 and over. She has now found a way to start composing, thanks to a COVID challenge from the founder of New Horizons, Roy Ernst. He urged people to write a 12-bar blues on the theme "I Got the Stay at Home Blues, Real Bad." She began jotting down lyrics after breakfast and then listening to blues albums to learn how to to play her song on guitar. Online guitar lessons are helping, too.
Wading into the music: Marlin J. Ballard, Jr., put on sturdy rubber boots to bring socially distant music to others. He waded across a stream to a tiny island off a hiking trail in Gunpowder Falls State Park near Baltimore. Then he pulled a small xylophone from his bag to play soft, lovely tunes that hikers can enjoy as they walk over a bridge that looks down on the tiny island.
Calming presence. Store-owner Demba Gologo used music to provide a calming presence during one of the recent Baltimore street protests. He climbed onto the top of a pickup truck to beat out rhythms on an empty water jug as protestors drove by. "We just want a peaceful protest...no violence," he told a Baltimore Sun reporter.
Virtual performance: Professional orchestras have been posting online videos of virtual performances, showing musicians playing a piece together, each in their own home. A few avocational ensembles have tried this, too. It's complicated to pull off, but the New Horizons Band of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, succeeded, with a rousing performance of a march. Band members recorded themselves playing at home, while listening through earphones to a recording of the march to guide them. The recordings were then combined into a video. Brooklyn's Grace Choralesucceeded at this, too. Martha Rodríguez-Salazar did an audio-only recording with her advanced adult chorus; some older choristers weren't comfortable being seen on video.
Practice with a purpose: When Ron Sharpe's community orchestra didn't find a way to hold online rehearsals, "I've taken the opportunity to really focus on practicing, two hours a day," said this New York publisher. "Early morning is best. I have a silent electric violin that won't bother the neighbors. Practicing has been an anchor for my day, helping me cope." Practicing has also helped Detroit lawyer David Robinson. "I have lost some personal friends to this disease. When it touches you that closely, it causes you to reflect very seriously." He had put saxophone aside in his 20s but a few years ago he picked up saxophone again and joined a New Horizons jazz band. "Now I've pulled out music books I bought when I was twenty years old, that I didn't know how to play then. But with what I've learned since I've gotten back into music, I'm impressed with what I can do, now that I have time to devote to practicing," he said.
Plans B and C: Dressmaker Colleen Schoenveld is proud of the progress she too has made with pandemic practicing, tackling challenging violin pieces. She practices by playing along with piano recordings of the pieces made for her by the conductor of an orchestra she founded more than ten years ago, shortly after she learned to play violin: the Really Terrible Orchestra of Pennsylvania. Schoenveld also practices now with pros, playing along with their YouTube performances or by using a play-along software program. "It's heartbreaking not to get together as an orchestra, but my music world is blossoming. I have been a Boy Scout leader for decades and know to always have a plan B and C. Sometimes you got to look hard for that silver lining."
Click here for a Resources List of online summer programs and tips for online music-making.
AMY NATHAN is the author of books for young people and adults, including three music-advice books for Oxford University Press. Her most recent book focuses on avocational musicians, Making Time for Making Music: How to Bring Music into Your Busy Life. It features several musicians mentioned in this article. A Harvard graduate with master's degrees from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Columbia's Teachers College, she sings in a church choir that recently created a virtual-performance video. www.AmyNathanBooks.com
How are you keeping the music going despite social distancing?