INSIGHTS FROM A PROFESSIONAL VIOLINIST
IN THE COVID-19 ERA
Exactly one year and one week ago from today my orchestra, a major London orchestra, played its last concert at the Royal Festival Hall before the national lockdown in the U.K., which saw the closure of all theatres, concerts halls, recording studios, clubs, pubs … basically any venue that would have supported those who perform and those who support the buildings that support the performers.
The rumour of a cancellation for that last night’s performance was in the air during the days of rehearsals preceding our intended concert of Mahler’s 1st Symphony and Beethoven’s Triple Concerto … a concert that was scheduled to go on tour to Germany in the next week. Paranoid thoughts of passing through airports, sleeping in hotel beds with sheets that might have the dreaded Corona virus lurking under the pillow case put dread into my heart, thinking that I would be forced to risk death for my art … or at least risk death for my job as a section violinist in the First Violins.
I remember walking into the Royal Festival Hall green room, which the first violin section long ago had commandeered as their own pre-concert domain. The R.F.H. has very poor backstage accommodations for orchestra performers, unlike our counterparts in Europe. Another story. I plopped my violin down on a table and our co-leader called out to me that the Germany tour was cancelled. Very late notice for all concerned, but with a cancellation causing severe financial consequences, it was a matter of who blinked first, our orchestra or the tour company. It was the tour company who cancelled. I exclaimed: ‘There is a God!’.
You see, my life in a London orchestra is a dedicated sacrifice for a lifetime. I started the job in early adulthood, through middle age, and now into old age. I’ve given my youth, through to the present, to the never ending cycle of preparation, rehearsal, performance, wash, rinse, repeat. All the while cramming into my short term memory what has had to be millions of notes and millions of memorised finger actions for the sole purpose of executing their moves at the right time, in the right place, on the right platform, two to three times a week, for the last 20 years. If you don’t like the composer, Tough! do your job anyway.
THEN ALL OF A SUDDEN IT ALL STOPPED!
For how long? No one knew. Would we still play the summer opera season at Glyndebourne? One colleague guessed correctly that we would not be together again until September. Still, no one knew for sure. We were told “perhaps by mid-summer”.
It is one year later, I can now tell you what did happen to orchestra musicians, free lancers, teachers, orchestra managements, and the now new methods of working in the music field during the Covid 19 years. Changes that will have a long enduring effect on how we work, and create and teach and survive as a creative art during and after lockdowns.
Financially, I was extremely lucky. For years, well since 2008, I have been waiting for the big financial meltdown that was prophesied after the last big financial crisis. That year I lost £200 and nearly my entire investment spread betting account. Since that shock, I paid off my mortgage and always had a large nest egg for the eventual rainy day. As well, I’ve been fortunate to have the orchestra I work for make sure all members had a monthly stipend to tie us over until we worked again. The UK government also helped out the Self-Employed with income support.
Those who fell through the cracks were the freelancers that worked in orchestras but were not members of the orchestras, as well as recording studio musicians, theatres and teachers. Six months on and I was hearing stories of orchestras that gave no help at all to their players. Piano teachers that had gone through their savings and were forced to sell their pensions. The once fortunate musicians who had counted on rental income to supplement an income, received nothing due to the laws giving renters freedom to not pay rent. Of course, the absence of income leads to destitution and temporary change of careers or even leaving the music industry all together.
My orchestra, like others, developed new ways to produce something by way of keeping the work force active. Online Zoom meetings kept spirits up in the early months. Concocted Zoom concerts of individual videos appeared all around the world, and many can be found on YouTube.
Teachers also began teaching online but some found it too difficult to make it meaningful and refused to teach that way, complaining that they could not hear or see properly and didn’t want to take money fraudulently.
My first day back at work was in August — for some social-distanced recording sessions. We were required to wear face masks for the entire day. That night I felt a sore throat coming on. I called in sick the next day. I told them I would let them know if it worsened. Sitting around, annoyed that I wasn’t on the session but grateful that I didn’t have to breathe in my own air for three hours and steam up my glasses with a mask on, I no longer could stand not knowing if I had Covid 19, or not. I booked online for a test to be taken in the next hour. All I had to do was drive to a car park test centre. The test was a self swab and the results would be in two days. It was negative.
Later that month I went to a dress rehearsal at the Glyndebourne Opera. The orchestra was reduced in size so I was not needed for that run. However, the production was performed outside for the first time ever in Glyndebourne history. It was glorious to listen to live music under swaying trees and sunshine after months of digital entertainment. That was, to me, proof that there is NO SUBSTITUTE FOR LIVE MUSIC!!!!
September saw my orchestra back to work for what is now the new normal. The clumsy start of giving concerts with no audience except for the video cameras had much evolving to do before the management could fine tune what would eventually become a good product to show to the world.
The video company hired had a good reputation for modern, pop music but knew nothing about classical music. When offered the musical score to help with the production, they said no thank you. No one reads music!
An example of the total incompetence: in the first concert of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and during the rousing major triumphant climax — what are we treated to view? Just the back stand of the viola’s, for last page and up to the very end of the symphony. All the while, the Royal Festival hall is lit up with blue-colored lighting, our stands therefore need extra stand lights to read the music, but not too bright to as kill off the mood of the atmosphere, enhanced with some off stage smoke. The choice of repertoire that the management chose was equally inappropriate for an online audience. Not to bore you readers, or risk getting too dangerously off topic — best saved for another essay, my orchestra had been considered the ‘Intellectual’ orchestra in London. The Principal Conductor and Artistic Director in management seemed to pride themselves on programming the most obscure composers. Not necessarily contemporary, but have you heard of Zemlinsky, Shchedrin, Denisov, or Miaskovsky? Would you want to listen to their works if you were online streaming for entertainment and anxious about your future? Nor, it appears, did anyone else. The average viewing time of our streamed concerts was three minutes. During one video recording session in October of a concert, the pressure and frustration got so hot, a Principal Player blew his top and had a hissy fit. Not really in his character normally, but well deserved I thought.
Two lockdowns later and our April 2021 program from the now former Principal conductor will be the entire Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. The video production company now has a score reader, and cameras are guided during the concert recordings to run to the area of soloist/section of interest to coincide with what is being played.
Two meters social distancing of music stands is strictly enforced. It took awhile to adjust the ear to the new acoustics when sitting so far apart from each other. But it can be done. There is also a silver lining to each string player playing from her or his own sheet music part and music stand. Advantages that would be hard to part with if orchestra playing ever goes back to the old normal. It is wonderful to have SPACE!!! If you ever had to play in an orchestra theatre pit, you would know that every spare inch is accounted for and guarded as territory not to be lost to an errant stand partner. There have been many fights among musicians about space, and who is too close to the music stand, or is hogging bowing space. For the first time, with your own part, you can put in pencil markings to your heart’s content and see the notes more clearly with fewer mistakes. Glorious!
What I don’t think I will ever get use to in the new normal, is the Covid 19 test that is done before every new rehearsal/concert run, and for everyone who is participating. So if there are two concerts for that week, there will be two tests to endure before the first rehearsal. I call it Nasal Rape. A nurse sticks the long swab up past the ear and into the throat, holds it, twirls it, and out it comes — producing tears and the need to blow the nose. The first time it was done, I was sore for the rest of the day. Some nurses are gentler than others.
After our test, we are allowed to go to our designated dressing room area to rest or to store our coats, instruments, and our food brought from home. Each area allows for a six person bubble. My bubble is with six ladies of the first violin section. I’m the oldest of the group, but we have fun together sharing stories about men.
Another German tour for next month has been cancelled. There was talk about a tour to Japan in the next season, but it looks very unlikely to happen. I feel sorry for the younger players in the orchestra. They don’t realise just how different orchestra life has become. I’ve seen the world during my career in music. They may never even be able to purchase a property, play the enormously scored symphonies and pieces for 80 + players on stage that I have performed.
Just before the first lockdown, I read through 200 resumes for the one first violin vacancy that was due to be filled this year. Of course that also went on hold. What will become of the players hopefully looking for a job now? I always thought that an orchestra is like a microcosm of the world.
Before Covid 19, the average musician complained about being overworked and underpaid. Now we shut up and are grateful for what work comes along. The uneven balance of pursuing money, materialism, and Employer/ Employee relationships tips the scale to Self reliance, Self expression and Producing your own product with your own time.
More on that in my next blog posting.
Guest blogger at: adam-donaldson-powell.blog
Glyndebourne 2020: under the swaying trees.
Craig/Powell Violin-Piano Duo, NYC,
featuring Catherine Craig & Adam Donaldson Powell.