"I Can't Work In These Conditions!" Screams Local Orchestra Musician on COVID-Era Performance Environment
The following is written by Allison Ross, who I interviewed after a well-meaning, but tragically misguided attempt at resurrecting a symphony orchestra's performance schedule in wake of COVID-19....
"I set down my violin case, give a signed form to the nurse, and take a needle prick to the finger. How will that feel while holding the bow at this evening’s rehearsal?, I wonder. But there is no choice – a COVID-19 serology test is a requirement to play this concert. Next, the pre-service health screening: symptom inquiry, temperature reading, N-95 mask distribution.
We should be in the city’s performing arts hall; instead, rehearsal is held at a public-school sports complex. For the next few hours, our music director will compete with the volume of a booming voice announcing the football game on the other side of the wall.
I navigate to my seat and realize that we aren’t assigned stand partners. Each chair is placed exactly six feet apart, and we are admonished not to budge them at all or the stage manager will have to readjust with his tape measure.
We’re also told that our issued masks must be worn absolutely at all times. A wind player is called out for having crossed the area with his mask dangling from one ear. Winds are only allowed to remove their masks once they are seated with an instrument to their lips. For string players – even the bassists, naturally distanced due to the size of their instrument – the mask is to remain on from the time we enter the building to the moment we exit.
The situational protocol is not simply annoying. Performing masked means an erasure of basic communication: facial expressions, rhythmic breathing, and necessary cues. When the connection is already lost between performers seated mere feet apart, it’s reflected in the entire orchestra’s cohesion.
Lack of a stand partner is highly disruptive. Most instrumental sections (especially strings) rely on a hierarchy of passing notes: the principal turns around to relay bowing or phrase changes, and their message slowly ripples through the section. This method allows for the edited content to reach every player efficiently and with minimal distraction from the conductor. Additionally, with a stand partner, one player can continue playing the material while the other turns pages and pencils in markings.
But tonight, we are each responsible for our own stand. In the time spent taking down a note, while making sure not to budge our chairs an inch, we’ve missed playing an entire phrase. There are awkward gaps and missing themes as each section player hastily turns pages for themselves and scrambles to rejoin the flow of the music.
This situation will worsen the following day. Since the arts hall is off-limits, our dress rehearsal takes place in the middle of a baseball field, allowing the attendees to remain socially distant. (Though outdoors, we are still required to wear masks for the entire duration of our time
onstage.) The whipping wind gusts cause pencils, music, phones, and sunglasses to go flying across our playing area. Even with clothespins, we spend as much precious time unclipping and refastening our music to the stand than with the bow to the string.
The operations manager makes the call fifteen minutes into rehearsal: this is unsustainable. Everyone go home and we’ll hope things die down before the next service.
His words are a chilling microcosm of the larger issue: Playing orchestra music under restrictive virus protocol has become increasingly difficult – and sometimes impossible.
“It’s better than not playing at all,” has become the habitual response, accompanied by a wry smile and a shoulder shrug.
I do not accept this.
I am no longer willing to make concessions that hinder our work for the sake of nonsensical policies. When musicianship is compromised, it defeats the purpose of taking precautions at all.
Let us play.
Symphonies everywhere are in deep trouble. Some of my musical friends and colleagues have gone a long period without work. Many have isolated and spiraled into deep depressions. Others, already accustomed to struggling as freelancers, have been forced to quit music altogether and look for other opportunities.
In the face of those circumstances, my colleagues at this weekend’s performance consider themselves lucky to have a gig. Sure, the protocol is excessive, but it’s better than not playing, they repeat.
That’s not a valuable tradeoff for me. I will not be made submissive, helpless or desperate. I am not willing to sacrifice my livelihood for these draconian measures.
This is the collateral damage: Empty galleries, bare halls, quiet stages. For many organizations, it’s not precautionary – it’s permanent. We already know how the lockdown situation is going (hint: nothing is going) on Broadway.
There exists the hopeful oasis of the Internet, where musicians’ innate creativity and flexibility shines. The summer boom of virtual performances helped reach those who couldn’t attend live shows. Porch concerts, pre-recorded material, and socially-distanced live shows enabled possibilities for music not to be stilled completely.
That makes sense to reach elderly or high-risk patients. Not entire audiences. And a laptop speaker certainly doesn’t take the place of the brilliant acoustics of a performance space. No one knows when we’ll again hear the gorgeous resonance of Helzberg Hall.
Who makes virus policy decisions? Maybe orchestra management, out of fear of litigation should an outbreak be traced to one of their events. Maybe we’re forbidden from using the concert venue and that spirals into more difficult logistical decisions that then need to be made. But I suspect it actually points back to a bureaucratic authority figure, most likely at the state government level, who knows nothing of the intricacies of music performance. It is despicable that they have the power to allow or forbid us our livelihoods.
So personally, I’ve had it with the open-ended waiting. Two thirds of a year of destroying our industry is long enough. Let us play.
Those who don’t feel comfortable can opt out. Individual choice is the most freeing option in an uncertain time.
We hold the power not to let a health phenomenon erase whole concert seasons and put musicians and artists out of work.
If you believe your duty is to protect the elderly and immunocompromised, you’ll be interested to learn this: Among my daily medications is a potent immunosuppressant. Illness from a virus could seriously impact my lung function. I am high risk. And I’ve decided that the chance of contracting a virus I will most likely recover from far outweighs the alternative: life, work, and social connections eradicated.
The person who best knows my situation and is best equipped to handle decisions for my health is me. Not a symphony board, not arts management, and certainly not state or federal orders. Me.
I choose to play.
If my only option is to perform under these draconian policies, I decline to play at all. Half-hearted attempts to resurrect our craft with whatever resources are left over isn’t worth it for me.
What I will consider is forward-thinking terms that allow us to return to the actual normal: sold-out halls, proud symphony players, inspired audiences. Seats filled.
If we want a return of the arts, we’re going to need other solutionaries to speak up with actionable terms. The longer we allow restrictive protocols to remain, the easier it is to accept them as routine – to shrug our shoulders and simply comply. The result is shattered music, demoralized players, and disappointed audiences.
It’s soul-crushing. We can do better than this.
Yes, it’s a risk to hold live events these days. But the risk is marginal compared to the fallout.