The Paradox of Music in Times of Isolation – comforting yet prodding our grief

We are not alone. We have each other. And we have music.

In these days, weeks, and months of isolation due to the coronavirus pandemic, music is playing a key role in comforting us as we struggle with our fears, our loneliness, and our depression.

But ironically, it can also provoke pain. That’s not a bad thing. It’s a good thing.

For musicians, as therapeutic as it might be to play and record music in conjunction with others for online transmission through the wonders of technology, it reinforces their painful reality of not being able to perform together live on stage with their much-beloved colleagues in front of an audience.

For us non-performers, listening to music such as the many wonderful new online creations of musicians and the many archival performances that are being streamed by arts organisations touches a deep level in our souls at the same depth where hovers our fear of sickness and death and our sadness about the constrained situation in which we find ourselves as individuals and societies.

That capacity of music to touch us so deeply (physically, psychologically, emotionally, spiritually) intensifies our pain. And that’s okay. Connecting with our pain through the mysterious energy of music is, counterintuitively, a way for us to live through these difficult times. The music prompts tears for both performers and listeners. And when we weep together, we feel palpably how much we are not alone. We are together as lovers of music. And the music itself is a modality of this companionship. As we support each other, we are surrounded, indeed bathed in, the ethos of the music in all its tragic, heart-wrenching, poignant, profound, contemplative, idiosyncratic, exhilarating, exuberant, joyful manifestations.

We are not alone. We have each other. And we have music.

A few recent examples:

  • On Sunday morning March 22nd, Jeff Beecher, the Principal Bass with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, posted a 4 ½ minute video online of him and twenty-seven of his TSO colleagues, all safely physically-distanced in their own homes, performing the hauntingly beautiful “Simple Gifts” from Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.” It was one of the first such online musical creations of this pandemic era. Jeff said, “I was missing my colleagues and the vital nutrient of sharing live music with audiences in Toronto. And I was plagued by this existential question that we’re now all asking ourselves in every medium and industry—how can I help?” So, he recruited colleagues and the video was the result. It took off like wildfire. As of this writing, it has been viewed 426,771 times in Canada and around the world. I posted it on my Facebook page and immediately started getting responses. A musician friend in San Francisco messaged me saying, “I was blown away by the coordination and the humanity. So beautiful! Copland has always been one of my favorite composers, and Simple Gifts, a favorite piece. I cried when I heard the TSO version.” Like Jeff, so many musicians have commented in online posts over the past weeks about how very much they miss their colleagues and the chance to perform live together on stage. Musicians, by their very being, have well-springs of creative energy that crave to be expressed in the performance of their art. They are developing a myriad of creative responses for expression nowadays from which they and we listeners benefit, but that only partially compensates for what they are missing. They, and we with them, are grieving what the pandemic has deprived us all of. That was reinforced on Friday May 1st as the TSO broadcast online its first Watch Party. It was bittersweet. On the one hand, it was thrilling to see the Oct. 19, 2017 TSO performance of Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde” conducted by TSO Music Director Emeritus Peter Oundjian with mezzo-soprano Susan Platts and tenor Michael Schade. But yet it was so sad that we were not at Roy Thomson Hall that evening listening to Peter conducting the TSO in Mahler’s 5th Symphony as had been scheduled before all our lives entered this twilight zone of the coronavirus pandemic. In a brief pre-performance online conversation among Peter Oundjian, TSO Concertmaster Jonathan Crow, and TSO Principal Harp Heidi Elise Bearcroft, each of them safely ensconced in their respective homes, Heidi and Jonathan surprised Peter by playing a short version of the Adagietto from Mahler’s 5th Symphony that Heidi had arranged for harp and violin. All of them had tears in their eyes at the end as did I and I’m sure many of the others who were watching online. It wasn’t just because it’s such a beautifully mournful piece of music, but because their playing of it had touched our regret and sadness that we weren’t all together listening to Mahler’s 5th in Roy Thomson Hall. Sadness, true, but what a connection we all felt at that moment. We were separated but we were not alone. We had each other and we had the music;
  • On Saturday April 15th, I sat glued to my computer screen all afternoon watching the Metropolitan Opera’s At-Home Gala with forty opera singers performing from their homes around the world in support of the MET’s fundraising campaign. The MET, like all performing arts organisations, is confronting a fiscal crisis with the cancellation of live performances. It was an unexpectedly emotional broadcast with music and artists offering balm for our souls during this time of global crisis. Renée Fleming teared up on camera after singing “Ave Maria” from Verdi’s “Otello.” Joyce DiDinato performed a moving tribute with the viola section in memory of orchestra violist Vincent Lionti who had died of Covid-19 a few weeks earlier. Bryn Terfel and Hannah Stone in Wales performed the so-appropriate spiritual “If I can help somebody.” There was such humanity of the artists on display, such deep friendships evident amongst them, and such sadness for all of us in these days when live performances on stage are not possible. With his voice cracking, Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin said in closing, “Music and art cannot be silenced.” A week later, I watched a broadcast of a Carnegie Hall recital taped on December 15, 2019 of Joyce DiDonato singing Schubert’s “Winterreise” with Yannick Nézet-Séguin accompanying her on the piano. The artistic respect and personal affection that the two have for each other was evident throughout the performance and was grippingly on display at the end. After the last gorgeous notes had been left to hang poignantly in the hall and as the rapturous applause began to erupt from the capacity audience, the two of them approached each other and embraced, hugging tightly for quite some time. It was very moving to witness such an intimate moment … but also jarring and saddening because they and we are now deprived of such opportunities to express affection in these days of physical-distancing;
  • I attend a church in downtown Toronto. We’re a small congregation that is diverse in age, gender, race, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, etc. Now that we can’t worship together in our church building on Sundays because of the pandemic shutdown, we’re struggling to do so on Zoom. The Zoom technology is new to many and it’s taken a few weeks to get the hang of it. There are still glitches, but nobody minds. The community is able to gather and that’s what’s important. There’s always a time of sharing and last week, an older woman acknowledged that she was having mobility problems and now with the pandemic restrictions, she was finding it difficult to get out for groceries. The other members rallied to assist her. The worship service planner called her later and asked if she’d be willing to sing a solo in the service today. She agreed and did so this morning. In the sharing time after the service, she said, “I can’t tell you how grateful I am that you asked me to sing for you all today. All week long, I was singing the song to myself. The music provided such nourishment to my soul. I kept singing it over and over. I cried but I also smiled. It lifted my spirits. I’m very thankful.”

We are not alone. We have each other. And we have music.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “The Paradox of Music in Times of Isolation – comforting yet prodding our grief

  1. judy simmonds

    Hi David–I heartily agree with you–music is a blessed medicine for the soul Here in London Ont my 16th month old great granddaughter absolutely adores music and I spend much time on the piano as we sing together!
    I also loved your message to the Maestro Club. Stay happy
    xo Judy

    • judy simmonds

      Hi David–I heartily agree with you–music is a blessed medicine for the soul Here in London Ont my 16th month old great granddaughter absolutely adores music and I spend much time on the piano as we sing together!
      I also loved your message to the Maestro Club. Stay happy
      xo Judy

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