Coping Strategies and the Long Wait
The date of 20th March has varying significance. Typically, it is the date of the vernal equinox. The sun rises due east, passes along the line of the equator and sets due west. Day and night are equal at last, and we breathe a sigh of relief that spring is starting.
It is also the saints days of Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, Herbert of Derwentwater (and others), it is World Storytelling Day, New Year’s Day for members of Aleister Crowley’s occult Thelema movement, Independence Day for Tunisia (from France), International Francophonie Day (for everywhere else that is French-speaking), and World Sparrow Day. I could go on. Wikipedia has a whole page devoted to the date, as it does with every other.
These celebrations may have passed us by thanks to the Prime Minister’s announcement of a national lockdown on the same day this year. It was the single biggest threat to our professional, educational and social lives since the last world war - and perhaps, due to its suddenness, the biggest in history.
If there’s one thing I like to do each side of a bow repair, it’s to catch up on the news of my clients’ working lives. In any normal year, this conversation is generally fairly quick, with reference to a season here, a tour there, a spate of sessions around the corner and so on. It’s always interesting, often precarious, and shows a working lifestyle that I can only marvel at.
To compare a ‘normal year’ with this one would be unfeasible. The conversations I’ve had in 2020 have been more difficult and more varied than ever. I keep personal politics out of my business dealings, and appear more like the stereotype pub landlord or the hairdresser who finds the common line with each audience. Why? Because this is no time for arguments, it is a time for support and encouragement. It’s a time for sharing and empathy, and with this in mind I wanted to mention some of the ways in which musicians’ have told me their lives have been affected, and how they have been forced to adapt to greater or lesser degrees. The stories I hear are the tip of the iceberg, being only from musicians and not from management and behind-the-scenes support.
Since not all artists have been affected in the same ways or to the same extent, I have heard stories that seemed like admissions of guilt from those less badly affected, as if having a partner working in an unrelated field and still able to earn is a thing to apologise for. It isn’t, it’s a marvellous, fortunate situation that musical partners should feel not only grateful for, but unashamed of. Well done, you. You may not have planned it, but who knows - there may be people quite deliberately following in your footsteps now we have seen just what devastation can happen overnight to the creative arts.
Other players have been among the lucky ones awarded furlough status. The orchestra of the ENO, just back from furlough, is playing behind closed doors, recording the Mozart Requiem for a scheduled airing on the BBC in mid-November. ‘It will seem strange playing to an empty house,’ admitted my client. Elsewhere, orchestras are helping their freelance players with SEISS claims but a significant number do not meet the requirements of the HMRC.
It is a fact that, in periods of austerity, the creative arts are among the first to suffer. Funding is reduced and orchestras are told to make themselves more profitable or lose out. And while film soundtracks and gigs may be classed as egalitarian, orchestras, quartets and so on are perceived as a soft target, a luxury for the middle classes, elitist, white and unnecessary. It is not surprising, then, that there is little support from the political economists, who, like Dr Beeching, assess profit and loss rather than quality of life. And in the meantime, many musicians have had to abandon their work for the foreseeable future and just hope that there will be something recognisable to return to in the near future. One client is working in her parents’ boatyard (when she isn’t practising in readiness for the call back to musical performance). Another has tried to find part-time work in retail, with limited success. In the next sentence, she tells me candidly how she has rediscovered her love of running, which has done so much for her mental health.
Teaching is another area which has been transformed. One client who teaches around fifty children in a school has been told not to come in. Around a quarter of these students have now successfully adapted to online lessons with the same teacher. But teaching via online platforms can be frustrating, not least when it comes to tuning the instruments, which parents often cannot assist with. Occasionally, someone brings me a small violin with a broken string to replace.
The artist Grayson Perry recently gave an interview with The Arts Society in which he briefly spoke of his take on the effects of Covid-19 on the arts. ‘I think every part of life has probably got a bit of fat that needs trimming, a bit of dead wood,’ he suggested. ‘It’s awful that the culture sector has been decimated, but I think some things needed to go. Too often, the audience for culture is just the people making it – theatres with whole audiences of actors, or exhibitions only put on to impress other curators. With Covid, it’s been like turning a computer off and on again, and seeing which files reappear. Some of them we don’t really give a damn about. What’s interesting is what might not re-emerge.’
We may all accept that dead wood does exist in the creative arts, but agreeing on where the dead wood is might not be so easy. In any case, who would arbitrate on what deserves to go? I’m not aware of audiences of actors (or musicians), but there may be circles of in-house crowds who monopolise certain events. But while he has received mixed reactions to his comments, it seems to me that he is effectively challenging the arts to put quality first and self absorption last.
While there is so much uncertainty about whether we will have a recognisable Christmas, we cannot expect any reliable forecast for the music scene. There are some heroic musicians who have set up fundraising enterprises, others who defiantly seek out pop-up musical initiatives, there are people busking while weather permits - and sometimes facing abuse from residents who are suddenly fed up with so many buskers frequenting the scene! And there are the legions of players who are providing emotional support for their colleagues and helping out in practical ways to help plug the gaps in the official system of support that is in place. I have no ideas to bring to the table, but I want to show my full support for all players, and musicians who are in difficult circumstances are welcome to ask for a deal or a delayed payment on their repairs.
Music is more than a job; performance is a candid expression of the subconscious from the player to the audience. Being a musician is an identity and a lifestyle. Musicians want to inspire the listener and lift them from the mundane into the sublime. That’s priceless.
The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra gave its last concert before the second lockdown and tweeted an emotional temporary farewell (picture from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra's Twitter post from the 4th November 2020 (@BSOrchestra).