“On the negative side, many planned concerts have had to be cancelled, which has been disappointing to me and many others. With fitness centers and gymnasiums closed, it has been more difficult to work out and try to stay in shape. […] On the positive side, the lock-down has given me more time to practice piano than I’ve had in decades! It’s been a joy to revisit pieces that I haven’t played in years, and to learn new ones, too. […] I have planted a small garden, something I haven’t done since childhood, and am using this unexpected time as a golden opportunity to clear out clutter…”Tweet
As a performing musician, the lockdown that began in northern California in early March has had a dramatic impact on my life and professional activity. I conducted a concert on March 1 with a chamber orchestra at Stanford, where I hold the position of director of orchestral studies, but the concerts scheduled for March 6 and 7 with the Stanford Symphony Orchestra, Stanford Symphonic Chorus, and a quartet of professional vocal soloists were cancelled on March 3, the morning after our first dress rehearsal. Because of the months of preparation that went into preparing those concerts, and the large number of performers involved (ca. 250), that cancellation was very disappointing. However, everyone involved in the decision to cancel all Stanford Music Department performances as of March 3 was in complete agreement that it was the right decision, and I am grateful that we did cancel those performances and thereby reduce transmission of the COVID-19 virus, which almost certainly would have spread among the performers and members of the audience.
Once the decision was made to proceed only with online instruction during spring quarter, I was faced with the question of what to do. With only a few days available to determine how to proceed, I sounded out the students about a plan to examine the orchestral repertoire through videos, recordings, and readings supplemented by weekly discussions with prominent members of the musical world. We combined both orchestras into this one online course, called “SSO Online” (orchestra.stanford.edu), and chose a 5pm meeting time since that would work best for participants in California, on the East Coast (and in between), and in Asia. All sessions would be recorded, so that students could view the sessions at their convenience and take the course even if they had another class scheduled at the same time, or would ordinarily be asleep (in Europe, for example) when the class took place.
My aim was twofold: 1) to create a meaningful educational experience for the students who would otherwise play in the Stanford Symphony Orchestra and Stanford Philharmonia, and 2) to preserve the sense of community among Stanford’s orchestral musicians during this difficult time. Although it took much effort to pull “SSO Online” together, it was worth it! We wound up with 15 special guests, representing many different kinds of positions in the musical world: orchestral musicians (NY Philharmonic, Minnesota Orchestra), conductors (Cleveland Orchestra, Minnesota Orchestra), classical music critics (San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post), educators (The Juilliard School, University of Michigan, University of Chicago, Brown University), composers (including two Pulitzer Prize winners), authors, and the leaders of the Sphinx Organization – the leading program for Black and Latinx classical musicians. I opened up the course to newly accepted students who will enter Stanford this fall, and to community members, and was gratified that enrollment grew throughout the quarter, from about 40 participants at the start to about 100 for our final session with composer John Adams.
Since instruction in conducting involves live interaction between conductors and musicians, the Music Department decided to postpone elementary and intermediate conducting courses until they could take place in person. However, since more advanced students could use the time productively to study scores and work on improving their musicianship skills, I did teach conducting privately over Zoom. In this way, advanced students were able to work on their keyboard and sight-reading skills, and read books on repertoire they were studying, using the time during the lockdown to keep developing their abilities.
On a personal level, there have been negative and positive aspects of the lockdown. On the negative side, many planned concerts have had to be cancelled, which has been disappointing to me and many others. With fitness centers and gymnasiums closed, it has been more difficult to work out and try to stay in shape; instead of swimming and lifting weights, I’ve done more walking and biking, and also used workout videos for the first time. I’ve also missed seeing my students and faculty colleagues in person, as well as family and friends.
On the positive side, the lock-down has given me more time to practice piano than I’ve had in decades! It’s been a joy to revisit pieces that I haven’t played in years, and to learn new ones, too. There has also been more time to read, catch up with the backlog of email, and stay connected with family and friends through Zoom and FaceTime. I have planted a small garden, something I haven’t done since childhood, and am using this unexpected time as a golden opportunity to clear out clutter. I am fortunate not to have suffered emotionally or physically as a result of the lock-down, and am enjoying the reduction of stress and increased ability to regularly get a full night’s sleep that has resulted from the situation.
I also feel very fortunate to live in comfortable surroundings and not to have been severely impacted financially by the pandemic. My wife and I have adapted fairly well to teaching over Zoom, and can continue to do so for the time being. The situation is manageable for now, but by the time fall arrives, I hope that life will be able to return to normal, or at least closer to normal than it’s been since March.
[submitted on 6/15/2020]