When the first chatter about Coronavirus started in the U.S. about seven weeks ago, I was in Hong Kong. There they were better prepared for it, having gone through the SARS pandemic in 2003. People went everywhere in facemasks, cleaning protocols had been increased in every open public place, and many non-essential venues had already been closed back in January. Schools that had already been shut for much of the year due to the protests managed to switch early to online teaching. At that time, there was still a hope that Covid-19 would remain quarantined into a small number of affected cities.
Clearly, that hope was misplaced. I returned early to the U.S. when countries all over the world started locking down their borders, to find that the situation was becoming very serious here as well. This brings us to now – friends, family, colleagues all locked down in different cities, performances and projects canceled, and perhaps more worrisome than anything is the uncertainty that permeates the whole situation. How long will this continue? Will friends and loved ones catch this? Will I catch this? How can I make up for the lost income through this time? My fears come from both the personal and professional directions and mingle in anxiety-inducing ways.
I feel incredibly lucky in that so far no one close to me has become sick, so my most critical fear, while still looming, has not developed into an immediate crisis. And looking at the situation in places like India, where more than 400 million people are struggling to find food as a result of the lockdowns, I’m reminded just how lucky we are simply to have reliable shelter, food, and our health. My worries seem so small compared to the intensity of problems facing so many people. Many of the issues I face are things I can actively work to address, and so that has become my focus through this lockdown.
The personal side is perhaps the more easily handled. I’ve had to make peace with circumstances I can’t change. I worry about family and friends spread out around the world and have instituted weekly Zoom dates to check in on everyone. I worry about family nearby getting sick, so we are religiously practicing social distancing and obsessively cleaning. I and my husband are both working from home through most of the day, so to battle the claustrophobia of being indoors we go for lots of walks and take frequent yoga breaks while working. With myself (a composer) and my husband (a pianist) now both working from home, there is now music in our house around the clock and not a lot of silence. To create a quiet space in our home, I invested in an affordable set of noise-reduction headphones. I’m worried every time I hear about the lack of supplies available locally at hospitals, so we have been donating masks and blood.
Professionally and economically, my concerns are more within my control, so I have been trying to treat the lockdown as an opportunity rather than an imposition. While I am certainly frustrated about canceled concerts and events, one unexpected bonus has been the time that lockdown has created where normally I would have none. (In less-stressed moments, I can almost pretend that this is a composer retreat – after all, there are few distractions, many opportunities to go for long walks, an instrument and computer at my disposal throughout the day.)
In my lockdown-imposed, self-guided-composer-retreat, these are the strategies I’ve found to make the best use of time:
1. Reconnecting with the music community
One big part of this has been using this time to reach out and connect with my community, particularly since I tend to fall off the radar in the middle of a normal season. This has involved email, social media, Zoom calls, and phone calls to see how old friends and colleagues are doing, to catch up about life and what each of us is working on.
2. Self-directed composing – writing for fun, writing as gifts, writing in styles I wouldn’t normally
I’ve been taking some of the time during these past few weeks to write short pieces as gifts for friends, colleagues, and mentors, and – as these are self-directed projects, they don’t come with a lot of compositional parameters in the way that commissions sometimes do. So I’ve been using this as an opportunity to stretch myself in terms of technique – writing in styles that I wouldn’t typically, limiting the materials I can use in unusual ways, pushing myself to write to tightly restricted sets of performance standards. Not only is this forcing me to dig deeper before I put pen to paper, but also pushing me towards ideas I wouldn’t have had otherwise. It has been a challenging process, but a great one to break out of the habit of reverting to what comes easily, and to express gratitude to people in the community who have helped me in the past.
3. Discovering and listening to new music
I’ve been listening to a lot more music – the number of virtual concerts appearing in the last few weeks has been wonderful. Everyone from the Met to LA Opera to NPR to American Composers Forum to individual artists are streaming music online, in versions ranging from full productions to solo living-room concerts to virtual ensembles. It’s been a great chance to not only hear new music but also to peel back the veil from some of the larger companies and artists and see them making music in the simplest possible ways. It has also given me the chance to dig through lesser-known music on other platforms – YouTube, Spotify, iTunes – specifically to create playlists for music by women composers in various genres, something which has been a passion project of mine for a while.
4. Tackling freelancer administrative tasks
I have to admit that website maintenance is not usually the task at the top of my list during a normal season, but it is nonetheless an essential one. In catching up on administrative work, I’ve updated my website, created and uploaded long-overdue projects to YouTube, prepared, sent out and shared digital scores, and caught up on social media.
5. Learning new skills and technology
The speed with which so much of the world has had to switch to teaching and learning online means that the number of online classes and webinars available for almost anything increased exponentially over the space of a few weeks. From learning new technology to methods for structuring online teaching to software and apps to use in making and disseminating music, there are suddenly not only quick ways to learn things but more importantly, often live people on the other end you can reach out to with questions. Many organizations have additionally made recorded lectures and classes available for free in response to Coronavirus. Udemy, Coursera, edX all have extensive lists of courses in various fields, as well as recorded lectures from renowned speakers such as Leonard Bernstein, Toni Morrison, and Carl Sagan. I’ve been working my way through a variety of these offerings to improve my online teaching, to expand my skill set in terms of business and marketing, and to learn from authors speaking about the craft of writing in ways that suggest interesting analogues for the writing of music.
6. Contributing to the larger community
This final point is admittedly a little esoteric, but in watching the ways this crisis is playing out across multiple communities, I’m reminded of what it means to be a part of each one, and I feel driven to help in any ways that I can. Of course, this pandemic impacts me as a musician, but also as an Indian watching the fallout there, as a Hong Konger seeing the repercussions there, and as a teacher watching the impact on my colleagues and on my students. In whatever ways I am able, it has been important to me to contribute something – tutoring students struggling with the sudden digital switch in their class environments, sharing what supplies we have at home with friends and neighbors, trying to raise awareness of the unintended side-effects of lockdown on the most marginalized people.
This is a strange time to be living through, and one that is stressful in visceral, uncomfortable ways; but for myself, I’m trying to mitigate this fear by finding opportunities to control what I can. While I very much look forward to the return of things to normal, at least as a freelancer and a musician I feel like this is a situation where we can make our own opportunities if we are creative about it. None of this allays my fears for loved ones, fears about sickness, about the economy, or lack of hospital beds, or anything like that – but these are at least ways of focusing on what is in my hands during this unprecedented situation.
Support for the writing of this article was provided by the ASCAP Foundation Irving Caesar Fund.