For most of 2020, musicians couldn’t make live music with or for other people.
Here in Australia, a country privileged to avoid much of the tragedy of the pandemic, populations bunkered down, public gatherings were banned, venues shut, festivals cancelled, tours aborted, and the normal modes of sharing live arts and culture disappeared almost overnight. Through the first pandemic year, cultural activities were declared inessential work, and the necessary behaviours that we collectively needed to adopt to reduce the transmission of COVID 19 meant that musicians’ livelihoods, like those of so of many others, were decimated. Destabilising the situation further, new legislations came into play that financially punished those wishing to study arts and humanities at tertiary level, creating fundamental questions around accessibility and sustainability for new generations of creatives, and those who work in tandem with them.
Musicians responded with characteristic generosity and ingenuity, adapting quickly to digital and other possibilities, making new performance and broadcast settings from home and other impromptu environments, buoyed by the loyalty and hunger of audiences, and, desperate to share and connect. It was a year of improvising, trying desperately to hold hope, to maintain skills, learn new ones, and create alternative ways of earning a living.
Streaming proliferated (mostly facsimiles of live performances, rather than work conceived for the digital realm), which meant increased attention on potential global audiences, and a raft of conversations about possibilities for the democratisation of arts and culture. But streaming also went hand-in-hand with a collapse of traditional income for primary producers — artists — who were seeing little, if any return from this new ‘financial model’. Closures of key events and festivals curtailed opportunities for early career artists to get a foot in the door, while also denying paid work to mid-career, established and senior artists. These impacts hit the workforce unevenly: women, people already in lower income and unsalaried employment, people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds all were affected disproportionately.
In March 2021, I spent a morning talking with a group of musicians in their early 20s, who had impressively negotiated an extra semester at the end of their formal music training, as compensation of sorts for the time and experiences lost to 2020. Beautiful young people, alive to the world, passionate and idealistic, their stories were heart-rending. The chasm that had opened between what they’d trained all their short lives to do, and the current reality, seemed unbridgeable.
Being an instrumentalist is akin to being an athlete. There’s a critical time early in life when it’s essential to clock up thousands of hours, learning intricate, fine-motor skills. What many people may not realise is that alongside training fingers, lungs, and neural pathways, performance muscles need training too. And these imperative stagecraft skills can only be learnt in front of audiences.
Some of the young musicians I met that day had stopped playing entirely by the end of the 2020. Not only for audiences, but also for themselves. For a musician to abandon an instrument, to walk away from the daily joy and sanctuary, the identity-forming, meaning-making pursuit of creating sound, is a sign of deep psychological distress. Like many young people, they felt as though their future had evaporated, and that generations above them, as well as institutions that they had previously looked to for shelter, for leadership and employment, had deserted them. They wondered why they would return to systems so broken and inadequate.
Late in 2020, on the much-anticipated day that a collaborator could visit my home and we could finally play together after months of musical solitude, we flung open windows and doors in a jubilant serenade to the neighbourhood. Held in an embrace of sound, I felt the relief of life quickening after that long hibernation.
More recently, I returned to live audiences. After more than a year away from stages, I was genuinely frightened that my body wouldn’t remember how to perform under pressure, so the lead up was excruciating. As luck would have it, I went straight from months of playing in isolation to the 1000-seat Melbourne Recital Centre, fronting the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra as a soloist for two intricate pieces requiring me to be hyper-fit: musically, technically, and psychologically. A few days before the gig, I finally recognised my terror as performance anxiety. It was such a relief! I greeted my gnawing stomach and sleep-elusive nights as old friends, utterly different from the vast and vacant fears of 2020.
First rehearsal, hands freezing, and after a shaky-voiced welcoming speech, we began to play. Haloed in music, the orchestra playing full tilt, I was elated. Those concerts were precious — players and listeners in music’s thrall, temporarily united in a magical, communal place beyond words. And for once, few nerves for me, just gratitude, clear and unmistakable, and a body that thankfully knew exactly what to do.
I’ve innumerable stories of people finding their way back to work and audiences after a year of rupture. But the breach of Covid has also ended the careers of many members of our artistic community. Some never had the chance to start — the vitality, purpose and dreams of young lives quashed, while many mid-career artists are currently re-training, the impossibility of trying to make ends meet from ever-shrinking financial returns, coupled with the responsibilities of raising a family, tipping the balance. Then scores of elders — those pioneers who dreamt and made pathways for all of us — unemployed, the financial precarity of decades of freelancing coming home to roost. With all these colleagues turning their backs on their artistic careers, we’re losing essential contributions to our society, despite overwhelming evidence that arts and culture are vital to our individual and collective health, happiness, sense of belonging and identity.
Through that long year, some days only dimly, others with more clarity, it seemed that as humans, we have a deep-seated need to voice and share stories, songs, pictures, games, rituals. People around the globe engaged regularly with countless versions of arts and culture as ways of creating community, meaning and hope. Practices of art and culture expressed differences as well as what was shared, gave expression to the tumult, and suggested ways we might re-imagine and re-make our world. The year of improvising broke some conventions and formalities, loosened hierarchies, and seemed often to cut straight to the truth — sharing creativity connects us in a potent way. And the connections that creativity enable awaken us to ourselves and to those around us. They empower change, and they’re a compelling antidote to the numbing feeling of being overwhelmed by the world.
That year of relative silence reset expectations, realities, and desires. I won’t be working the ways that I used to, and not only because they don’t exist anymore. Sure, I’ll occasionally dip back into work streams I know and love from times before — if they appear — but it feels urgent to use my skills in different ways. Those early concerts back were a balm and a bridge, but the work I dreamt and developed in response to 2020 feels more fitting for our new times. Creative projects spanning collaborators and communities of all kinds, mostly outside conventional performance forums, using music as a way of connecting people and ideas through sound, helping us to listen to land, place, and one another.
The young musicians I met in March are taking their future into their own hands, creating opportunities and responses to our new realities. They have an increased sense of their roles as activists, advocates, and instigators. They’re immersed in the important work of articulating how they might try to create a world that’s more musical, more sustainable, and more just than our current one.
The last couple of days, I’ve been working alongside a team of curators and producers who are vehemently committed to giving birth to new, experimental arts projects for our altered world. It’s been affirming and inspiring being in their presence, hearing their dreams and plans. I attended a public performance (also streamed live) of a series of new works they’re developing with artists and communities. Sharing stories afterwards with audiences and participants about the lifelines that arts, culture, and creativity provide, I was reminded just how great a connector live performance is. People from all walks of life, awake to their senses, alive to one another, talking passionately, questioning, disagreeing, laughing, and alight with possibility.