The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Musicians always crave time to practice. Lockdown gave us nothing but.

A woman looks at a video projection of a concert, recorded by the Baltasar Neumann Orchestra, playing pieces of Mozart and Beethoven repertoire and directed by German director Thomas Hengelbrock, at the Place de Verdun square in Aix-en-Provence on July 21, 2020, as part of this year's digital edition of the International Festival of Lyric Art of Aix-en-Provence. - The 2020 edition of the festival, planned to start on July 2, has been cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic and representations postponed until the next edition. The concert is broadcasted at the same time on five giants screen located in different places and streets of the city. (Clement Mahoudeau / AFP) (Clement Mahoudeau/AFP via Getty Images)

With the closure of recital halls and symphony spaces, it occurs to me this morning that the ice cream truck, peddling its indefatigable anthem down my block in Brooklyn, might be the only public musical performer I’ve heard in months. One by one, symphonies, operas and chamber societies confirm that the earliest the show will go on is 2021, and so musicians have resigned ourselves to livestreams and pre-recordings that allow us to keep our audiences and some semblance of our paychecks.

As a violinist, I hope that something of the streams’ sensibility survives: Mumbled preambles and tableside teddy bears unmoved by the Bach Chaconne are refreshing the genre for far-flung audiences. But nothing can replicate the essential recklessness of live performance, the zing of signing up for an experience in which you, the listener, have no say. Separated by screens, however, listeners have gone rogue — they can adjust the volume, move the window into the periphery or bring the show to a brusque close by exiting the browser.

To be a musician means accepting a certain form of isolation as a mandate. You spend a lifetime taunting yourself into the practice room, where, if you are lucky enough to have a window, you can watch the sun go down on your social life while you brood over the sharpness of your most recent C-sharp. You have made a bargain: Eventually you will get to share what you have learned with present, listening people. In isolation, however, the terms of that bargain have changed.

Quarantine yields to performers what they supposedly need to work: indefinite time at a vast remove. I have found some vexed pleasure in practicing caprices, short technical exercises, by the 18th-century violinist Pierre Rode. “Do not heed the trouble and exertion expended upon them as they will surely bear their reward,” he advises in his preface, shrewdly forecasting generations of resistance to works that disregard the bones in your left hand. Usually I overlook these exercises in the rush to gorge on more substantial repertoire, but now there is time for Rode, and indeed there will be time.

Some days, I think this glut of time is an offering. More often, however, it’s a force-feeding. To have ideas, you need constraints, which for us were the auditions, rehearsals and performances dribbled across our calendars. Now that those boundaries have evaporated, I have begun to realize how much I depended on them and how much my relationship with music was predicated on feeling present with others, both in the audience and onstage. If a sonata falls in the forest and nobody hears it, did it make a sound?

In isolation, I have worked on solo repertoire, pieces that are solvent without collaborators — a kind of musical disaster-prepping for a lonely future. I congratulate myself on what a responsible musician I’m being, though it’s a perverse twist on the violinist’s fantasy: finally, music that puts all eyes on you alone — and there’s no one to witness it. One night, though, I get lucky. There is a toddler on the street who, hearing my Ysaÿe, swings his head from left to right to locate the source of the sound before finally looking up. “Hey!” he yells. He issues a single clap, and I beam as though it is a bouquet.

Where other remedies fall short, we have a long tradition of prescribing music to others: Bach for hope, Beethoven for joy and Brahms for all the lonely hearts. But we often forget that the notes themselves are rarely inscribed with anything so specific. Rather, music offers a sympathetic echo: You get back what you need. One of my students lost her stepfather in May but still wanted to have our scheduled lesson; music, she said, was the way she would start to heal. Nothing about what she was playing, a ditty called “Waltz Me All Day,” had ever suggested any latent powers of consolation before. And yet for her, that day, there they were.

The music industry sells classical as soothing background music — robbing a great art of its power

This homebound summer has been particularly unsettling for classical musicians, whose typical schedule guarantees a few months of debauched itinerancy at festivals across the world. For those who can afford or are invited to such experiences, they are annual previews of a musical afterlife: a realm unfettered by mundanities such as where you put your keys. I usually learn more about music during the summer than I learn in all the other months, if only because there is nothing else to do. It makes an awful sense, then, that a program I attended a year ago would become my closest reference for how to approach music during the pandemic.

The program was one of many around the country in which young classical musicians trade functional indoor plumbing for a chance at artistic insight. About 30 of us cloistered ourselves there in wooden cabins, where we practiced alone and rehearsed together. Emblazoned across many of the screen doors were the names of famous musicians and composers. With their paraphernalia strewn inside — copper busts, autographed quilt squares, disintegrating concert programs — the cabins reminded me of tombs. Playing inside them, I supposed, was how we paid our respects.

Five weeks into the program, in the middle of rehearsals for Benjamin Britten’s String Quartet No. 2, I woke up feeling odd. I suspected Lyme, which seemed the inevitable retort to my lifelong disdain for nature. A counselor took me to the local emergency room, where if you needed help after 7 p.m., you had to ring a little bell. A carillon wouldn’t have helped. I tested negative for the disease — with Lyme, that is possible in the early stages of infection — and they sent me back to campus.

So commenced the sickest period of my life. I couldn’t stand for long, as one usually does when practicing. Sitting, as one does in chamber music, was less of a problem, but my groupmates had decreed that they would meet without me until I could once again rotate my head and my skin was no longer splattered with hives. In the ER a few days later, to address an unbearable bout of nausea, shaking under an ambitious Kleenex that the nurse had described as a blanket, I reviewed the score in my head. Stumped, the doctor sent me back to campus that same night.

As much pain as I was in, I never considered going home. In the first place, I had not come so far just to be comfortable. The quartet itself, a web of confounding, ecstatic harmony, the likes of which I had never heard, was not comfortable. To play it was to feel like I had a chance to hold the gaze of a strange animal. If I blinked, it would disappear. I had hoped that serving this music would redeem me, that we could prove we were worthy of touching it. But lying here, tracing the second movement in my head, was all my body could do just then, and thus it was all I could ask for. On the occasions that the illness relented, I practiced and rehearsed. Afterward, I floated past the the tombs — squeals of Bartók and Ives rocketing through the woods — back to my room, so I could sleep.

For musicians, performance seems to promise a kind of parole from the body: After sufficient exertion and hours of practice, the score becomes so intuitive that to play it is no longer a matter of physical execution, but rather pure feeling. But that transcendence of bodily constraints is an illusion — now, in this pandemic, more than ever. When I could not play, I accused myself of surrendering. In fact, I was maneuvering through the din of illness to find, and value, what was possible. It was a new kind of listening; we could also call it humility.

For the next two months, until I could see a doctor back home, I was sick. On concert day, though, I celebrated: I had woken up without my body making a fuss, and I presumed the illness was starting to subside. In the third movement, however, a wrenching headache set in, bad enough that I started to make some odd mistakes. In my pain, I calibrated my energy so that I would survive the end: 23 C major chords that, in a taxing display of youthful vigor, we had decided to play almost all up-bow. At one of the final cues, I met the violist’s eyes dead on. (Whatever the trials of social distancing, this is something you actually can do over FaceTime: see the music work on someone’s face.) What was her expression — fear? No, something adjacent: acceptance that we could not always understand or control the circumstances before us, but that we were going to see them through.

Twitter: @jenwgersten

Read more from Outlook:

The poetry that speaks best to the pandemic

How music and chants bring protesters together

Follow our updates on Facebook and Twitter.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

End of the public health emergency: The Biden administration ended the public health emergency for the coronavirus pandemic on May 11, just days after WHO said it would no longer classify the coronavirus pandemic as a public health emergency. Here’s what the end of the covid public health emergency means for you.

Tracking covid cases, deaths: Covid-19 was the fourth leading cause of death in the United States last year with covid deaths dropping 47 percent between 2021 and 2022. See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world.

The latest on coronavirus boosters: The FDA cleared the way for people who are at least 65 or immune-compromised to receive a second updated booster shot for the coronavirus. Here’s who should get the second covid booster and when.

New covid variant: A new coronavirus subvariant, XBB. 1.16, has been designated as a “variant under monitoring” by the World Health Organization. The latest omicron offshoot is particularly prevalent in India. Here’s what you need to know about Arcturus.

Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?

For the latest news, sign up for our free newsletter.