The Rhythm of Isolation

A look into the positive and negative effects quarantine has had on musicians, and how they’re adapting.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Eleanor Chin

It’s often said that music is a universal language. Music, unlike other methods of expression, such as literature, is not restrained by the native language of the country in which it is performed. It is something to be shared by all, and this is part of what makes it so special. With the coronavirus pandemic keeping everyone indoors and separated, musicians have lost a large part of their ability to share their expression with others. Recitals can no longer be held in real-time without the fear of Internet complications. There are no live performances or reliable forms of group rehearsals. Consequently, musicians have been forced to reevaluate and redesign the way they pass their time, and some have pioneered new ways to share their musical expression with others.

In an attempt to sustain the group components of music during quarantine, several ensembles have put together virtual recordings of well-known orchestral pieces, such as “Boléro” by Ravel and “Appalachian Spring” by Copland. Of course, these recordings cannot really compare to live performances of classical music, but they strive to emulate the same level of unity and musicianship that it always has. Musicians around the globe, including many Stuyvesant students, are adjusting to this monumental change in how music is produced and shared.

One obvious aspect of quarantine is that everybody has more time on their hands. As a corollary to this, students and adults alike have become masterful at procrastination. For musicians, however, quarantine means more time to practice. Freshman and flutist in the Stuyvesant Symphonic Orchestra Devki Welt recalls her initial reaction to quarantine: “It would give me much more time to practice. I hoped to get through a lot and solidify my technique.” This speaks to the sentiment of most musicians right now, though the treasure trove of free practice hours doesn’t come without its challenges. “Getting feedback is more complicated now because my laptop doesn’t have good enough audio quality for my teacher to listen to precise tone and articulation differences,” Welt says. As a musician, feedback and constructive criticism are essential to building individual skills, and this technological obstacle is one not easily overcome.

Something that everyone has become accustomed to is the sense of diminishing motivation and drive. This feeling is no stranger to musicians by any means. Because there are no upcoming events and no real audiences to play for, it is hard to create a routine. “I realized I had no musical deadlines, no recitals, or performances to prepare for,” senior Lucas Amory said. Amory is a graduating pianist from the Juilliard Pre-College Program. “I tried to keep myself motivated and really started practicing more intensely […] but now that quarantine has become a type of lifestyle […] the motivation is fading.” But for Amory, quarantine hasn’t come without some progress. “I’m much more of a ‘pianist’ than I thought I really was. I promised myself to practice conducting and compose more, and I really haven’t done much of either,” Amory said.

As a result of separation, so much about music has been put on hold. Chamber music is no longer viable in real-time and neither is orchestral repertoire. “At first, I was a little depressed, especially since I was part of a chamber music group and we couldn't play together anymore […] I miss playing with other musicians,” sophomore Zoe Buff said. Buff, a violinist in both the Stuyvesant Symphonic Orchestra and the New York Youth Symphony, feels that one of the biggest losses of quarantine has been collaboration. It is, after all, part of what makes music so accessible and enjoyable for performers. The absence of collaboration means the absence of the interpersonal part of music, which is what draws many people to it in the first place.

In the end, musicians must pave their way forward solitarily. There are no more three-hour orchestra rehearsals, theory classes, or any other kinds of conventional classes for that matter. All the extra time has to go somewhere. To keep practices from becoming boring, many musicians try to spice up their daily musical routines. “I attempted to alternate my methods of practice […] Some days, I would try to focus on fundamental ‘hardware’, skills […] Other days would be spent working on different tones and phrasings,” junior Joshua Kim, a member of the Stuyvesant Symphonic Band, said. He has found that he can compartmentalize different skillsets day by day without feeling like he’s missing out on other important aspects of his practice. “Instead [of] trying to ‘smush’ all of these portions into one dense session, splitting it up […] seems to work pretty well.” Musicians can broaden their horizons with regards to their goals and regiment, and this leaves more room for individual mastery and achievement.

Music is an ever-expanding universe, and though quarantine has stunted its growth in many ways, it certainly hasn’t taken away people’s love for it. Naturally, musicians are drawn to one another. Collaboration is part of what makes it so unique, and without it, music can begin to feel somewhat dry. As put by Zoe Buff, “It gets a little lonely with just me and the violin.” It is important to remember, however, that collaborative music isn’t gone forever. It is just something that musicians and the larger world of music appreciators will need to bear with for the time being.