By Lynne Cohen
In late summer 1986, my family was moving to Europe. I had given up a full-time orchestra job in South Florida, shipped the bare necessities ahead, and sold the rest. For the summer, I was playing at Seaside Music Theatre in Daytona Beach, doing summer stock with full live orchestra. This was a dream job. All the employees of the theatre, actors, musicians, and the entire tech crew, were housed at an apartment complex that surrounded an enormous pool. We performed five shows in rotating rep and there were always jam sessions, chamber music rehearsals, fishing expeditions, beach runs and much hilarity after hours. The night before our departure, the orchestra threw us a huge going-away party with a great deal of revelry. At the end of the night, a friend and colleague, the late Robert Geary, a magnificent violinist, pulled me aside to convey the following advice: “Be careful where you go, because the earth could experience a massive seismic event which causes a shift in its axis, displacing the poles and leading to enormous change.” I took it as a very sweet pronouncement of caring and never forgot it.
This pandemic may be that event. All notions of life, the rhythm of our days, our careers, and our expectations of order are all massively changed. As musicians, we have already been adapting to new landscapes within our industry. Smaller orchestras with shorter seasons (my old orchestras in Florida and Seaside both folded long ago), greater use of technology in all genres, and the need to be increasingly diverse in our abilities have long been the new reality. But this is a whole new dimension entirely. Work has stopped and we face serious questions about the ability of people to congregate to hear live music in the near and more distant future. Economic hardships across all sectors of society — including the arts — mean that we need relief now. In addition, we fear the ripples that will inevitably sweep across our workplace later. What had begun as a stunning challenge is now, a month in, becoming a grave and sobering situation. With the growing awareness that the shut-in may continue even longer, we find ourselves thinking about alternative ways to bring in income, such as remote teaching via Zoom or Facetime.
Everyone is going through unique versions of the stages of grief. For many, they started with much planning and intentional optimism. We thought we would accomplish that punch list of home repairs, learn to sew, do yoga online, and finish the arrangements we had begun and were too busy to revisit for the last ten years. We turned to “nesting in place” by cooking and baking, taking naps, playing games. It seemed to be tolerable because, as long as we did some maintenance practicing on our instruments, we could get back up and running by now.
The internet has become one of our most indispensable tools. We connect with each other, teach our students, get our news and learn of avenues of support. When our students log in to class in their bathrobes for an 8 a.m. theory class, seeing our calm faces on their screens reassures them. The weekly family Zoom meeting keeps us tied together, providing humor and eyes into each other’s homes and hearts. Conversations with old friends abound. Help for depression and isolation may be a click away. However, we need to remember those in our circles who have not yet reached out for help. They may need our care and attention. Our awareness of how much we spend and consume is good for our household budgets and the planet. And nobody misses commuting!
The creative ways in which our community has shown generosity are uplifting. These include everything from small offerings of jokes and videos to beautiful collaborative music by myriad ensembles to tremendous sacrifices by health care professionals, service workers of all kinds and civic leaders. These acts are testament to the best of the human spirit. While these actions cannot, will not, and must not replace live collaboration, they are what we have now. We all seem to be a little more aware that as we progress through our own personal struggles, our colleagues are doing so as well. We seem to be softer with each other. Life seems slower, condensed to more essentials. This week, I watched my chestnut tree leaf out by the hour. We have more time to daydream, an activity which can only enhance our art and free our worried hearts to wander a little.
Perhaps the earth will shift on its axis. The poles, though displaced, will still balance us; they are not so different from each other. They are both cold but one is water and the other land. One has polar bears and the other penguins. It’s what we do with the geographical and ideological space in between that matters. If we can emerge from this seismic event more aware of our global responsibilities and make further inroads toward equality in our workplaces, communities and nations, we can achieve greater harmony.
Lynne Cohen is an oboist and a member of the Local 802 Executive Board.