Virtuoso in the virtual – how a musician adapts to the virtual space from the physical stage

How Tiffany Wu, a freelance musician, transitions and copes with the challenges and new opportunities as she adapts to the online environment during the pandemic.

I still remember getting that first email in early March, and the unsavory twist in the pit of my stomach as I read it. “As you might be aware, [we] will be closed from now until […] Unfortunately, this means we will not be able to host you…” It was a cordial message – regretful, promising later dates and future bookings – but it was a gig cancellation all the same.

It was the first of many, not just for myself as a classical musician, but for a global collective of artists, musicians, and other performers. In truth, my first thought wasn’t of finances or missed networking opportunities, but of the people and the space. It was a joy to have been invited back to that particular venue, and I was looking forward to playing for both familiar and unfamiliar faces, delighted to be in the beautiful, sweeping space once more.

But the emails came trickling in and I watched the dominoes fall, one by one, as venues shuttered their doors. In the beginning, it almost felt unreal, like a passing joke. I whiled away my time reading articles on best practices for sanitizing instruments (hint: it’s not using alcohol spray bottles) and swapping tips with friends on virtual lesson set-ups and affordable mics. Program coordinators promised to be in touch near the end of April. Some of them were, only to retract their requests once more.

It is difficult to capture, but in the following weeks, there was this sense of a massive, instantaneous upheaval and exodus from the physical to the virtual and, being a classical musician, I felt wholly unprepared to deal with anything that did not take place on a stage, in a rehearsal room, or in person.

Virtual Recital (harp), Photo credit: Samantha Bittle

Growing Pains

I call our transition period “growing pains” not to make light of it, but in the hopes of highlighting the duality of the extraordinary transformation and creative ventures I’ve seen many of my friends and mentors undertake to continue to make music. 

I continue to be impressed and inspired by all the ways that my colleagues and friends have come together to create a virtual stage. I have seen online church services, lessons, studio classes, recitals, and performances. I have seen friends completely relearn recital pieces in the span of just a couple of months, and conductors conducting entire orchestras online from the space of their own living rooms. 

Virtual Lessons, Photo Credit: Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

At the same time, as astounding and humbling as it is to see the reconstruction of an ensemble, there have been plenty of hiccups along the way. By nature, sound is slower: this delay necessitates the physical closeness of orchestras and bands–proximity to one another allows a ninety-piece ensemble to strike a single note at exactly the same time. But now, with the addition of a computer screen and even more audio delays, it is nearly impossible to perform together.

Some ensembles have sought to remedy this using click tracks, which unify the sound, but at the cost of the push and pull of time, the fluid freedom found within music. Likewise, lessons can be difficult. Music depends on the physical – an adjustment to the angle of my fingers or your bow can make all the difference in sound, but is hard to catch through a screen.

Still, I cannot deny that there are tiny joys that pop up like springtime flowers: keeping a consistent practice schedule, having more time to learn repertoire that piques my interest, and experimenting outside of the realm of classical music. I have floundered my way through Instagram Live and am in the process of figuring out YouTube. I am learning that there are so many different ways to fall in love with the art I create.

Elgar’s “Nimrod”, Video Credit: Milwaukee Symphony

Space to mourn and reflect

It has been a couple of months of readjusting, but in many ways, I feel that I am luckier than many.

One of my biggest stressors is navigating the tentative nature of future performances. With so many things up in the air, being canceled, or postponed, it’s hard to make good judgment calls for preparations and plans. But as a freelance musician, and one in a student gap year at that, I feel an odd sort of familiarity with that insecurity brought on uncertainty.

There are things my mentors and colleagues are coming to terms with that are, at this moment in time, difficult for me to empathize with, like the loss of an entire orchestral community and the collapse of annual season’s worth of concerts. There are collective worries, like the sudden evaporation of income or the future of orchestral rehearsals and performances. 

But one thing remains a constant, regardless of the type of artist or performer: we miss our audiences. There is no replacement for the people we are playing for and with.

As performers, we are so heavily reliant on contact with our audiences, on having an intentional gathering space to create with a group of people. I miss weekend rehearsals with my chamber friends. I miss filling a space with people and sound. I even miss hauling my huge, 80-lb instrument in and out of my car, racing around to my gigs.

LA Phil at Home, Photo Credit: Los Angeles Philharmonic

In truth, it is still difficult to say what the future will hold. I know that even once quarantine is over it will be difficult – an orchestra itself is a large gathering of 90-100 musicians, never mind bringing in an audience.

I will also say I have enjoyed a number of online performances, such as the Met Opera’s nightly streams and Broadway World’s Living Room Concerts. I am delighted that people from all walks of life can access classical music. Digital concerts have broken down geographical and socio-economic barriers and pushed arts funding into the spotlight. Solo artists and chamber music will likely come to the fore. 

Holst’s “Jupiter”, Video Credit: Merit School of Music

But it’s not a long-term solution. Because in the end, it circles back to immediacy and community. In many ways, this is a classical music problem. Hearing a symphony through a laptop speaker is wildly different from hearing it live.

And yet, in many ways, this is not a classical music problem. This isn’t even a music problem. We flock to concert halls and stadiums to be with people. We create in proximity. And while I may not be confident in exactly how the world of classical music will right itself, I am confident that there will always be an appetite for live performances and the simple human joy of interacting face-to-face.

I cannot wait to be outside again, pulling open my music book, feeling the stage floor vibrate, hearing the hushed murmur of the audience filing in. But till then I’ll wait and delight in this new digital soundscape and endless global stage we have created.

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