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A musician's loss

ISM Past-President, Dr Jeremy Huw Williams describes how the sudden loss of work due to COVID-19 has affected him and the music sector , but also the hope he has found in creativity.

COVID-19 has affected everyone deeply. Nothing matters more to us now than our health, as the risks to us all are great. Financial hardship is already proving to be devastating to many, but for musicians there is an additional, and in some cases, greater, loss.

In March, we all watched in frustration and disbelief as one engagement after the next was cancelled until we were left with nothing. Now in the middle of May, musicians are not sure whether we will perform again this year at all. The new year perhaps is the best guess. All musicians will have witnessed the disappointment of cancelled engagements in the past, either because of illness or external factors, but with the exception of the termination of contracts, these are unprecedented times. Music consumes the lives of professional musicians; indeed to be a professional musician is often not a choice. Music chooses the individual and not the other way around. It is both passion and vocation.

The virus is terrifying. At its worst it will kill, but for those who are hospitalised, recovery will be very slow, and for musicians it may be debilitating. Those who escape the worst will still experience a great loss. Even for mature artists who can ride the financial blow of no income for six months, there is a sudden emptiness for perhaps the first time in their lives. There are no performances for which to prepare, one cannot plan for the immediate future with any security, and there is nothing that one can look forward to in musical terms. This is not a holiday. Of course, all musicians enjoy a few weeks of relaxation away from their musical lives, but there is always the music waiting back home. Now, however, as we approach week nine of lockdown we are not sure what awaits us. Throughout this void, musicians must continue to practise, or technical stamina is lost. Professional singers, for example, who do not sing for weeks on end are exactly like professional athletes who do not train. For both vocalist and instrumentalist, practice is essential for maintaining technique, both physical and mental.

The impact on the musical world

The musical world is small, and I am sure that each one of us knows someone who has been affected. It is both a comfort and a sorrow to hear from fellow instrumentalists from my student days, and from my many vocal colleagues from the profession, of what has befallen their lives. More than one of my singer friends has observed, somewhat ironically, that because the voice is the instrument and therefore health is of paramount importance at all times, social distancing is not a new concept for us who are trying to avoid even the common cold if at all possible. Conversely, a singer recovering from time on a ventilator will be ever grateful for his or her life, but their career will almost certainly be over because of the perils posed by intubation.

Along with the whole profession, within a few weeks I had to erase all professional activities from my diary for a six-month period. This was unprecedented for an artist who has derived all of his income from performing since 1991. The cancellations are now extending until the end of the year, but I am fortunate that I have engagements in future years. True, one can always hope that the autumn season will not disappear completely, as not all countries have suffered from this virus to the same extent. However, at present, the borders to those countries are closed. While the implications of Brexit on musicians’ lives and livelihoods were always of grave concern, now I fear that the current situation is a greater threat to us all in every way.

While all of us are calculating loss of income, the nature and excitement of being a musician is so much more. Think of it. Our artistic lifelines have also disappeared almost overnight. Artists need an audience for which to perform. Digital platforms have their uses for wide international dissemination of performances to people of all backgrounds, but performers must be paid. Unless one knows for sure that thousands of people are watching a digital performance live, it is very difficult for the adrenalin to flow without even a small audience present. Performers thrive on audience response and interaction, meaning that no two performances are ever the same. In the case of singers, we eyeball the audience and take them with us on a dramatic journey. We assume characters and make the audience believe us. Highly experienced recording artists know that there are ways in which to convey character through colour and a turn of phrase, but it is a very different process to performing live. Of course, recording will always have its place in our musical world, especially as we strive for perfect recordings in the studio, but it can be an artificial process, dependent on excellent producers and engineers.

The adrenalin also flows when performers are offered an engagement, especially one that they can and want to accept. Sometimes it is the thrill of a new venue, new colleagues, or a new work, or it can be rejoining wonderful partners in music making in the recreation of a masterwork. Often these offers can take months and sometimes longer to materialise involving a great deal of effort on the part of agents, with face-to-face meetings abroad with administrators, or at times effort on the part of the artist as well. Soloists audition and re-audition for conductors, casting directors, and directors, especially those soloists at the beginning of their careers. This may lead to an enquiry of availability, with the offer hopefully emerging at a later date. Every engagement requires an enormous amount of negotiation. A cancelled contract is always disappointing. For multiple contracts to be withdrawn is beyond belief. Across Europe, more than 2,500 five-figure opera guest artist contracts have already been cancelled without compensation this season.

What does the future hold?

It is a rare musician who is an island. Ensemble, with all the togetherness and fellowship that this entails, is the norm. From recital duo to the Symphony of A Thousand, musicians will need to think and move in different ways. There is an added problem for wind and brass players, which may involve playing remotely or from balconies, and what of the intimacy of any choral group? Opera will be problematic for so many reasons. Chorus numbers will need to be greatly reduced, and the necessary social distancing between soloists will be a challenge dramatically. When audiences return, theatres may need to be only a quarter full and the financial consequences may be too great to be sustainable.

Most of us will have to start earning money again at some point in the near future. If performances are cancelled for a whole year, some performers may have to consider a career change. Many musicians have studied at university to graduate level. A career in music is rarely a stable one, but it is an extremely rewarding one. One cannot, however, put one’s career on hold forever, practising in vain for projects that may never see the light of day again because of future scheduling difficulties. Finally, what of the aspiring cohort of students who desire to live out their dreams within the profession? Those of us who are responsible for mentoring and training the next generation of performers have some soul searching to do.

Were I of a pessimistic nature, this would all affect me very hard indeed. Music is my life. I have never perceived it to be hard work, despite having always been dedicated to the profession in every way that I know how. In my own case, I may be too young to leave the profession by about ten years or so, but we all need something fulfilling to do with our time. The fine weather will pass, as will the novelty of a more leisurely life, with more time for reading and general recreation. What is a source of hope is the creative streak that lies within each of us as we take this newfound time to reexamine, rethink, and reinvent ourselves. I shall be resolute to the last, sincere in my hope that in a year’s time I may be able to report business not necessarily as usual, but energised in new ways. Please do your best to keep well. I wish you all health and happiness.

Dr Jeremy Huw Williams
ISM President 2019-20

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