day 109


It’s been 109 days since my last day on the job (actually working) as a member of the Oregon Symphony. Our season officially ended on June 13. I’ve had a couple of concerts as a member of 45th Parallel Universe‘s Pyxis Quartet via their remarkable live collaboration platform (thanks, Danny!), but that’s been about it. A colleague of mine called our situation an ‘unplanned sabbatical’. Unplanned is right.

I’ve written a half dozen posts in the intervening time, but have deleted the drafts the next day. Nothing felt good. Nothing felt right.

Mostly, I’ve been trying to get my instrument out at least once a day, and do some warm ups and a scale or an etude. Sometimes actual music gets played. Sometimes not.

It’s an unprecedented time for many occupations in the US. But in my middle-class, blue collar neighborhood, things seem to be pretty much as usual. I see my neighbors going to work each morning, while I sit around trying to figure out what I’m going to do with myself.

I and my colleagues feel pretty much invisible to society – even more so than usual. Some countries are announcing that they are slashing funding to arts education in their national curricula. Not exactly inspiring hope for the future.

My union brothers and sisters around the country are anticipating a round of contract re-openings in these tough times for US orchestras. One orchestra, the Indianapolis Symphony, decided that cutting off their employees’ health insurance was the right course of action in the midst of a pandemic. What were they thinking? Well, they’re in the midst of renegotiating a new CBA. Surprise, surprise. And don’t get me started about the Nashville Symphony. My initial reaction was profound disbelief. But I wasn’t in the room where it happened. There is a lot that I don’t know about the situation, and there may be plans to simply overhaul the entire ‘season’ rather than try to carry through preexisting plans. We’ll see.

Uncertainty is the greatest enemy to hope (and fiscal planning). When I think about how much I’m worrying about the future, I try to put myself in the shoes of those people who are trying to chart the course of my orchestra into the future – effectively without any sort of official guidance, and precious little (or nonexistent) funding. My heart goes out to the many people who have been working tirelessly these past three months who have just been furloughed until the next season starts (don’t ask).

I also know that our board of directors has been working overtime to try to fill the gap in earned income as well. Their responsibility is to the current and future financial health of the orchestra, and it’s a heavy burden when times are tough. I’m confident that they will make things happen in the sometimes mysterious ways that boards do their thing. High level contacts with government officials, financial institutions, and philanthropic foundations may help us get through the next few months and enable us to spring into action when the coast is clear.

Flowers in our garden.

As for me, I’m trying to keep busy and keep my thinking to the short term. It’s a luxury, but it is what will keep me sane, along with limiting my intake of the 24 hour news cycle. I’m doing work in our garden, riding my bike (without crashing, thank you very much), and spending lots of quality time with my wife and our two cats. So I’m making the best of a tough situation, and am grateful that, for now, my savings and thriftiness will enable us to get through this period without undue financial hardship. I hope that all of you are staying well and safe – and WEAR A MASK IN PUBLIC!

music in hospitals

Today’s New York Times has an article (with accompanying video) about a doctor at a hospital in Harlem that decided to have musicians FaceTime concerts to patients battling COVID-19. It’s a wonderful effort, and one that should be reproduced elsewhere. [may be behind paywall]

how are you doing?

It’s been quiet here at the blog since the flurry of activity a few weeks ago. The big shock of being unemployed has worn off, and now I’m in the process of figuring out what the new normal might end up being, both for myself and the industry I work in. [Just a warning: this entry has quite a bit of navel-gazing in it. If that’s not your bag, I won’t think less of you for moving on to something else.]

There was an aftershock, of course, to that first big announcement a few days ago, when my employer announced that the remainder of our season would be canceled or postponed. The two days after that news came out were pretty low for me. I hadn’t realized the level of hope that I’d been secretly stashing away for a week or two of giving concerts in late May and early June.

The weeks since our season effectively ended have been full of paperwork and phone queues. Unemployment applications, talking to our mortgage company about options for lessening that burden. Figuring out when to go to the grocery store, and how to get hold of toilet paper and other hoard-able items. Early on, there were a couple of streaming sessions that I did for the Metropolitan Youth Symphony and artslandia, which involved a bit of cram practicing. Since then, the desire and/or compulsion to play has ebbed.

I did find a period of time last weekend where I just took out the Bach Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin (arranged for viola) and plowed through the first two sets of movements. No worrying about evaluating how I sounded, or whether I would ever play them in public, or even work them up to a reasonable standard for my own pleasure. Just playing through some of the greatest music ever written for a stringed instrument, enjoying the act of creation and the physical action of playing an instrument that has arguably been an extension of my body for over 40 years now.

I’ve been watching colleagues across the country doing so many projects online. Streaming a movement of Bach a day is one such, there are others, including taking requests for custom arrangements that would be performed, doing online masterclasses and lessons, and ‘appointment viewing’ style live-streamed recitals.

It’s all admirable, but it’s also something I don’t feel moved to do myself. At some point down the road, maybe I’ll be ready. But for now I’m still taking time to figure some things out. As a long time, and very astute friend of mine told me yesterday, my relationship with the viola is ‘complicated’. As an adoptee and diagnosed clinically depressed person, I’ve got issues around self-worth and how that sense of worth is tied closely to the act of making music.

When I think about everything I’ve done, in retrospect, I don’t think I’ve ever done a single musical thing just for me. It’s always been for or about others, or how they perceive me. I’ve long said that this blog has been a source of professional therapy for me, for what it’s worth, but in nearly 30 years of being a professional musician, I’ve never taken the time to really think about why I do what I do – and to ask myself the question that underlies all of it:

Do I love what I do?

Amazing, isn’t it? And it’s not a question that I can honestly answer right at this moment. I know that there have been times when I’ve deeply loved what I do, and also been in despair over ever finding that love again. So now I have time. Time to think about music and my relationship to it. Time to consider how best to reconnect with the process of making music myself. Time to think about the why, rather than just the how.

So, how are you doing?