The Final Movement: How orchestral musicians have kept music alive during COVID-19

Categories:  The Arts    Music
Saturday, December 5th, 2020 at 5:15 PM
The Final Movement: How orchestral musicians have kept music alive during COVID-19 by Thomas Taylor

The pandemic has not made it easy for orchestral musicians. As Erie Philharmonic Guest Concertmaster Emily Cornelius said in regard to adjusting: “For most of us musicians, it’s not just the job. It’s our whole identity, it’s our whole world, it’s an extension of our personality.”

This change is causing many musicians to find small ways to continue to do their work, whether through teaching or playing at a distance, or engaging in virtual conversations with other musicians. Even in the Mid-Atlantic region, there is a wide variation of how individual musicians go about their daily lives. These five musicians, in four different orchestras, in three different states, each have a different experience. But together, they tell a story of hope and survival for music beyond COVID-19.

Jonathan Sherwin, Principal Contrabassoonist, The Cleveland Orchestra

Jonathan Sherwin remembers life before the pandemic. But even then, he began hearing of the virus months before the lockdown. “Life was, like for so many people, not just in the music business, normal. In my imagination, of all the things that can happen in the world, this was not one of them.”

He began to wonder about the possibility of COVID-19 spreading, and how it could affect the U.S. The last concert the Cleveland Orchestra played was in the middle of March, with an international tour to Europe and Abu Dhabi in the works.

“In February, there was some hope that it was going to happen,” he said, “but it became obvious that it wasn’t going to be possible.”

“This is like nothing we had ever seen, and it was usually the stuff of fiction with the possibility of it being real, but I don’t think any of us had really ever confronted the reality of what this could possibly turn into, which it has,” Sherwin explains.  “As each month has gone by, it’s dawned with us that we’re going to be dealing with this for a while.”

Daily life became an obstacle, and being confined to the home became a challenge for Sherwin. “We’re creatures of routine, and this is the great upsetting of routines. My habit is to get up in the morning and go to rehearsal; if there happens not be a rehearsal that morning, then it’s practice. It’s really had a remarkable impact on my life and all the people in the orchestra here.”

With this routine interrupted, Sherwin sought to adapt to changing circumstances by building a new routine. “For me, it’s always good to have a project to do. I sort of had a little practice routine that’s somewhat different. In the morning, after breakfast, I come up to my studio in the second floor of my house and play some music. I have a warm-up routine that includes scales and arpeggios.”

Part of this practice schedule is rooted in nostalgia. “I’ve returned to etudes and exercises that I did when I was a student. This has sort of been kind of a nice return to some things. It’s also been kind of a reawakening of how good it is to practice the nuts and bolts; the meat and potatoes of playing,” he added with a chuckle.  Sherwin has also taken on small projects using the app Acapella, creating virtual bassoon quartets, along with participating in various digital projects with The Cleveland Orchestra.

These projects include the app Adella, which is, “Your all-new online digital home for streaming music entertainment from The Cleveland Orchestra.” It offers “exclusive access to The Cleveland Orchestra’s new In Focus broadcast series, in addition to other on-demand music-entertainment through Adella Premium.” Specifically, the app offers streaming of the socially-distanced concerts the orchestra recently began, along with a podcast and program notes.

He has also continued to teach students over Zoom, but that has its own challenges. “I’m grateful to do that, but I’m also impatient with it because it’s not as good as being there. Teaching is so much better when it’s done in-person.”

Sherwin had a lot of empathy for the students in this position. 

“I feel badly for the students because this is a great time. This is when students absorb things. You’re at a perfect age where we throw stuff out at you and [you] absorb it because it’s retainable."

Often times, Sherwin enjoys playing with his students, but timing with Internet connection and sound quality makes it tricky. “There’s still something missing without that in-person connection.”

“We always say live music is best, and I think certainly in the times we’re living, this is a lot better than no music,” Sherwin said in regard to the new virtual audience and education. “This is the closest thing you can come to live music without you being in the same space.”

Throughout this year, Sherwin credits music as helping his mental health. “For those of us who have music as a central part of our life, it’s important for us to keep playing. Having these little projects to do has been very good.”

Jim Nova.

Jim Nova (pictured above), Trombone, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

Jim Nova, the second trombonist for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, has not missed a day of practice since the shutdown began. Calling it meditative, the routine helps him maintain a sense of normalcy.

Practicing has been very important to Nova, whose YouTube videos have had over 100,000 views. The regiments used for warm-ups and practice are what Nova calls a "daily routine." He listed off terms familiar to any musician, but especially to trombonists: scales, arpeggios and long tones.

“[For] brass players, [they] usually have some set of practice just to maintain their playing. This is separate from prepared music or setting the scores or listening to pieces you’re going to perform.”

Along with playing, Nova also serves as a brass instructor and coordinator at Duquesne University. The school had gone all virtual in March, and Nova has used multitrack recording to help his students. This involves recording all the parts separately and putting them together to have a full recording.

“I’ve been teaching that technology long before the pandemic,” Nova explained. “Once the pandemic hit, my phone was ringing off the hook because every player and musician I knew wanted to know how to do it.”

Duquesne University was in-person for the fall semester, and they followed strict rules and guidelines established for reopening by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Pennsylvania. The music school did not have any infections, according to Nova.

Nova explained there were no large groups playing, and there was a system for brass players. “[They] used covers on their bells when they’re playing, and pull their masks up when they’re not playing. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than online.”

The cover on the bell can affect tone, tuning, and overall sound quality of the instrument, with the quality of the product playing a large part. “When I’m teaching, I use one, and I can tell there’s a difference. But it’s worth that lessening of the quality slightly to be able to hear the player in-person. Thank goodness no microphone or speaker can match the human ear.”

Brian Kushmaul (pictured above), Principal Percussion, Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra

Teaching in-person has affected other musicians as well. Brian Kushmaul is a part-time teacher at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. “I’m teaching private lessons, one-on-one, mostly to college students.”

The lessons, similar to Nova, are in-person with certain precautions. “It’s only me and one student in the room at a time,” Kushmaul explains. “I’m at one end of the room, and they’re at the other end of the room. We’re wearing masks … and we’re staying at least 12 feet apart. When a new student walks in, they wipe down the instruments.”

Kushmaul plays in the Chautauqua Symphony, which plays during the summer season when the Chautauqua Institution is open. However, like many other musicians, he participates in multiple orchestras. The last concert he played was with the Philadelphia Pops, with the orchestra playing the music of Phil Collins and the band Genesis before the shutdown.

“We’d turn on the news, and see all these cities swarming with COVID, and Chautauqua was this little bubble that was mostly unaffected at the time,” Kushmaul said. "And then things never got better.”

The institution was closed for the summer, and would normally be bustling with visitors during the season. “It was quite bizarre to be here,” Kushmaul explained. “I’ve been here for 26 years, and to walk by an empty amphitheater where we play all these concerts was kind of shocking.”

The Chautauqua Institution decided that even though no in-person events were held, online programming would continue. The Symphony put together a jazz trio, which was livestreamed online.

Chautauqua would also have virtual concerts from the musician’s homes, or from the empty concert hall. Previous concerts would also be rebroadcast. “It’s extremely different,” Kushmaul described. “The audience is very important to us. That’s why we do it. It’s not just the same. I’m glad there’s something. I don’t enjoy watching concerts online. It’s not the same as being there in-person. But if it’s all we have for now, to bridge for when we get back together, then I guess that’s good.”

Kushmaul said music has helped his mental health, along with teaching. “I don’t necessary play music just for us. I think it can help the mental health of the audience. I think it can also help the mental health of the musicians.”

Nikki and Joanna Chooi, Violin and Cello, Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra

Nikki Chooi had a lot to look forward to this year as concertmaster of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. This year celebrates the 250th birthday for Ludwig Van Beethoven, with the orchestra planning a Beethoven festival for May.

“We were trying to rev up toward that” explains Chooi, who became concertmaster in fall of 2019 and premiered as a soloist the week before shutdown. “And playing [with] more sound together as a group. Especially me coming in, getting used to playing with a new set of colleagues and learning from them and trying to communicate as musicians.”

He described the buildup to the lockdown in musical terms and reflecting after the fact: “We were climbing up to a climax, and just before we got there, [it] was cut off. Little did I know this thing would still be going on and with not really too much of a light at the end of the tunnel as of yet.”

At the beginning of quarantine, Chooi wanted to keep motivated but the uncertainty made it hard. “When it seemed obvious that this shutdown was going to happen for a much longer time, it was really hard to keep myself motivated. As musicians, we’re always communicating with people. We’re communicating with colleagues, with the audience itself. “

Communication is a central part of Chooi’s musicianship, and everyone was looking for a way to connect with friends and colleagues. Nikki with his wife and accomplished celloist Joanna Chooi thus created the podcast Coffee Chats.

“Our goal was to just stay connected with fellow musicians. Nikki personally had lots of concerts lined up, all cancelled, and we still wanted to keep in touch with all these people who we were potentially to see and interact with,” Joanna explained. “Although we don’t have too much control over the virus, we have control over what we do with our craft and what we do in terms of staying connected.”

They invited on mutual friends and colleagues from the Buffalo Philharmonic and from around the world. This includes Berlin Philharmonic Concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley and fellow violinist James Ehnes. Thirty-five interviews have been conducted so far, with many more to be released. Nikki remembered one of the guests described the process as “therapeutic” and an outlet.

Joanna remarked how individual experiences can be insightful to hear. “Sometimes, it’s really great to hear what everyone has to say about what they are going through, as musicians in this pandemic. And it was nice for everyone to have time to speak on video of what they’re doing. It’s been a pleasure to stay connected with everyone.”

All the podcasts are recorded through Zoom, and uploaded to YouTube and on social media platforms Facebook Video and Instagram TV (IGTV). The goal, as Joanna mentioned, was to make sure the conversations were accessible to everyone.

“What we were going for [with] the interviews were to create a sense of inspiration and also relatability,” Nikki Chooi explained. “From younger artists to the more established orchestral players. We’re all going through this at the same time.” One of Nikki’s most memorable interviews came from talking to his brother. “He’s family, I know him. We know each other so well, but just to hear him talk about what he’s going through was fun as well.”

Through the interview process, Joanna said they kept music students in mind. Although they did not have the chance to feature any on the podcast, they had plenty of music teachers on and made sure to tailor their questions. “We ask ‘What advice would you have for younger artists, aspiring musicians, or music students?’ We asked that question to a lot of our artists because it’s a great way not only for aspiring students but everyone to hear what these artists have to say in regards to music education.”

 “How do you stay motivated during this time, when you’re not in school [and] without private lessons? How do you stay motivated, how do you still go on continuing to make music?” Joanne listed when talking about student-related issues. “Hopefully, students can view this and get insights from it as well.”

The podcast has been well received by musicians and the general public alike. “I think having these artists just speaking on such relatable terms,” Nikki said, on why the reception has been positive. “And just getting advice from these artists, whether it’s students, whether it’s teachers, or performers, just to talk about relatable and common issues that we’re facing as a whole.”

As well, both Nikki and Joanne Chooi have done virtual performances. The two collaborated on their own cover of "Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen, with the video collecting over 150,000 views on Facebook. They also have worked with the Buffalo Philharmonic on virtual projects and with The Violin Channel, a streaming website where Nikki gave a recital in April. 

A virtual performance that stood out to Nikki was the Buffalo Philharmonic’s performance of Igor Stravinsky’s "The Firebird" back in May. “All of us had to play individually with a click track, and then the entire orchestra came together while recording each part separately.” Along with the music, the performance showed the history of Buffalo, with historical pictures leading up to the present day.

Nikki has also given virtual masterclasses at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and the "OAcademy" from the Orchestra of the Americas. They have been doing everything they can virtually, but even then, it can be an adjustment. “You’re not there to directly show examples, so I had really learned to communicate with words to cover the things I can’t speak about.”

Throughout the virtual performances and masterclasses, Nikki Chooi recognizes there’s a different mindset to having a virtual audience instead of a physical one. That energy, he believes, has to come from the musicians, who must listen and play to each other.

From Coffee Chats, to virtual performances and masterclasses, music has helped both Nikki and Joanne’s mental health during this time. “It’s a strange time for everyone, especially artists,” Joanne explained. “With concerts being cancelled and engagements not being there. We came up with Coffee Chats because we wanted an outlet to stay connected with people … We are taking these small and essential measures to ensure that we our still staying connected with people and trying to stay positive throughout this whole pandemic. ”

“Being musicians, we’re always interacting with other people, whether you’re preforming for an orchestra, whether you’re teaching in a classroom, whether you’re performing chamber music, even soloists,” Joanne Chooi said. “We’re very dependent on social interaction and that is one thing we wanted to continue, even virtually”

Continuing that social interaction was what helped Coffee Chats, and them, along the way. Joanne concluded: “Mentally, it’s been extremely helpful for us, because seeing old friends and connecting with fellow musicians; it’s like a sense of unity. We’re all going through this together, but we can still connect and talk about this and make the most out of what’s happening. Mental health is something that’s extremely important, and especially given this unprecedented time. The best thing we can do as artists is to continue making music virtually and keep sharing the craft. Music is such an emotional thing, and just even playing for yourself or someone virtually brings smiles to people’s faces. We do know there is light at the end of the tunnel; people are coming up with creative ways to stay connected and visible during this time through their crafts. And we just hope this all leads to a better outcome, and we’re positive that it will.”

Thomas Taylor is a staff writer for The Spectator. He can be reached at This was originally published at The future of our world: Life during Covid-19.

Tags: covid19, music

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