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The Covid soundtrack is silent

Restrictions mean no concerts, and Zoom can’t compare

By Daniel Hesp

Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Imagine you live in a world with no music. Difficult right? Music is a constant. However, despite its seeming cemented position in our lives, one aspect of music, live performances, has been very seriously handicapped by the virus and its restrictions. Cancelled performances hit close to home for many students who have been unable to perform with bands, with practise becoming extremely difficult and the dreaded zoom calls not quite substituting for the social side of performance.

Consequently, groups of musicians have been struggling to retain a sense of normalcy. I caught up with Sara Young, a flute-player with the University of Aberdeen Concert Band, to understand how COVID restrictions have been problematic for the instrumentalists of the university.

In what way has playing in a concert band been affected by COVID restrictions?

Well, I play a flute, and there is a lot of air that gets blown out of your instrument when you’re in an orchestra. There is no way you could do that in person with social distancing, it just wouldn’t be possible as there isn’t a big enough space and it would be too dangerous. That is the main way playing has been affected – you can’t meet in person. Our band used to be 100 members and now at the weekly zoom meetings we’re lucky if we get 20 people.

When you’re in band the room is just filled with the music and you can forget about everything else apart from your music. But when you’re at home you’re in the same room as you do all your work in, that is the same room you eat in – there just isn’t any escape.

How have concerts been affected by the move online?

That is incredibly difficult as you might imagine, trying to organise a band online.

The way that we play pieces now, we can’t do a concert, so we all record ourselves individually in our rooms, playing our parts and then send that in.

This will be made up into a big video which people can then watch online, which is quite strange.

Whereas in normal times going to a concert is quite a fun thing to do and it’s a good way to support your friends, it is a good way to get out the house, but the motivation for all these online things is just so low. We’re probably not going to get much of an audience.

It can be really difficult to get the motivation to play when you don’t really have anything to work towards.

Does performing alone affect the dynamics of an orchestra?

Playing alone is so bizarre. First of all, it is difficult to get into and get a feel for the piece. Especially if you have a lot of bars to rest, at least if you’re in a band you can listen to what everyone else is doing and get a sense of what it sounds like, it’s different. If you’re on your own, you don’t have that and you have to work everything out for yourself. It’s a bit lonely, really. Especially when you’re playing a piece that is meant for a band and you’re very conscious of that and it’s just you on your own – you really miss out.

Even in rehearsals, although we have meetings and we all play together everyone has their microphones on mute, so you can see people playing but you can’t hear them.

What are some of the challenges that come with playing with a group of people on zoom?

One of the challenges with that, especially with woodwind instruments, is where to place your camera so that you can get a good angle, and so that your laptop picks up the right sound from your instrument because sound quality is a big thing. If you’re less confident playing on your own, it’s difficult to know if you’re playing the right thing or if you’re playing it at the right time because when you’re in a band you’re surrounded by other people paying the same part as you. One of the benefits of playing in person, obviously, is that you can hear when other people come in and you have really clear cues for your piece.

You also have the challenges of videos lagging, overlapping sound, connection issues. One time we were trying to play, and our conductor’s screen froze so the tempo was all off. He would pause… and suddenly be really fast as the connection caught up. You can’t really play along to that, as you can imagine.

What about the best part of playing an instrument in lockdown?

I think it’s very easy for music to just fall by the wayside, when actually it is a really good way to do something fun and break away from the monotony of being on the screen. Having everything online it’s nice to break away and play some music. But because the world is weird right now you just don’t really think about doing that. I guess it’s just like the escapism. It’s nice to have a hobby. Lockdown is so boring, it’s good to just pick up your instrument and just get away for a bit.

The good thing about concert band is that you could go and be with your friends get out of the house and play your instrument. Even if you didn’t really know everyone in the band there was a sense of community, making beautiful music with other people. It’s also really nice being able to create something with your music and just like mess around and have fun.

While concerts and rehearsals have certainly taken a hit, hope is on the horizon. The Scottish Government recently outlined a move to Level 1 restrictions, and eventually Level 0 by June, allowing Aberdeen musicians to meet and rehearse. And with research from Yamaha revealing that “75% of Brits have turned to a musical instrument to help them beat the lockdown blues” there is a surge in new musicians, meaning that their ranks may soon be replenished with fresh faces. All this points to a positive outcome for future concerts. When we emerge post-COVID, experiences such as attending a concert will seem much sweeter because of their absence. After all, as Mozart famously said, “The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.”

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