For Now, the Small Screen Reigns Supreme

A flock of (we think) kites that flew over our neighborhood last week (Photo by Libby Hanssen)

Survival Strategies for Music Buffs in the Time of COVID-19

Not so long ago we were debating if it was gauche to clap between the movements of a symphony. Now, the argument is whether or not pajama bottoms count as pants.  

With a stay-at-home order for Kansas City and, as of midnight Sunday, all of Kansas, there’s a new chamber music that is proving essential: concerts only available through social media. For the time being, at least, the small screen reigns supreme.  

Instead of performing in a concert hall or on a four-foot stage in the corner of the bar, musicians around the world are welcoming us into their homes, sharing their music with candid intimacy, off script, playing, it seems, a private concert just for us, from their mobile device to ours.  

These last two weeks have been a parlor trick of national proportion, as COVID-19 pulled the tablecloth out from under the arts industry, shutting down venues, bars, churches and theaters. Thousands of artists became unemployed overnight. 

For those with a bit of digital savvy, like the string quartet Opus 76, the switch to a fully online career was swift; for others, it was a scramble to see how finely honed performance skills translated through a new medium.  

We see, now, what remained standing and what toppled (along with what’s still wobbling), with institutions and others. Broadway shut down. Entire orchestras have been laid off, though thankfully the Kansas City Symphony is committed to paying its staff and musicians through the season, hoping to be back in Helzberg Hall in a month or so.  

KC Symphony principal flute Michael Gordon was one of the early adopters to this new normal, posting video clips of himself performing solo repertoire in his living room along with words of encouragement on his Facebook page: “We can’t cure the coronavirus or put anyone back to work, but we can give the best of what we have in the hope that it inspires someone else to do the same.”   

It is a comfort to witness our creative community respond, well, creatively. Making music in a time of crisis is not just fiddling while Rome burns. Desperation is not, perhaps, an ideal state to create art, but it has been made in far more desperate times than these, thriving in constraints, like a root-bound plant still striving toward the sun.  

The Kansas City Symphony musicians launched the hashtag #KCSisStillMakingMusic to gather their efforts in a time when gathering in person is verboten. There’s also a new KCS podcast, “Beethoven Walks Into a Bar,” that is thus far (with only two episodes under its belt) a casual and entertaining conversation about symphonic music on and off stage.   

Other opportunities also sprang up as a way ride the storm, like the Quarantine Concerts or KC Online Live Music Series on Facebook, sharing artists’ online concerts and ways for patrons to support that work.  

Of course, there’s no truly good news in a pandemic (unless that it’s ebbing). There is grief in this situation, but there is some hope; whether you despair and where you find comfort is up to you. A live stream from Cecile McLorin Salvant and Sullivan Fortner on March 18 helped release some of our pentup emotions, after a week of scrambling to make sense of it all.  

Whether that comfort comes from making music with your family, honing a skill, or watching a video on social media . . . whatever helps you navigate our new normal is a gain in a world of loss.

I find considerable comfort in bluegrass. Our family enjoys the Friday night Banjo House Lockdown series from Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn, who live stream from their basement while wearing pajamas, their six-year-old son elevated to backup singer and camera operator.  

Children make sense of a senseless world through their play. Adults, many of us now juggling our worries and responsibilities with added homeschooling needs of those same children, some of us also concerned for elderly loved ones, require outlets for imaginative escape and sense-making, too.  

Sense-making can come from a family sing-along, the discovery of a new-to-you artist, setting pen to paper, a percussionist’s response to distancing, or hearing bravery in a single voice 

Sense-making can even come from being quietly resolute in a chaotic world.  

I spent Saturday morning out in my backyard, listening. I’m no birder, a frustrating deficiency in my musical education, but I sit as quietly for these performers as concert etiquette decrees. There’s a quintet of pear trees that just went into bloom. The wind proves a fickle conductor, to which they pay close attention, clacking their branches in counterpoint to the susurration of the bamboo grove in the neighbors’ yard.  

Sitting in the thin spring shadows helps tip the balance from despair to hope, to reevaluate what is essential as we progress in the new normal and, eventually, beyond it.  

Libby Hanssen

Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She maintains the culture blog, “Proust Eats a Sandwich,” and writes poetry and children’s books. She holds a master’s degree in trombone performance from UMKC Conservatory and currently works at UMKC’s Music/Media Library.

  1. Cindy in Indy says:

    You have inspired me. Now’s the time to break out the dulcimer and work on my “skills”. Thanks, Libby

Leave a Reply