Well, it seems rather odd to be writing a blog that relays nothing about recent exploits with Tenebrae. No concerts, no music. Thank heavens we live in a time where technology can at least help a bit with that. Like all other choirs we are ‘grounded’ for the foreseeable future and, unlike many other sectors which are slowly getting back up and running (which I’m delighted about, by the way), there is no light at the end of the tunnel for choral music.
Technology is a wonderful thing and can be used to enhance music in many ways. However, as I experienced recently when working on Sacred Songs with Tenebrae for BBC Four, making music remotely just can’t in any way replace or compare to being in the room with other musicians and audiences. I applaud all the efforts being made to keep music alive by having choir rehearsals via Zoom and so on, but nonetheless I feel there is a huge hole in my life without that personal connection to other people who are similarly passionate about music, and in particular choral music. It’s been said many times by audience members at Tenebrae concerts that we are somehow able to cause powerful and visceral reactions within people. That’s something you can never get from listening to a recording. Musicians live for that live performance experience; the buzz and euphoria we feel after concerts is a large part of why we do what we do. I personally long for that feeling of spontaneous music making. When we rehearse we are putting all the nuts and bolts in place, but in concert you cross over into another realm where the music takes over and you have to let it go where it takes you. Being in that moment, in that space, listening to the Tenebrae singers doing their thing is a joy and a privilege I will never tire of – and as the director, I have the best seat in the house. Audiences can see, hear and sense the intensity of what we do and are wrapped up in the performance too. That’s why people go to theatres and concerts; it’s that connection between performer and audience that runs like an electric current through the room and excites us in ways we can’t quite comprehend. But that’s all gone for now, and who knows when it will return?
The very first stage in the planning of a Tenebrae concert involves a lengthy conversation with the programmers at a concert hall or festival. Next, the promoter is required to make a significant artistic and financial decision, committing not only to paying the artists but also to marketing the concert as effectively and efficiently as possible, with the aim of selling tickets and hopefully ending up with a packed venue. Great concert, everyone happy. Now, in the midst of the pandemic, enter stage left the first major hurdle in getting our musical lives back on track. The people making these decisions have no idea when social distancing guidelines will be relaxed and so they cannot possibly have any idea how many tickets they will be permitted to sell. Thus, they can’t make financial offers or guarantees to any artists, and in most cases aren’t even in a position to have tentative discussions. This state of affairs will persist until the government gives a clear indication on when public gatherings (such as concerts) will be permitted again. Given that bookings are normally confirmed a year or more in advance of the proposed concert date, we and other professional choral groups are unlikely to have concrete engagements in our diaries for another year, and I very much fear that lots of musicians will be kicking their heels for many more months to come. Our promoter colleagues will also be feeling the pain, as they too are dependent on being able to present concerts in order to stay afloat.
I recently read the excellent article by Richard Morrison in The Times, and also a personal blog from Joanna Forbes L’Estrange, both of which make clear and compelling points regarding our profession. Petroc Trelawny also wrote an excellent article early on in lock-down, outlining just how much revenue is contributed to our economy by musicians, actors and all those involved in the performing arts. Eye-watering figures for sure, but it’s the impact on so many musicians’ mental health that worries me most. Many have fallen between the cracks of the government’s support for the self-employed, and this must be an utterly harrowing experience. Being self-employed forces musicians to accept something of an inherent fragility in their professional life, and the words of a former professor at the Royal College of Music are ringing deafeningly in my ears: “You’re only ever as good as your last gig, so make every one count”. One can never guarantee a full concert diary, and this means that most of us sensibly put some savings aside for a rainy day. But what about a rainy month, or even a rainy year? In a cruel twist of irony, if you have any reasonable savings you don’t qualify for Universal Credit either. At a time when our society is beginning to make progress with regards to mental health, I can’t help but feel hugely disappointed that the UK government doesn’t seem to have grasped the impact of COVID on all those involved in artistic and cultural endeavours.
It has often been said that the arts have a habit of finding a way to not only survive but actually excel in times of adversity. I have no doubt that this will be the case once again in getting through COVID, but I am seriously concerned about the mental strain placed on musicians who have no work, no income, no support and currently no hope of knowing when things might improve. We need to work together to make the relevant authorities understand the anguish that musicians are going through, and how losing any orchestra, choir or other artistic group will be to the long-lasting detriment of our society at large. Financial ruin for any musical organisation will limit the opportunities for young people who have a creative talent and aspire to making music professionally. And what about those young professionals who have just embarked on a career in music, and have not yet managed to establish themselves with a regular income? It’s a hand-to-mouth existence at the best of times for most musicians, and we will need support.
I am holding out hope for some much-needed clarity from the government as soon as possible, so that those initial discussions between artists and promoters can begin again and help to get musicians back on the road, performing, entertaining and enriching the lives of our wider society.