Conducting Through COVID: The Fate of Orchestra Beyond Quarantine

Hannah Zhang ’22


Ever since the cavemen belted out the world’s first tunes, music has been an integral part of our daily lives as human beings. We have mastered chants, operas, and overtures, and our appetite for music has only grown since. But in 2020, the global COVID-19 pandemic has put a hold on many orchestral events, halting the performance of musical ensembles around the world. The occasional intermission is routine for any performing arts production, but after nearly an entire year of deserted concert halls, the international health crisis might just spell the end of classical music as we know it.


While frat parties and birthday bashes can be rescheduled without much consequence, a major halt in business can be detrimental to the performing arts. About 70% of theaters in the United Kingdom estimate that they will run out of money this year due to the lack of performances. Sonia Friedman, a producer at the West End Theater in London, claims that the performing arts as a whole may face “the real possibility of complete obliteration” without substantial funding from the government [1]. The pandemic puts many aspects of the performing arts at risk—music conservatories crumble as potential overseas students stay overseas, and empty theaters and concert halls are threatened with bankruptcy—but it is the performers that are in the most danger. Many professional musicians and stage actors have no other source of income, and the absence of performances can place them in a heap of financial trouble [2]. Sir Simon Rattle and Sir Mark Elder, two of the United Kingdom’s most influential music conductors, have warned the world of “a devastated landscape on the other side of [the pandemic]; orchestras may not survive, and if they do, they may face insuperable obstacles to remain solvent in our new reality” [1].


Unfortunately, the return to live performances is not as simple as just getting back on stage and reopening the auditorium doors to the public. Large gatherings like orchestra rehearsals have proven to be dangerous enough for epidemiologists to dub them “superspreader” events, most notably gatherings of the especially vocal or woodwind kind. According to a May report from the CDC, a single person with COVID-19 who attended a choir practice in Washington state is thought to have caused 52 additional infections within the group—roughly 87% of the choir. This one rehearsal resulted in the hospitalization of multiple members of the choir, and the deaths of two [3]. Even a single case can put many lives at risk; actors and musicians know this and have kept away from the stage, but can the performing arts even hold out long enough to see their return?


The overwhelming answer from determined scientists and musicians is “yes.” Orchestras and epidemiologists around the world are teaming up to brainstorm ways through which they can make music together again, and the results are promising. A study in Charité, Germany, determined that woodwind and brass instruments do not scatter bacteria-riddled droplets as far as expected, meaning that orchestras could play just a little closer together on a big stage. The Charité researchers recommend that string players maintain 1.5 meters between them on stage, and brass and woodwinds should have at least 2 meters of space between them. For extra protection, setting up plexiglass barriers between musicians was suggested, in order to further protect them from the spread of droplets and aerosols [4]. However, not all orchestras are too keen on getting back on stage full force, especially those in America, where the COVID cases are still very high. Many performing arts groups have begun streaming their performances on YouTube, allowing people all over the world to watch and listen from the safety of their homes. Some ensembles remain optimistic about these socially-distanced performance settings, such as the Asheville Symphony, an orchestra located in North Carolina. Concertmaster Jason Posnock remarks, “This gives us the opportunity to break into smaller groups and perform throughout this region in venues we really haven’t had the chance to go into. There is still nothing more powerful…more colorful than the symphony orchestra, so I don’t think this is the beginning of the end” [5].


Another ensemble closer to home is learning to adapt to the pandemic as well—namely, the Ridge High School Orchestra directed by Ms. Jennifer Curran. In lieu of large traditional rehearsals, virtual students practice their pieces in Zoom breakout rooms with classmates of the same instrument. These sectionals encourage leadership and cooperation amongst the orchestra, as one student is chosen to lead the sectional every session. On Wednesdays, students have the opportunity to give their own presentations on different aspects of music—be it on video game soundtracks, the relationship between music and food, or Harry Styles. As for hybrid students, they bring their instruments to school and play in person together. Overall, Ms. Curran is glad to have students playing in the orchestra room again, but she also values the experience of teaching over Zoom. “When I had to teach everything online…it was a new adventure for me,” Ms. Curran told me. “I’m grateful.” I asked if it was hard to adapt to directing a virtual orchestra at first, and she said, in all caps, “YES.” Though Ms. Curran believes the transition was a challenge, she is confident other ensembles around the world can learn to adapt, too. “I consider myself an old dog,” she laughed. “If you can teach me new tricks, anyone can do it.” 

No matter how tough, the sacrifice of an in person orchestra is a necessary one in times like these. After all, lives are at stake every day—for musicians, teachers, and students alike. Perhaps music can wait a little longer for its next big break. Humanity has adapted to all sorts of challenges for thousands of years; who’s to say they can’t adapt to a symphony through a screen?