2020 has seen choirs, orchestras, and all manner of other cultural organisations forced online. It’s fair to say that for many it’s been an uncomfortable transition. But what can we learn from the adaptations we’ve made? And could there be things we’d like to take back with us into normality?
During the lockdown months, I got into habits – some good, some less so. Recently, I’ve found myself thinking about what I can take forward from this time into ‘normal’ life. For me, habits such as the mid-morning coffee, brewed slowly and deliberately, and daily exercise, are ones I’d like to continue. But are there new habits that ensembles have formed in this time that can be of value in a theoretical virus-free future?
A choir of a hundred people subdivides into voice-parts, and probably then further into multiple social groupings. It can be difficult to break out of those and get to know who else is performing at the other end of the room.
One thing several members of my ensembles have commented on recently is that they feel that they know more people in the group. The online ‘rehearsals’ that we’ve been having weekly present everyone in a very egalitarian way, each in an identically-sized box, and, importantly, next to their name. It’s been invaluable to me as a conductor and ensemble-members have benefited from it too.
The randomised ‘coffee’ break-outs, which put attendees into smaller rooms for a chat for a few minutes, before unceremoniously dumping them back in the main room, have also helped with encouraging interaction beyond automatic social groupings.
It’s a truism that people who go through adversity together form strong bonds. The challenge will be to maintain and further strengthen them once the adversity is over.
Both participants and leaders of groups have had to learn new skills to maintain their connections. Even some of the more technology-shy have been surprised by how easily they’ve been able to learn to attend online meetings, or make and submit recordings.
Leaders have learned these skills too, managing newly-digital ensembles, and have often strayed quite far into the technical realm, making guide recordings or assembling multi-tracked performances.
These skills are not temporary assets, and the requirement to master digital skills is not going to go away. Even in a post-virus world, the arc of the social universe tends towards the digital. In a world that, whether we like it or not, will increasingly view its culture from behind a screen, these skills are necessary evolutionary adaptations. Even predominantly live groups are going to have to learn how to exist in both physical and online dimensions.
Closed door performances, live-streamed. Pay-per-view singalongs and workshops. Pieces designed for performance over video-conferencing. Innovations are being made not just in rehearsal but performance, and we’ll see even more imaginative variants this autumn.
In the amateur world, some may feel able to return to regular activities, while some will prefer to remain online. There may be hybrid concerts, with some performers live and some pre-recorded. We may see outdoor venues being used in different ways.
This kind of variety is good for the art. It keeps performers and audiences from complacency. It may even herald the ‘shake-up’ of live performance conventions which we are often told is so badly needed, especially in the ‘classical’ sector.
It might seem unfeeling to write of hopes for the future at a time of fundamental uncertainty for creative people of all kinds. All around us, cultural institutions are crumbling, and many involved in the arts are considering their options.
I remain hopeful that there will be a future for us. And if there is, we could do worse than taking into it with us any positive things we’ve learned.