Virtual orchestra: it’s just not the same

Image Description: trombone and music stand lie on of a pile of scattered sheet music

Arts and culture have proven of insurmountable importance during lockdown, and the proliferation of online resources has certainly served us well. But we all know that’s it’s not quite the same as in-person consumption. On top of that, though, is the loss of face-to-face practice and musical contribution.

For a few terms, I’ve played with a variety of orchestras and music groups. Orchestra rehearsals allowed me to calm the mind and tune out my stream of thoughts in favour of some music. Last term, my essay was due Monday afternoon; by the evening I was in orchestra soothing over my frazzled thoughts. But practising alone has no such benefits—all I can hear is my own lamentable performance—and the accompanying critical thoughts. And there’s no excuse to lean back during the long pauses (I play the trombone…) and just soak up the symphony before me—now I have to work on my part, skipping the bars.

What friendship can be deeper than the shrug you give when someone asks “what bar are we?!”?

Moreover, in-person orchestra is actually rather social. There’s getting ready and then packing up as well as our 15-20 minute mid-practice pause—and none are the same online. Even if we do online social activities, there are no good options: either most people don’t join, which means most people don’t enjoy the social benefits—or you don’t get to speak to most people; or, we all join—and 50 people on a Zoom call is extremely weird and rather intimidating. Worst of all, though, is that I’m no longer able to whisper to my mates in the brass section during rehearsal—there really is no replacement for that camaraderie formed by awkwardly bumbling along together in rehearsals. What friendship can be deeper than the shrug you give when someone asks “what bar are we?!”?

And then consider the performances. Concerts in the coronavirus world are rather lonely affairs—I record my part alone, one very diligent sound engineer pieces together the parts by themselves, and the audience listen alone. It completely undermines one of the most important aspects of concert and performance—coming together to play, and to listen. The fun of dressing up in black for a concert in a beautiful hall like the Sheldonian is replaced with the chore of setting up a camera and finding a good environment for recording. And then, I must record my part (which makes no sense without the rest of the orchestra), and desperately try to follow a small figure on a screen swishing their hands about. It’s just no fun.

I’m sure there are far better musicians out there who greatly enjoy working on their musical ability and practising their music. But for me, I was only really in it for the orchestras and music groups—the community, the social, the performance. And no matter who you are, losing out on this aspect of music is a loss.

Image credit: Jamie Slagel