Pandemic has led to global outbreak of music

Special to Western News

Led by singer-songwriter Martha Wainwright, Montrealers were invited Sunday night to go out to balconies, porches and rooftops to perform songs, including local legend Leonard Cohen’s ‘So Long, Marianne.’ The moment was another example of music being offering community during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Editor’s note: Visit the official WesternCOVID-19 website for the latest campus updates.

*   *   *

Serenades from Italian balconies. Bagpipes in a London, Ont., neighbourhood. Guitar-strumming police officers in Spain. Mini-concerts created and shared online by Western students. When almost everything else has been stripped away, music is amplified as one of the essentials.

“It just shows how important it is to our society when even in our hardest times people get together and make music,” said Music professor Sophie Roland, Chair of Music Performance Studies at the Don Wright Faculty of Music. “That’s just the way they are able to reconnect.”

The COVID-19 epidemic has forced millions around the world to remain in their homes. While safeguarding their health, it has also led to social isolation and loss of community. Music-making and -sharing has helped fill that gap.

Last weekend, Montrealers belted out Leonard Cohen songs from their porches. In Germany, the church bells peal every evening to thank emergency workers. In Italy, arias and anthems soar across apartment balconies.

“People are emotionally connected through music, for sure.” she said. “When distance is necessary, music brings us close together and reinforces or creates community. “

It’s also a mark of solidarity among the isolated, said Simone Luti, Opera Music Director and Symphony Orchestra Director at Western.

His parents live in Italy and haven’t been able to go out for three weeks.

“(People) are thinking, ‘We are deprived of so many things so now the only thing we can do is to open and the window and sing.’ They know that it’s much less important than what the doctors and nurses and the operations in hospitals are doing; music is nothing compared to that. But they feel the only way for them to share their sympathy with them is to sing it.”

As important as music is to long-distance listeners, it has been equally essential for musicians, many of whom have lost livelihoods and performance income.

“I’ve seen everyone – all the opera companies, all the symphony orchestras and the individual musicians – try to share their passion and love for music through the larger communities to see where they can heal, to see where they can find some relief, and distraction perhaps. It’s another way for them to re-create an outside world,” Roland said.

“They have lost their jobs; they have lost their contracts; they are being laid off from the orchestras or the opera companies. Despite all of this –  despite the adversity they are facing and despite the financial struggles – they still want to share, still want to communicate, still want to connect, still want to do what it is that they started doing before they started making an income out of it.”

The loss, followed by reaching-out, has been no less notable at Western, where student musicians are also grieving the cancellation of ensemble rehearsals, concerts and a much-anticipated opera performance.

“Performance is our only goal in the end. If you don’t perform, you lose that something,” Luti said. “It’s like you write a book and never publish it. In the end, you feel all your efforts have been in vain. It has been quite upsetting.”

Third-year Music Education student Roisin Miland is combating that loss by urging fellow students to send her their weird and wonderful music contributions, for her to post on the House Music Challenge Instagram, Twitter and Facebook feeds.

So far, one student has translated the Kodaly teaching method to an adaptation of Mr. Sandman, while another edited a beat of household music sounds into a “weird ambient track.”

“We’re usually all together making music. With social distancing, we don’t have that opportunity to connect,” Miland said. “I figured, ‘Let’s start a challenge and see who picks it up.’ I actually want it to be that simple. You’re challenging yourself and you’re also making people laugh or making people smile or trying to do something new or weird and support each other.”

For Miland, the abrupt end to performance classes has been especially difficult. As a percussionist, she cannot bring the school’s large instruments home.

“At home, I only have a drum pad. I’m working on guitar and piano, but I can’t play my own instrument like everyone else.”

She added, “As individuals, we need to make music. I’ve tried to make a platform where we can create and watch others create. It doesn’t have to be super-polished; it’s something that gets us together and feel more connected.”

Some choirs and other instrumentalists are singing via Zoom, while others are trying to find other ways to share their passion, Roland said.

View this post on Instagram

Sofia made a sick beat!

A post shared by the house music challenge (@housemusicdwfom) on

The outpouring of music in alternate spaces hasn’t been universally lauded, though. One Italian composer has decried the displays as egotism, a conceit at a time when lives are at stake.

Luti doesn’t share that view. Rather than being an act of egotism, music is one way the human spirit is defying the virus.

“I have to say the Italians are usually not that great in following rules – give them a fence and they will try to get as close as possible to the fence. So if you tell them to stay home, they get as close to the window as they can to say, ‘I won’t jump out, but I can sing out loud and tell you I am here, that’s my way of dealing with it.’”