When COVID Hit, I Lost the Magic Of Performing With My Friends

performing live music

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The hard truth that I wasn’t going to make it landed on me like a grand piano at age six. Freshly enrolled in an after-school music academy that followed the Suzuki method, I was surrounded by kids who’d already mastered their instruments by my age. Without that head start, I was always going to be just OK — OK at playing the flute, the instrument randomly issued to me; OK at the math-adjacent calculus of music theory, even just OK at the lone hippie-dippy element of conservatory life: the hour where we were supposed to listen to a piece of music and prance around in whatever way the spirit moved us. My school’s idea of a motivational event was to ship in a group of children from the former Soviet Union to give us a concert, followed by weeks of harping on their superior talent, in an apparent attempt to re-ignite the Cold War.

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Music doesn’t feel like a creative art when you’re forbidden from putting your own stamp on it. It felt, instead, like learning to operate a troublesome and complicated machine and then running it through the same series of motions, over and over again, with no real investment in the outcome. The next twelve years were spent like Lucy in the chocolate factory, trying to keep pace with a tempo that constantly eluded me. When I auditioned for New York state’s school music association, I chose Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee,” a piece not originally written for flute and perhaps not made for human lungs to attempt, despite the fact that it had felled me every time, my lip juddering against the instrument’s embouchure. Hearing its opening notes, even in something like a commercial, reliably sends me into a state of panic.

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All of which is to say: being able to attach the phrase “classically trained” to myself may have helped me get into college or impress a few adults, but I did not plan on ever doing it for fun. It wasn’t until after I graduated college that I found my way back to music again. My friend Chris pulled together a group of friends, some of them fellow refugees from the classical world, others jazz musicians or theater kids or simply passionate amateurs we had fun competing with in karaoke contests, and we began to put together slapdash revues —each of us taking a spot in the orchestra, sometimes playing multiple instruments, and taking turns singing. We started out at a weird jazz club on a deserted block of midtown that neighbored a decommissioned Salvation Army and closed almost immediately after our debut. (Correlation does not imply causation.) Then we upgraded to a full-scale concert venue, complete with an orchestra pit, a light board, and mic packs.

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Some of the people in the revue crew are my close friends. Others I mostly see when we’re rehearsing and performing, and the details of their day-to-day lives are a mystery. (Real estate? National tour of some show? CIA?) Many of them don’t live in New York and only come in for the weekend of the show, lending our group a ragtag traveling-players quality. A magazine friend who I pulled into the group said afterwards that her favorite thing about it was that no one talked about what they did for a living. And it was true—we just talked about music.

Our last performance to date—a perhaps overly ambitious staging of Stephen Sondheim’s Company—was a blur, a frenetic weekend of memorizing complicated dance routines, learning lines, navigating flute and piccolo parts, and memorizing the fastest song in the American musical theater canon. (Why do I hate my lungs so much?) In one minutes-long segment of the show, I had to extricate myself from the orchestra, clamber over a piece of the set, hide my flute behind it and break into a dance routine, then retrieve my flute to play marching band-style while running around in a circle. I was, understandably, overwhelmed, but I reached a point where I reminded myself to just enjoy it. After all, I so rarely got to see these people all together. Little did I know how much time would, in fact, elapse.

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COVID ended up forcing us into an abrupt intermission. Now that singing in the same room with other people can be fatal, my relationship with music has gone from being a social release to becoming something cloistered and private again. It felt like going back in time to when music was only a solitary (and dull) pursuit.

I always knew there’d be a slow fade-out, when people started having kids or accruing responsibilities that somehow didn’t allow for 12-hour rehearsals in a weird studio decorated with the albums of the ’90s one-hit wonders who performed there. But I didn’t expect a full, abrupt fade to black. What kind of Ivo Van Hove crap is that, anyway?

I miss the weekends where we sprawled on the floor of a dance studio, or when Sarah curled up on an air mattress at my place and we stayed up talking about her life in New Orleans. I miss our drummer James counting us in and our star vocalist Rahsaan knocking over a mic stand because he got too emotional while singing and our curtain operator Christos missing his cue and leaving the curtain dangling at ankle height while the audience applauded our feet. I miss doing dumb vocal warmups with Caitlin and Casey and overhearing our lone violinist Erin’s mordant jokes.

Sure, we could take our show on the Zoom road, but for one reason or another, that hasn’t happened. And it wouldn’t feel the same, for the audience or for us. Just as I was finding my way to loving the thing that had dogged me for so long, it was taken away from me. I’ve had far worse losses in this time, but it stings that I can’t subsume myself under the waves of my friends’ voices and their instruments right now, and just enjoy those moments where it felt like we were propelling something together, inflating a sail with our collective breath, making beautiful things with our shared effort.

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