The full impact of corona virus on my social life became most apparent to me on the day that my employer asked everyone to work from home. That evening, I was scheduled to read quartets, and I cried while driving there. So much of my off-work schedule was devoted to music rehearsals, lessons and reading chamber music with friends. As those get-togethers and rehearsals dropped off my calendar over the next few weeks, I realized how much I relied on my fellow musicians for the mental break from stress, providing me with musical conversation and banter and and giving me access to their vast music libraries as a source of education and inspiration.
Of course nothing could replace the actual experience of being in the same room playing music, but perhaps there were other ways we could share our knowledge and continue to inspire each other. As I was thinking how we could continue musical conversation that would be both fun, challenging, and engaging over email, the idea for a "Music Playlist Challenge" came to me.
I proposed the Music Playlist Challenge to the group of musicians I played with the most, and I offered to organize it. The logistics of the challenge were simple enough: every day I would send out a prompt, to which people would respond with a Youtube video. I would assemble everyone’s submissions into a playlist and send it to the group. After listening to the playlist, each participant could vote on his or her favorite.
Over time this became a daily routine:, every morning I would send out a playlist, a prompt, and the voting results from the previous day’s playlist. I set up a discussion thread where people could share reactions, ask questions, or share stories behind individual pieces. Submissions remained anonymous while listening to the playlist, but people were allowed to discuss their picks if they chose to do so -- or even adventurously guess who submitted what.
The prompts started off straightforward: submit a favorite from your personal music collection, find a piece that best represents birds, pick a performer you aspire to play like, etc. However, the magic really started when I saw the variety of interpretations to each of the prompts. Participants would send me lists of prompt suggestions, either based off of music they were excited to share with the group or prompts they were curious to see how people would respond. A natural cadence set in with the prompts: every week I tried to select at least one personal prompt encourging participants to tell the backstory behind their choice; a prompt that would generate a beautiful playlist, a prompt that would generate a lighthearted or fun playlist, and at least one prompt that made it challenging to think of a submission.
The knowledge and tastes of the participants are very broad, and as the weeks turned into months, we started to better understand each others’s musical preferences. Nearly every day I found myself listening to piece I hadn’t heard before. In an attempt to make sure that there was as little overlap in submissions as possible, many of the participants challenged themselves to pick different and new repertoire. I even found myself diving through my own musical history in search of submissions to surprise or delight the others, digging through old performances and remembering personal experiences I hadn’t thought about in years.
The Playlist Challenge took on a life of its own, thanks to the participants. I found myself hearing and sharing stories of past music experiences and personal views on playing music that we would probably never would have discussed during rehearsals. Some days the discussion would involve quick jokes, as we argued over what it meant to improvise and how we approached it. Other days we talked about what made mentors in our lives great or mediocre teachers. Other days we would ask about each others’s instruments, techniques, and habits. When Lynn Harrell passed away, we assembled a tribute playlist of what we considered his best playing. When Mother’s Day came around, we submitted pieces dedicated to our mothers and told stories about the pieces they loved. I later forwarded the playlist as a gift to my mother.
I've still deeply missed playing with others, but this project helped us make the best of the situation. We all learned more about music and about each other. The list of pieces that I want to play when it is safe to play together again has steadily grown from this experiment, and it was a wonderful way use our shared passion to support each other through this tough time.
Here are a few of my favorite prompts from our Musical Playlist Challenge:
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