How Musicians Can Practice the Art of Making Hope

September 15, 2020, 11:55 PM · "Events going on in the world today are very disturbing. But we have work to do, and we must continue to do it."

That was some wisdom from Peter Jacobi, the late professor of arts journalism at Indiana University -- and my longtime mentor. He said it on January 17, 1991, the day Operation Desert Storm began. It was an upsetting turn of events, and as a college student at the time, I figured that all routines would fly out the window that day. If we even had class, surely we would just talk about current events.

Not with Jacobi. We opened our books and continued to study the topic we'd all committed to study: arts journalism.

What a message that sent to me. It's not that he didn't care, or that it didn't matter. It mattered in a profound way. But so did our own plans. If we still had a way to carry them out, we should. The world still needed us to continue hone our art, so that one day we could share it.

I'm remembering his words today, as fires literally rage all around me on the American west coast, and as the world continues to process the consequences of a pandemic.

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The outdoors has been one refuge for me (and many others) during COVID — a nice long walk outside has a way of restoring sanity. And moving things outdoors allows for safe distancing. For example, I could sit outside a café and have a coffee with my daughter. Or hypothetically, I could see a live performance at a park, with proper distancing and masks. Or I could read string quartets with friends -- distanced on someone's roomy back porch.

Except, at the moment, the outside air is poison. The air quality index has lingered around 165 (good air is below 50) in my community of Pasadena, Calif. for the past week. Cities to the north are showing unprecedented and very hazardous readings in the 400s. The nasty air has kept me inside, away from daily walks, and it's certainly dissuaded me from planning anything outdoors.

With this disaster piling on top of six months of pandemic fallout, the whole idea of "carrying on" feels a little tiresome. It's one thing to be "resilient" for a few weeks or months; it's another when the bad news keeps coming for more than a half a year. But despite so many limitations imposed by these, I am still finding resilience all around me, and I'm doing my best to continue practicing the resilience that my professor preached so many years ago.

For example, last Sunday I coached a sectional for our local Pasadena Youth Symphony Orchestra. Yes, a violin sectional, on Zoom — my first. It seemed like a fairly challenging idea. We met online; we played; we found some community; we made some music. But that's not even the most remarkable thing to me — I was moved by the student who came to the session, despite having been evacuated from her home due to the fires. "I'm sorry, I don't have my violin with me today because we had to leave so quickly, but I wanted to be here anyway."

That's commitment.

I have another private student who was evacuated, then came back home, only to be evacuated again. He hasn't missed a lesson, despite such tremendous disruption. With his mother's help, he tuned in from his grandparents' house, where they have been staying. His mother, and all the parents who continue to support their children's learning despite the tremendous challenges of this year, inspire me greatly.

So do the teachers who continue to come up with creative ways to make online learning work. My teaching colleagues have generously shared their ideas — on this website, on Facebook groups and just over the phone helping each other. Many have helped me. The situation has brought out the best kind of collegiality in so many teachers.

I'm also inspired by the performing arts organizations who are finding ways to persist through this nearly impossible set of challenges. They face greatly limited ways to present a concert, as well as unclear and changing guidance regarding the rules for doing so. Take for example, the orchestra that I play with, the Pasadena Symphony — I see them carrying on in creative and inventive ways. They had to postpone their planned concerts for this year, but they are still scheduling concerts, crafting a shorter season with smaller ensembles. The performances are flexible, they may be outdoors with a distanced audience, and/or they may be streamed. But having a season will carry forward their relationship with the musicians and the community. That creates the possibility first for survival, then after that, growth.

I'm seeing resilience everywhere. At my worst moments, I find it a little intimidating. How is it that all those people on social media seem to have things so well in hand? And how am I supposed to venture so boldly in a direction I don't understand, like they seem to be doing?

The secret is that everyone is struggling.

If you are seeing successes in our field — in music education or performance — try to look past intimidation or resentment. Instead, look for the inspiration. Then do what you can do in your own community. Do it imperfectly — know that everyone else is doing it imperfectly. Celebrate the small successes. You don't have to be a hero; just muster enough energy to do what you can and support the efforts of the people around you.

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Replies

September 16, 2020 at 03:02 PM · Thanks Laurie. I needed the encouragement today. Some days it seems manageable in this brave new world, and others it’s disheartening. We must continue to press on with hope.

September 17, 2020 at 12:09 AM · Laurie, thank yo so much for your article on “the art of making hope.” We all need that so much now. I am inspired by your persistent student and by all musicians who are bringing us new ways to experience “live” music. The alternatives are not as good as the real thing, but they are the best we can do with what we’ve got. I especially like your concluding advice to do what we can imperfectly. I am often intimidated by people who do difficult things so easily. Thanks for reminding me that my small, imperfect efforts can still help and inspire others.

September 17, 2020 at 03:15 AM · Thank you Laurie. I didn't know that you have "worst moments" by the way, but hearing about the circumstances you're in, and that you and others are bearing that and striving for better is encouraging and reassuring. And I'm still not sure that you have "worst moments", because of how well your work comes across.

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