Laura Risk is assistant professor of music and culture at the University of Toronto Scarborough
We have all seen the videos from Italy: Neighbours in an apartment block out on their balconies, singing in harmony. Do they even know each other’s names? Probably not, and it doesn’t seem to matter.
Another Facebook video from our strange new world came my way recently: a New York fiddler singing and playing from his front porch. His neighbours dance, pandemic-style, in the street. Swing your partner and turn by the right, at two meters’ distance.
I have two friends in Spain who created their own musical happening last week. Sitting in the grassy courtyard of their apartment complex, they belted out a traditional song and then blazed through a set of fiddle tunes. A Facebook video posted by a neighbour shows families and individuals listening from their balconies: a moment of physical togetherness through sound.
I am a fiddler and a musicologist. For two decades, my focus has been on traditional music. Folk music, community music: Call it what you will. I’m interested in music that brings people together. Think white-hot fiddling lighting up a dance floor in Cape Breton. Think song used as a celebration at festivals or a rallying cry at protest marches. Think amateur musicians gathered together for the joy of music-making.
These past few days, I’ve found myself questioning the entire enterprise.
Musicians everywhere have moved online, salvaging what they can from professional lives that have been cancelled overnight. Behind the livestreams looms a larger question, however: What happens to concerts, festivals, dances, workshops, jam sessions and all the other forms of music-making that bring us together as a community, when events such as these have the capacity to spread death within that same community?
A friend from Boston, a professional step dancer and dance teacher, said it best. “The reality of social distancing has made me realize that everything I do professionally has the goal of bringing people together,” she wrote in a recent e-mail. “My work is not about ‘virtual’ or online experiences – it is about face-to-face human connection – the very thing we must avoid at this time.” She is moving online anyway, as we all are.
Holed up in our living rooms for the foreseeable future, we tune into live music. Yes, Spotify now has a “COVID-19 Quarantine Party” playlist. But the buzz is around livestreaming. Facebook Canada and the National Arts Centre will sponsor a #CanadaPerforms series. Top pop artists are streaming on Instagram as part of the #TogetherAtHome series for Global Citizen and the World Health Organization. Choir! Choir! Choir! is hosting virtual singalongs on Facebook Live. The same traditional music friends in Spain who played for their neighbours organized a #StayAtHomeFestival last weekend on Instagram. For musicians, livestreaming will replace at least some lost income over the coming months. For the rest of us, livestreaming may just be what keeps us sane.
I teach an undergraduate course called Exploring Community Music at the University of Toronto Scarborough. My students read about community music from Malaysia to Ontario and then go out into the Greater Toronto Area to observe and participate in local community music activities. I teach them that community music is not about perfecting virtuosic instrumental technique or launching a high-profile solo career. It is about using music to bring people together. It is about creating inclusive and welcoming activities that value participatory music-making above all else. Neighbours dancing in the street, for instance, or singing from their balconies.
Community music will survive the pandemic. Even under full lockdown, it persists and thrives. Our need for human connection is strong enough that, when physical contact is forbidden, we find comfort in sonic closeness.
As we livestream our way through the next weeks or months, let’s remember the power of music to bring us together physically. Music makes it okay to dance with strangers, to squeeze into a crowd, to sit side by side in silence. Let’s hold onto that feeling of togetherness. We know it will come again. In the meantime, let’s support the musicians who will sustain our well-being now and will help rebuild our communities when the time comes.
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