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The COVID-19 Pandemic: My Experience as a Musician

Seattle Symphony violinist Andy Liang performing an excerpt from my original string quartet.

Accepting the situation, and then facing the challenges

On May 10, 2020, New England Music Camp (NEMC) emailed a Zoom link to all prospective campers for the upcoming summer. The subject line of the email read “NEMC Update & Town Hall,” and I eagerly joined the webinar, impatient to hear whatever information awaited. A few days earlier, the parents of prospective campers attended a similar meeting with the NEMC administration to discuss plans for the summer. I had heard briefly from my parents what I was about to hear in this webinar, but I was still anxious and uncertain as to how my summer would unfold.

The verdict was what I had expected. NEMC was not permitted to run as usual. I tried to convince myself that I was not surprised, but it still felt at that moment as if the world came crashing toward me. Since I was eleven, I had traveled to Maine for three, sometimes six weeks, engaging in a music program unlike anything I could experience anywhere else. However, as I listened to the directors of NEMC tearfully explain that the regular program was not permitted to run as ordered by the governor of Maine, I felt helpless as I was thrust into the unknown. What was summer without NEMC?

Sitting in online school. Don’t be fooled by the smile.

Not to mention, I had felt this helplessness for more than two months now. Following the last performance of the all-school musical, Seussical, on March 8, school switched to online learning. I had learned a couple of days before May 10 that I would not return to campus for the remainder of the year, which hung over my head like a grey cloud for weeks. I spent countless hours in front of a screen, trying to keep up with the endless Zoom links cluttering my inbox. Even my Driver’s Ed classes had switched to online meetings!

However, nothing affected me more than the absence of music, the most prominent aspect of my life. I took piano and voice lessons over Zoom and Skype, playing and singing through the distortions of a laptop microphone, but recitals could not run under COVID-19 restrictions.

My longtime choir, the Northwest Girlchoir had switched to moderately successful online meetings, which had lost their luster after a couple of weeks. Both the annual March and June concerts could not happen.

Worst of all, the Seattle Symphony Merriman Family Young Composer Workshop canceled its performance of the original chamber pieces composed by ten high school student composers participating in the workshop, myself included. My string quartet, “We Have Wings,” after months of work, was reduced to the computerized instrument sounds the notation program could offer. Sounds bleak? You would be absolutely correct.

However, accepting my situation was part of realizing that I must make the best of it. After all, musicians all across the world also faced several of the same challenges and figured out methods of adapting. So could I.

Adapting to online music, and what I learned in the process

My Virtual NEMC Google Classroom, a major component of the virtual program.

As I listened to the NEMC webinar the evening of May 10th, the directors explained the plan of action for the summer. Instead of two three-week in-person sessions, NEMC would run a single virtual four-week session. To maintain normalcy, music classes would be offered in the morning and virtual recreational activities would be offered in the afternoon, which is much like NEMC’s regular schedule. All classes would be conducted through Zoom, and links for various classes could be found on Google Classrooms. Recitals, as per usual, would take place in the evening, but this time through Zoom and broadcasted through Facebook Live.

At first, I must admit, I was skeptical. Could NEMC run in a virtual setting? Was this program worth attending? However, after much deliberation, I decided, why not? For five years, NEMC was an integral part of my life, and I knew this summer would feel incomplete without it. A couple of months later, I began.

Online learning restricts musicians, or does it?

Performing in a virtual NEMC recital over Zoom and Facebook Live.

The answer to that question is, it does, but less than I thought it would. Throughout my four weeks at Virtual NEMC, I definitely experienced the frustrations of not being able to play or sing with others and the multitude of technical difficulties that came with the online platforms built into the system. However, and I never thought I’d admit this, Virtual NEMC offered opportunities that I could not experience at regular NEMC. Here’s why.

First, at regular NEMC, campers cannot use technology. This makes classes that relate to areas of music that I am passionate about, like composition and general songwriting, difficult to pull off. However, Virtual NEMC took advantage of the campers’ access to the internet and offered what turned out to be my favorite class of the summer: Singer-Songwriter Workshop. In this class, I had the opportunity not only to receive feedback on my work but also to learn the basics of producing and using recording software. The result, my first publicly released single, “Less Alone,” felt truly magical.

Second, at regular NEMC, obviously, everyone is in the same location. However, since NEMC brings in campers from all across the country (clearly, the camp is in Maine, and I’m from Washington), and even the world, I was able to take probably the most unique music class I’ve taken. An NEMC faculty member was living in Germany at the time Virtual NEMC was running and taught a class called Beethoven 250, which explored the life of the legendary composer on his 250th birthday. This faculty member was able to travel to Beethoven’s birthplace and bring the class on a virtual tour of the town, allowing us to gain a more in-depth perspective of the history of Beethoven’s life. While Virtual NEMC did not take place in picturesque Maine, it did allow for sightseeing around Bonn, Germany. Think about that!

Of course, Virtual NEMC had its drawbacks. I barely talked to several of my friends, as I did not take classes with them, which was, of course, disappointing. As for my teachers, my connection with them just wasn’t the same through my laptop screen. However, I will always believe that NEMC made the best of their situation, and I am grateful that I attended their virtual program.

What happens next for musicians?

Unfortunately, not much has changed since that evening of May 10th. School is still meeting online. I am still taking online music lessons but taking a year off from choir. The school musical planned for this winter was canceled, bringing with it different challenges and adaptations to those challenges for the cast. I am playing the piano in my school’s jazz band, and I still cannot play with my classmates.

“Though the world has been put to the test, someday you’ll see it smile!”

Elisa K. J. in “Less Alone”

But I am not as helpless as I was last spring. The COVID-19 pandemic was and still is a struggle for all musicians, but with the right adaptations to the challenges, the most hopeless situation becomes something magical. Virtual NEMC is proof of that. Stay safe, everyone, and may we be less alone!

Elisa Johnson is a sophomore from Washington state. She is heavily involved in her high school's music program, in which she plays piano, sings, and composes music. In her free time, she enjoys baking and recording dance covers of K-Pop songs.

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