Quarter-Notes from the Apocalypse: Part 1 – If Not You, Who?
By David Sabella
For weeks I have stared at this page, writing, and rewriting, as the news of the COVID-19 pandemic hurtled at me at an alarmingly quick pace. These past four weeks have truly been extraordinary, life changing, and paradigm shifting. As the weeks went by, and this article grew, I realized that I was not writing one article, but rather four different pieces that deal with performance life while social/physical distancing in the age of COVID-19. Part one of the entire four-part series is presented here, with links to successive parts below. And, although this series is published by www.CabaretHotspot.com, and speaks directly to the cabaret & small venue performance community, I do hope that the information and perspective presented here will benefit vocal performance artists of every genre.
Part 1 – If Not You, Who?
Midtown Manhattan is a veritable ghost-town. All “non-essential” businesses city-wide have been closed (Don’t Tell Mama, “non-essential?” Really?) and citizens (for the most part) are respecting the “Shelter in Place” order enacted by Governor Cuomo. Education at all levels has moved online, Broadway has shut down, and other live gatherings (sports and performances) are prohibited. PROHIBITED!
During week one I immediately jumped into action to be of service to my friends, and the larger communities of cabaret singers and voice teachers that I know. I kept busy helping voice teachers learn online technologies, as suddenly thousands of teachers across the country needed to move to various video platforms and technologies, in order to move their teaching online. (These technologies are not new to me since I have been teaching online since 2007.) I reached out to leaders in the cabaret community to plan for how to move forward, through what I feared could be a very devastating few months. And, through CabaretHotspot.com, I encouraged artists to send information on their living room or kitchen concerts, to be listed on the website as if they were happening in a club. Many thanks to my co-editor Sue Matsuki for maintaining this list, and to Stephen Mosher of BroadwayWorld.com for augmenting this list with his own research.
In that first week there was a glorious coming together through music which was inspiring. Singers of every genre began to fill my Facebook wall with wonderful sounds of hope and comfort, as they sang for both friends and family, for their socially distanced communities, for the world at large, and most importantly for themselves – as a means of stress relief. I came to realize that singing was fulfilling an even more important need, a holistic need. Singing was helping and was truly a gift to anyone who happened to press “play.”
Week two, however, found me somewhat immobilized, overwhelmed by the constant barrage of (seemingly all) bad news, which changed by the hour. The speed at which the news unfolded was tiring, and my great plans for writing this article were put aside. I realized I needed to focus more of my attention on my own children, helping them deal with the new reality of staying indoors 24/7, and having all their classes online for an indefinite amount of time. Like many families, we bonded and binged on TV and popcorn.
By week three I started to regain my sense of self, within this new National paradigm. I started exercising again, and I turned off the 24-hour barrage of news in favor of Music Choice Soundscapes. Don’t worry, I still get Governor Cuomo’s daily briefing on Facebook. And, I began to consider that maybe, just maybe, there would be enough toilet paper in the world.
Now, in week four, I am finally able to put these thoughts together with a bit of hindsight and forbearance. What I thought was one small article has turned out to be a series of four. Yikes!
At first I thought there was a glimmer of hope, as the Governor of New York proclaimed that large gatherings of more than 50 people were not permitted. “50 people?” I thought “That’s a sold-out cabaret room. Ok, we got this!” For a moment I thought that cabaret might even experience a resurgence unlike anything in modern-day history, as people sought out more intimate entertainments, (and smaller audiences), offered by the many clubs around town. Then came the one-two punch, the pronouncements of “No gatherings of 10 or more,” and “all non-essential workforce must stay home.” My dreams of a cabaret renaissance died a pitiful death.
As more and more cases of COVID-19 were reported and New York was mandated to “shelter-in-place,” I began to contemplate life in an endless loop of the first episode of The Walking Dead. How could this happen? How did our art and livelihoods simply vanish? How do singers sing, or players play, without an audience? How do teachers teach the art of performance, without a performance? What shall Directors direct? It became clear that things were coming to a grinding halt, unlike anything we have experienced for generations.
Or were they?
Somehow art survives. Singers began to appear on Facebook Live, on YouTube, and on BroadwayWorld.com singing in their living rooms, in kitchens, and on balconies. Players played on their couches, in dining rooms, and on rooftops. Social media began to fulfill its destiny of actually bringing us together. Good news? At first, I thought so. But the jury is still out. I am cautiously optimistic.
I am painfully aware that in this age of COVID-19 we humans are both separated from one another, and at the same time, are more reliant, as never before, on technology, on machines, in order to communicate, to learn, and even to emotionally express ourselves. As humans we desire to be in community. And now, sequestered from one another, we reach out to build alternative forms of community, online. Apps that at one time were considered frivolous timewasters are now, for some of us, a primary means of communication. How many times this past month have you said, “thank God for Facebook” (or FaceTime, or Skype, or Zoom). Our reliance on this technology, on these machines, will, out of necessity, require them to advance exponentially in the coming years, as we must prepare for the next “Corona crisis” by increasing our technological infrastructure.
I believe, and am fearful, that we are on the precipice of a new dawn of humankind. The “social distancing” we are now experiencing has been carefully cultivated over many years, by “social media.” The younger generation, the millennials, don’t register any of this as particularly unusual. Aside from going to school online (something that they have prayed for and love) my children’s day is barely affected. They see their friends on all of the same apps and online technologies that they have used since they could walk and talk. They are used to this type of isolation. They were built for it. To them this is acceptable.
The machines are winning!
What we, the older generation, do now will determine the physical, emotional, and artistic future, of our children and grandchildren. We must lead by example, even if the technology is foreign to us. Even if we don’t understand it, and maybe even resent it. We must meet the machine, head on, and at the same time temper it with compassion, empathy and art. Our children are watching. Will we continue to express deeply personal, intimate, and artistic concepts… online? Will we be satisfied, emotionally connecting…. to a video camera? And, for the teachers and singers of my generation (and older), do we have the stamina to learn the new technologies that will be required for us to teach and deliver our art in this new world? The answers to all these questions must be a resounding YES!
As teachers, and artists, we must continue to express our art through the lens of our experience. And COVID-19 is certainly an experience! I will never again be able to sing (or listen to) Stephen Sondheim’s “I Remember,” Rodgers and Hart’s “You’re Nearer,” or Dietz and Schwartz’ “Alone Together” in the same way ever again.
Borrowing a quote from cabaret singer Steve Ross (by way of first century scholar, Hillel), “If not now, when? If not you, who?” YOU must continue to express your art, by any means necessary, in whatever genre you teach or sing. The human condition must be expressed, lest it be forgotten. For that we must now, and for the foreseeable future, turn to technology as never before. This virus may require us to physically separate, but we must not emotionally (or artistically) separate from one another, even if that means sharing, caring, and teaching… through an “app.”
We are at a very difficult intersection where our technical expertise and artistic expression surpasses what technology can convey. This has caused a great deal of frustration among singers, teachers, coaches, directors, collaborative pianists, and anyone who creates art out of sound, in real time, and has suddenly found this to be a very daunting task. As of this writing there is absolutely no way for a singer (in one remote location) and a pianist (in another remote location) to collaborate in real time. Due to deficits in voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) technology, sound can only travel in one direction at a time. Therefore, the singer and collaborative pianist cannot yet function as a unit, which is entirely the point of the collaboration.
We must bare with (and find workarounds for) these technological deficits that seem to prevent us from creating and sharing our art, until such time as technology catches up to technique. We must not yield to the kind of art the machine can presently deliver (techno, auto-tuned, machine-made sounds). Rather, we must bend the machine to our will and make it deliver the musical/vocal art of the human experience.
There are many people trying to “bend the machine” in this way, and new technologies are being developed and will be deployed much sooner than you think. In my next installment I will discuss new, cutting edge developments in VoIP and Midi technologies that are on the verge of making real-time remote collaboration possible. Until then our responsibility as singers and teachers is to create and share the art of the human experience, by whatever means necessary.
If not You, Who?