Five Thoughts on Returning to the Stage

I’ve had FOUR orchestra concerts now, in our new transitioning-to-post-pandemic world. We are so lucky, here in South Bend, to have management and a board that are forward thinking and prioritize our safety and the safety of our audience while also being inclined to ACTION.  I’m really proud of us.  

In some ways returning to the orchestra is like riding a bicycle, if riding a bicycle were an exhilarating wave of sound produced by humans that you love and haven’t seen in over a year.  But it’s also different from before, in some critical ways.  Here are some things to think about as you, too, return to the stage. 

1. Social distancing on the stage is safer, but not better.  When I’m 8 feet away from my colleagues, I can’t easily intuit exactly what they’re going to do or feel it when they breathe and enter. It takes CONSCIOUS EFFORT to play together when a person who is normally right next to you is not even visible out of the corner of your eye. I’m turning my head more, which is normally an orchestral no-no.  Be ready to collaborate more actively! 

2. More on social distancing. There’s a noticeable delay in the sound across the stage when we are spread apart, so what sounds good to me as I play with the strings comes across as late to the audience.  In the orchestra we have a bias toward playing behind the stick – some orchestras much more strongly than others – because being too EARLY is a cardinal sin.  You don’t want to beat anyone to an entrance, so we delay farther and farther and try to feel it together.  These instincts do not serve us in our new set-up, so we have to play with the visual of the baton or the bow rather than on what we hear, and it is uncomfortable and scary.  Be ready to anticipate and lead the beat!

3. More on social distancing. The kinds of collaboration that would normally take place quietly and internally within the wind section – How are you articulating that? What is your dynamic at P? Does the second clarinet have that line with me?  – now need to be a Conversation.  I have to stand up, walk across space, and talk to someone out loud instead of just leaning over while the strings are fixing something else. It’s more cumbersome and a lot is left unsaid.  Be ready to intuit what you need and use your time appropriately! 

4. Orchestral PPE – masks and bell covers – require more time.  When I raise the oboe to my lips, it takes an extra second or two to safely guide the reed under the flap and through the hole. I can’t snatch the instrument from my lap at the last moment, I have to prepare a bar beforehand.  Sometimes I forget, and it doesn’t go well.  Remembering to allow this time takes more focus, and sometimes, in shorter rests, I don’t take the instrument out of my mouth at all.  This is tiring both to my embouchure and to my arms and hands.  Practice with your mask if you expect to need it, and focus on efficient body usage to compensate for the challenges!

5. Furthermore, when I need to swab, it’s now a five-step process – the reed comes off, the bell comes off (can’t swab through a bell cover), the swab goes through, the bell goes back on, the reed is last.  If I do it between movements I have impatient eyeballs from the conductor before I’m done.  And it’s not always safe to do it in the middle of a movement- if anything goes sideways I might miss my next entrance.  If there’s water in the keys, that’s a whole thing too.  Reed off, top joint off, swab, paper.  You can’t just blow across the hole because it’s hard to find the right spot through the mask AND because blowing aerosolized water across the stage is an obvious biohazard.  So the management of the instrument becomes a very focused activity, and rests become less restful. Be mindful of your instrument’s maintenance needs before you get to the stage, and have a plan for how to use your printed rests! 

I hope some of this – any of this – feels helpful to you!   What have you been discovering as you return to the stage? 

2 thoughts on “Five Thoughts on Returning to the Stage”

  1. Annette Garrett

    I agree wholeheartedly with the delay in listening and watching your friends near you. It is hard to hear each other in that spaced out environment. Asking the conductor a question is nearly impossible too. Get ready to speak up and use clear short phrases. Thank goodness we are not wearing masks now except going in and out of the building for us here in Texas. While playing or eating people take them off.

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