Editorial: Rediscovering Our Passion and Purpose during the Coronavirus Pandemic

By Maria Majno, President, SONG / Sistema in Lombardia; Vice President, Sistema Europe

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.”  One of the best known, most philosophical yet universally accessible passages of the Bible (Ecclesiastes, 3:1) sets a consoling frame. Yet who knows for how many seasons the COVID-19 turmoil will last as an unprecedented challenge? So many questions: Why now? Why was it not possible to avoid, or at least predict, and prepare? Why so many different approaches to one identified enemy? Did any of us expect to see such a catastrophic phenomenon over our lifetimes?

The only consistent answer has been a resonant “No!” to that last question.  This was the stuff of nightmares, of science fiction, of thrillers, not of the world around our homes. Now it is our inescapable daily reality.

Since the epidemic has reached Italy earlier and more violently than any other European country, in our country we have already had the opportunity to evolve in our response—and our ”topos” of sunny lightheartedness is undoubtedly helping us stay afloat. The first impressive input came from school principals, trying to bridge the gap until they would see their pupils again in person: at first, it did not seem like such a distant horizon. Our highest literature provided the stunning examples of how Boccaccio and Manzoni described the previous plagues—and ways to deal with them—in poetic and aesthetic terms.

Then came the lockdown on March 9, the first on our continent. The almost immediate response arose from the entire community: a music and sound flash mob on Friday 13. Variously spontaneous or artistic, structured or clangy, patriotic or popular, with enthusiastic join-ins and occasionally bemused neighbors, it inspired a seemingly infinite chain of musical outpourings, with the suddenly fundamental realization that our voice is here to stay, and balconies are good places to communicate openness, resilience, and appreciation.

Alas, since then the toll has increased tenfold, and optimism is becoming harder to keep up. But transitioning from quantity to quality may be a viable alternative, as music teachers meet the challenge of keeping children and families engaged. Technology helps, of course, and—as one of our choir coordinators put it—we may not be able to create an online vocal ensemble right away, but we will certainly grow more tech-savvy by the end of this tunnel. And a lot more capable of “smart working,” having discovered that this—like singing and other unimpeded music-making—also contains a more widespread potential than we hitherto surmised.

When there is no balcony on hand, there is an abundance of suggestions about how Sistema-inspired programs can integrate social distancing and home isolation into playing and singing together; one could easily spend days navigating between and learning from all approaches. Looking forward, a wonderful though daunting task would be to pool all resources together in a concerted way: making virtue out of necessity is resonating as a very practical and appealing call. There is hardly one school, one orchestra, one musical institution that is not pulling out its arsenal of inventive resources, finding new formats (such as the European Union Youth Orchestra’s new online platform and Digital Spring Residency) or providing new meaning to the archival recordings that have been lying dormant and now turn into a treasure trove, generously shared and enjoyed without barriers.

Two more instances of pooled resources belong in this overview of tools and ideas. The first is an extension of the musical flash mob, and particularly relevant to the Sistema cosmos: a global homage has been dedicated to the unending legacy of José Antonio Abreu on March 24, the second anniversary of his demise. Here is the contribution of the newborn Abreu Chamber Choir, now being developed internationally among the diaspora of Venezuelan singers.

The second is a delightful brainchild from Nisha Thampi, an infectious disease physician at Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, Canada, with help from her young daughter: a handwashing song to the tune of “Brother John,” which takes its cue from the proven role of music and song in facilitating attention, memory, and motor coordination. Note that this video and its accompanying article were published in the British Medical Journal right before Christmas, displaying an almost spooky prescience regarding the upcoming explosion. What other art form could claim such a simple, decisive, and lasting contribution?

Yet another essential exercise for the artistic world right now is that of reflection, both individual and collective, on how to counteract the tremendous setbacks of all-encompassing cancellations or, at best, the flurry of postponements.  The musical professions are more exposed than most to precarious circumstances, and initiatives are emerging to highlight and attempt to remedy this unprecedented crisis—for example, www.impalamusic.org; or #velesuoniamo, by the iconic jazz musician Paolo Fresu.  We should be committed to stabilizing and sustaining such initiatives.

Finally, we cannot underestimate the importance of global connection. Among the authoritative voices contributing their perspectives on the outbreak is Yuval Noah Harari, whose recent article proposes that “emergencies…fast-forward historical process.” Harari calls attention to the alternative between “totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment” and “nationalist isolation and global solidarity.” Though Harari does not include the humanities—let alone the performing arts—in his evolutionary perspective, he advises that “in order to defeat the virus, we need to share information globally.” As artists, this is something we should heed and put into practice. We trust that such an open and flexible instrument as The World Ensemble could play a fundamental role in this endeavor.

What will we, what will all our friends look like, in person, after not seeing each other in person for months? And what will the world look like? It will not be the same, as we already know. This should not scare those who are involved in social change through music. We may be newly empowered to intensify our push for equality—since everyone is freshly aware that we are all vulnerable to this awful, invisible enemy. This could be a lesson from COVID-19.  Another is the value of humor—this is perhaps unsurprising, but what continues to enchant is its stamina and range as a response to this crisis.

“A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing (Ecclesiastes 3:5).” It seems like yesterday that we giggled with embarrassment at the instructions to stop shaking hands or hugging, adopting the Asian manner of greeting instead. A new global gesture of connection—perhaps a silver lining.

In bringing focused resilience to a global scale, we are helped by the etymologies of “courage” and “patience”—deeply rooted into the heart as well as in the long experience of human suffering. One of the authorless inscriptions on social media puts it in a nutshell: Life is strange. Before, we had the people and not the time; now, we have the time and not the people. Let’s aim for both.

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