A Journal of the Plague Week 21

Sunday, August 9th, 2020

We enjoyed another first this week: playing Irish tunes with other people!

We got an email at the start of the week from Frances, who—in the Before Times—ran our Saturday tune-learning workshop and was one of the leaders of our Wednesday night session. She asked if we were “looking for a safe tune” and would like to meet in the park on the weekend to play with a few other folks. She did not have to ask twice; our hearts leapt at thought after so many months of playing on our own. We said yes, a thousand times yes.

Jeremy and I are extremely lucky to have at least been able to play music with each other through the lockdown. Playing with someone else exercises different musical muscles than playing on your own. Your awareness needs to be split between what you’re doing and what the other person is doing. You need to sync your rhythm, find a common mood, and figure out how to recover from mistakes and keep playing instead of constantly stopping and starting. And on the fiddle, there’s the added issue of intonation, meaning whether you’re playing in tune (oh, for frets to tell you where to put your fingers on the fingerboard…).

In many ways, playing with others is more restrictive than playing alone—but it’s within these “confines” that you get opportunities for synchronicity, the unplanned moments when what you’re playing individually happens to complement what the other person is doing, or when you find yourself being carried along by a tune or song and maybe playing at a pace or with a pulse that you didn’t know you could achieve. Obviously it’s essential to practice on your own and do the boring, repetitive stuff to improve your technique. But playing with others can also—at least temporarily—make you play better than you otherwise could. And it puts you in the heart of something that exists only fleetingly, and that can only exist when people come together to make music.

I’ve treasured that experience since I was a kid:

Even at the age of 10, playing music could make me feel ecstatic. I couldn’t have put that name to that feeling, but I knew that it was pure joy. It’s a feeling that remains with me to this day and comes welling up inside of me when I’m playing in the middle of a really good Irish session, or when everything comes together in the band. It’s when I realize that the music that is being created has suddenly taken on a life of its own and become something greater than just the sum of its parts. It’s a feeling of losing myself entirely and at the same time being acutely aware of existing as an integral part of something much bigger. It’s one of the most fantastic feelings in the world.

A friend asked me a while back if I could imagine having a different career—i.e., if I wasn’t a translator, what would I do instead? And I somewhat sheepishly admitted that, in a parallel life, I imagined myself playing in an orchestra. Not a big, fancy orchestra, and not as a solo violinist or anything, just…some random orchestra in my imaginary parallel world, where my job would entail playing the violin in the midst of a bunch of other people. In the real world, I know that orchestral musicians often live on a shoestring and can suffer from hearing issues and joint issues, and are even more under-appreciated than humble translators, and that the whole thing is not nearly as fun and musically transcendent as I imagine it to be.

But—and here’s an even more sheepish admission—I was 11 years old and playing violin in my elementary school orchestra when I first saw Ghostbusters and became entranced by the fact that Sigourney Weaver’s character played the cello as her job. I loved playing in the orchestra, and it blew my young mind to think that, as a grown-up, you could play music every single day and that would be your life. It seemed glamorous and exciting and—in the lingo of the day—totally awesome. Something about that initial impression has stuck with me, and it’s only been intensified by my mid-life rediscovery of ballet. One of my favorite parts of any ballet performance is the part before the actual performance, when you’re sitting in the theater full of anticipation, and the musicians are trickling into the orchestra pit, with its cozy little lamps on every music stand, and they’re adjusting their instruments and tuning up and practicing musical passages and chatting with each other, and at some point the musical snippets and low-level chatter and hubbub die down and re-coalesce into a steady, prolonged A note, and you know that the show is about to begin. It thrills me every time.

ANYWAY, that very long digression is just to say that playing music with other folks is great fun. So yesterday Jeremy and I packed up our water bottles, folding chairs and musical instruments and made our way through the stifling city to a nearby park, where we sat in a socially distanced circle under some trees with 5 other people and played tunes for a few hours. We may have been one person over the limit for people from different households gathering together—but since Jeremy and I are from a single household, and two of the other people were also from a single household, the 7 of us only accounted for 5 households, so maybe that’s okay? To be honest, I’ve completely lost my overview of what the ever-changing and not always logical rules are here these days.

In any case, nobody hassled us, and we all kept our distance, and none of us were playing wind instruments, so I reckon we were as safe as we possibly could be in the situation. It wasn’t quite a session, but it was the next best thing, and it was certainly the best we’re going to get for some time. And next week, weather permitting, we’ll go back and do it again. The cautious return of something vaguely resembling “normality”, buoying us through the hot days of a very strange summer.

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