The Coronavirus Has Imposed a Fermata on the Music World

The Coronavirus Has Imposed a Fermata on the Music World

The Coronavirus Has Imposed a Fermata on the Music World

What can musicians do now? We can play to wash away some of the pain and grief.


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In music, a fermata is a symbol that means “a pause of unspecified length on a note or rest.” The length of that fermata is totally at the discretion of the conductor or bandleader.

It is important for us to understand that Mother Nature has always been the conductor. We have found ourselves in a position that, perhaps, had we been following her baton in the first place, we could have avoided; maybe we’d still be hugging our friends, visiting our loved ones, hanging out listening to our favorite ensemble, going to a movie theater, going to a public park—you know, those things that we’ve always taken for granted. Well, Mother Nature’s baton is up, and only she can decide when she will release her hold and start keeping time again. You might think it’s a politician who makes that call, but that call comes only when the Earth says, “It’s safe now.”

As a musician trained in both American and European classical musics, I’ve always been required to watch the conductor. As a bassist in either a jazz or r&b group, the goal always is to support the lead instrument. My foremost job is always to support. Maybe the world now realizes that we’re all bass players—or at least we need to be.

Since mid-March, America has pretty much been on a lockdown. We’ve seen a steady course of drastic social actions to stop the spread of this living nightmare known as Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. At the time of this writing, there have been over 2.6 million confirmed cases, with over 185,000 deaths worldwide.

I remember being in Europe on September 11, 2001, rehearsing for a concert with Sting. After we were summoned to immediately stop our rehearsal, we watched the horror unfold on television. Sting called a band meeting. The question was asked, “What do we do now? Do we cancel the concert? Do we play anyway? What do we do?” We were all numb with shock after what we’d just seen on television, so none of us were able to answer with a clear mind. We somehow pulled our collective emotions together and decided that as artists, it is we who can help the healing process—not only for ourselves but for everyone who would be in attendance that night. Our music would be the grief counselor.

But the circumstances of this new disease have drastically changed those options.

That evening, people came to hear us. No one can come to hear us now.

That evening, we fraternized with the audience, crying in each other’s arms. We cannot do that anymore, either.

After the audience left, we sat around eating and drinking ourselves back to pseudo-sanity. We cannot do that, either.

A few days later, we all got back on a plane and flew back to the USA. It’s been warned that we should not do that, either.

What can we do now?

Musicians all over the world have turned their homes into virtual venues. Social media has been the concert promoter. Only there’s little to no money exchanged in this transaction. Many jazz musicians and cultural institutions that are nonprofit entities have lost a significant bulk of income. But how do we, in good conscience, ask people for money, when currently over 26 million Americans have filed for unemployment?

Well, first things first. Technology can be a good thing. I find it somewhat relieving and inspiring that so many musicians, from beginners to legends, are finding ways to share their music via livestreams, myself included. Some are creating specifically designed content; some are just logging on and literally practicing in front of people. It’s a whole new sequestered, quarantined world. My dear friend the drummer Antonio Sanchez and his vocalist wife, Thana Alexa, were instrumental in creating a livestreamed music festival, which my wife, Melissa, and I participated in. I’ve done numerous talks and workshops online since mid-March with various institutions and organizations, along with hosting two weekly online chat series for Jazz House Kids and the Newport Jazz Festival.

I find this new indoor-based world, personally speaking, both relaxing and creatively riveting. I now have more time to read, write, and practice. My life up until March 14, like that of many musicians, was a head-spinning daily routine of playing, showering, briefly sleeping, hopefully eating, and traveling to the next city. I can think of how traumatizing this has been for me and Melissa personally, as we’ve lost quite a large number of friends in this nightmare, but what we choose to do is to think of “us” as a collective. There are some people who don’t have the benefit of having a house large enough to have a safe distance of separation or money to buy groceries, or who have an elderly loved one that they cannot visit. We musicians play for them, for us, for everyone. We hope to wash away some level of pain, grief, or anxiety. That’s what music does.

We don’t know how or when this will end. Maybe one day soon, I will be able to play both Lincoln Center and the Village Vanguard again… or get on a plane and fly to London to play in a venue that seats anywhere between 200 and 2,000… or play at a festival with 20,000 people mashed together having the time of their lives. But until that day comes back, I will continue to pay attention to Mother Nature’s baton. This should not be a political issue. This is the planet Earth slapping us upside the head, making us slow down and take a look at ourselves. You can continue playing while the baton is up. Just make sure you’re doing it at home!

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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