How We Get Back to Normal and How a New Normal May Happen for Musicians

Eventually, we’re all going to get vaccinated. But, for some of us, we may feel nervous about going to that 50-, 100-, 1,000-person indoor event right away. We’re going to need to start small. It’s going to start with a dinner party. And maybe it’s a small dinner party. 4 people. But it will be indoors. And you won’t be six feet apart. And you won’t be wearing masks. And, hell, maybe you’ll even shake hands or hug when the guests come to your home or apartment. It’ll feel normal and good. And you’ll talk, and drink wine, and tell stories, and laugh. And it’s going to be great. And you’re going to end the night and say goodbye let’s do this again soon and you’re really going to mean it. And you’re going to want to have that good feeling again. Maybe next weekend. And then you’re going to think about how many friends you’ve never invited over to your place and how many people you’ve met over the past year over Zoom and over the phone whom you haven’t met in person yet. And you’re going to think, huh, let’s branch out a little bit, and you’re going to ask your three friends who came over for dinner last weekend if they’d mind if you invited a couple more people. And they’ll think about it, and you’ll assure them the two people you have in mind are totally cool but more importantly they’ve been vaccinated. And then you’ll have a 6-person dinner party. And it’s going to be awesome. Then you’re going to get invited to go to someone’s house for a bigger dinner party. Maybe it’s 10 people. Maybe 20. Maybe it’s your cousin’s 18th birthday party. And you love your cousin. And then someone is going to say Hey, I have tickets to see Keanu Reeves do stand-up. Keanu Reeves does stand-up? I didn’t know Keanu Reeves does stand-up. That’s nuts. Well, he is a Renaissance Man, so, maybe it’s not so unbelievable. Anyway, I gotta see that. And how many people will be at that comedy club? Like 75? Well, I did go to my cousin’s birthday party last week, and I’m vaccinated. So … And then we’re back at restaurants and bars and movie theaters and concerts and sports events and music festivals. And it’s at that point that we’ll be back to normal.

We may be back to school and at the office before that (we may be there now) — whether because we have to or because we’re (or someone is) pushing things to get back to normal — and we may be totally physically fine. But we’re not going to feel normal about it. It’s going to feel quiet and lonely. Like I said, for some people, this is already happening. This has been happening. And for them, I feel sad. Because I bet it feels not quite time yet. Too early. And certainly I mean the health risk and the anxiety and fear that comes with that, especially if you’re not vaccinated yet, and you have to go home to your kids or your parents or your loved ones with underlying health conditions. But even if you don’t feel weird about physically being at work or at school right now, it’s not normal yet.

But eventually when those public places start filling up again on their own, when the sounds of people come back, when the world catches up, you’re going to breathe a sigh of relief, and you’ll know. OK, things are back to normal. But you can’t force it. It has to happen organically. I don’t even know what someone would try to sell you to make you feel comfortable about getting back to normal, but I’m sure people will come up with something. They always do. And you just might be too desperate or too dumb to understand that you’re buying snake oil and nothing anyone sells you can substitute for just time. People. On their own time. Getting comfortable with the idea of more and more people back in their space. People who are not going to kill you or the people you love with their talking (loudly) and laughing (loudly) and breathing, and perhaps singing or errant coughing or sneezing, without a mask, less than six feet away, in an enclosed room with medium-to-poor ventilation, for at least 2 hours. No one’s going to kill you by being near you.

So now we know how things get back to normal. But let’s rewind, back to that 6-person dinner party, because for however long that period lasts, before you make the leap to a 10- to 15-person dinner party, then to just a party, we should take advantage of it. We should embrace the intimacy of it. And we should have live music. It will start with friends. As it should. One of your six friends will be a talented musician. Maybe she’s classically trained. Maybe she’s a professional. And maybe you have a piano at your house that you don’t really play all that often. Or maybe your kids take lessons. And maybe you start there. Hey, Sally, why don’t you play that piece you’ve been practicing? And miracle of miracles, she does. And it’s wonderful. She makes you so proud, and your guests love it, and they’re clapping. Then, someone says, Hey Charlotte, why don’t you play something? And she’ll think about it, because normally she gets paid money to play music for people, but this is just a friendly dinner party, and everyone’s just hanging around, and a kid just played, so yeah, I’ll play something. Something I love. Something from my childhood that I haven’t played in years. And she plays. And it’s gorgeous and haunting and nostalgic and so full of emotion. It’s also so technically complex, and she’s playing it perfectly. Everyone in the room quickly understands that they’re in the presence of someone who does this for a living. Someone who has the talent and ability to translate a part of themselves through their fingers on an instrument, through the notes that waft and swell and move about the room, like a wave, like a force. And the older couple who live down the block, out for a late-night walk with their dog, stop in front of the house to listen. Because they know it too. She’s so good. Then another man out for a night run slows down in front of your house. Sees the older couple and stops to listen himself. They smile at each other, then turn their attention back to the music. She’s so good at it, back in the before times, people used to pay good money to hear what you’re hearing for free. And you feel so grateful. You’re quiet, and you listen. And you fight to hold back the tears of joy and thanks. And then just like that, it’s over, and everyone claps and says how amazing that was. And you end the night, feeling like you had a healthy nightcap for your soul. And you sleep like a baby.

The next morning, one of the friends who was there tells another friend, who lives in a large house on a hill, and he’s about to throw a dinner party of his own next weekend and huh, having someone play live music — not as background, but as a performance, like a personal Tiny Desk concert — would be pretty cool. Just an interlude in the evening of good food, drink, and conversation. And he remembers, during the before times, hearing a Post-Modern Jukebox-type group that performed at a small bar — like 50 people at the joint — and how phenomenal they were. And he thinks how great it would be if he could hire them to play for an hour or so. For just him and his five dinner guests. Or perhaps instead of that, he asks a musician friend to recommend one of her music school friends, see if they’d like to make some cash doing a private dinner. He wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) ask his friend directly, because it’s not cool to offer to pay your friends to entertain you. No matter how talented they are. It’s tacky. Don’t do that.

So your friend’s friend comes over, you invite him in, offer him a drink, make some pleasant small talk, then he opens his clarinet case. And your guests gather around in the living room, and he starts to play. And you think to yourself, damn, I’ve never really heard a clarinet just by itself played really well before. It’s a revelation. And the plaintive notes travel around the room, replacing the cacophony of animated cross-talk that was there before he showed up. The contrast is stark and sobering, but also meditative and transcendent. And he finishes, and everyone claps, because it was really remarkable, being that close to such beauty. Thank you, the clarinetest says. Well, I guess I’ll be going. And you escort him outside and thank him so much for coming, and you pay him what you promised (with perhaps a generous tip), and you shake hands. Maybe you embrace. And he gets in his car and drives away — to play another dinner party hosted by a different friend of a friend. And the next day, you tell your friends about this amazing clarinetest. And the person you tell thinks, huh, you know what I’d love to hear in my living room at the next dinner party I throw — a 4-piece string quartet. Or maybe two people singing with acoustic guitars. Or a jazz trio. And suddenly, the next time you invite Charlotte to come over for dinner on Saturday, she says sorry, she’s completely booked up with dinner party gigs. And you’re sad, but you’re also happy for her, because she’s happy.

And this is how we get back to normal and maybe how we create a new normal for musicians along the way.

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