The Day the Music Stopped: Standing Still Together

It was a Thursday, the day the music stopped. For us musicians, the emails and phone calls started as a trickle that turned into a flood. Two weeks of dates cancelled, and then before we knew it, two months. Every single concert, opera, festival, club date–our calendars were wiped clean. When it happened, some of us were out on the road, and we made our way home in confusion and panic. Some of us were getting ready to head out on tour, and we cancelled flights, unpacked suitcases. We were all stunned. It was surreal and impossible. 

Musicians like me exist in the present and the future at the same time, with our schedules planned out years in advance and our daily practice focused on performances months ahead. Always moving forward, never standing still. Always focused on tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. But that Thursday, when the scale of the global COVID-19 pandemic stopped us all in our tracks, I had to stop, too. Tomorrow was unknowable. As the world spun out of control, I had to stand still, and it made me dizzy.

A concert pianist’s life is by definition a self-isolating one. How many hours, since I was four-years-old, have I spent alone in a practice room? How many hours alone in airports, in hotel rooms, in the green room, or in the spotlight? These are the requirements of this strange and lonely job, but the payoff comes when the hours of practicing and miles of travel bring me to another city with another audience and my music pulls us together as a community for a few hours, still and present. That’s how it is for musicians on the road: coming and going, building little communities wherever we can. We pass each other by on our travels, just days apart. Our relationships are long-distance; our friendships are maintained on WhatsApp and Instagram. We come together when our tour schedules align, a few days at a time for a concert or recording. Last month, in Boston, I ran into a colleague coming off the elevator at my hotel, both of us in town by chance. We had dinner together, and it felt like a family reunion. 

Lara Downes--Photo by Max Barrett

Lara Downes–Photo by Max Barrett

When the music stopped, in the strange new silence, I needed family. I reached out to my musician friends over text and phone. I wanted to know how everyone was doing, and I wanted very much to know that I wasn’t alone. We shared our sadness, our bewilderment, our fear and loss, our grief and loneliness. Distinctions and hierarchies fell away. This virus did not care if your next gig was at Carnegie Hall, the Met, Madison Square Garden, a local club, or a bar mitzvah. Suddenly, we were all just musicians wanting to make music. 

The world changed so much in a matter of weeks. My suitcase is put away, and I’m not going anywhere; my life now is one day at a time. Today means more than tomorrow, because tomorrow is fully out of my control. But as we all stand still, we somehow gravitate towards each other. I’m hearing from my listeners, from those communities I’ve built on my travels in small towns and big cities everywhere. And I’m getting to know my musician friends like never before. From our homes all around the world, we talk on the phone every day. We’re honest and vulnerable, we hold onto each other and hold each other up. We’re a family, and we will see each other through this thing. Despite social distancing and isolation, I’m less lonely than I’ve ever been.

Outside my living room window, there’s a tree bursting with bright pink blossoms, stretching up into the blue California sky. I’m lucky to be inside this window at my piano, safe and sound. I have so much time now. There are some very bad days–fear comes along with sadness and the discomfort of staying still. I try not to think too much about the terrible devastation that is unfolding beyond my window, and how powerless I am against it. Instead, I look inside and reflect. I ask myself the same basic, existential question I always ask of young students who are looking ahead into their own musical futures: “What is your why?” Not just the how, when, and where of your music, but the why, the purpose that is planted deep down inside–so deep that it can get buried by all the rest. I look deep inside myself and I see something clearly–that my great fortune as a musician is to have found my why.

A flowering tree in Lara Downes' backyard--Photo courtesy of the artist

A flowering tree in Lara Downes’ backyard–Photo courtesy of the artist

I am losing some beautiful things right now: musical moments and milestones, opportunities, income, the sense of self that comes from being a musician moving about in the world. But I haven’t lost my purpose. It’s deep in my bones. I know that my purpose in music is to create a gathering place, a common ground where the seeds of our human stories cross-pollinate and grow into strong trees that stretch up into the sky. That’s what my music has always been. When this is over and I’m back on the road, I’ll keep creating gathering places in every concert hall and school classroom where we meet. But for now I’ll build it right here in my living room window.

My new album Some Of These Days is built from the roots below our common ground. It’s a collection of freedom songs and spirituals–songs of hope, courage, and survival. Songs of trials faced and overcome. I could not possibly have known, months ago as I recorded these songs, the trials that awaited us. I’m unspeakably sad that these trials are upon us, but I am grateful that I have this music to give you. The record came out last week, and as I shared the music live from home, you joined me there. NPR stations all around the country came together to share the livestream, and we raised money for relief efforts in these darkest of days. We’re a family and we shall overcome. 

All these years, all those lonely hours in the practice studio–maybe this is what they were for. Not, as the old joke goes, how to get to Carnegie Hall (or any venue, for that matter). Just to be with you however I can. We are all learning this together, realizing that planning and preparation can only get us so far. That there are things beyond our control. When we come out of this, when it’s over and we’re out in the world together, let’s remember this time. Let’s remember how we trusted and needed each other. How we made it work. How we felt the common ground beneath our feet, as we all stood still together.