Staying online

Back at the end of July, I wrote about ‘The path back to normality…whatever that looks like!‘. A few months have gone by and, after some queries from members, the committee has suggested I provide an update as to why, when other local groups are starting to come together for in-person activities, APO is sticking with online activities only for the time being.

I miss the APO family. The buzz of seeing my friends and working on a programme in an intense few weekends before a concert, or just busking through a piece for fun in a workshop, is always a real boost to my mental health, which those who know me best will appreciate is a fragile thing. When I think back to the incredible #APOplanets day in February, I reflect with pride at what we achieved together but feel sad that we cannot do that at the moment. APO has performed a concert every October since 2003. We had planned a fabulous John Williams-themed programme, this year. We’d have had the first rehearsal weekend by now, so there’s a huge void in life where we’d have been working hard on making that concert a success and having a great time doing it.

That’s filled partially by the programme of online workshops that APO has started. They may not require the superhuman efforts required to fix an orchestra, organise rehearsals, promote and present a live concert, but some considerable effort goes into making them productive and enjoyable. I’m pleased that many APO members have embraced them, whatever reservations they may have had. Sure, you may be sick of Zoom (like many, I spend hours in online meetings for my day job), but this is a bit different isn’t it? For those who have told me that ‘I’m not interested in online stuff’, I hope you’ll reconsider and take part. What’s to lose? It’s 60-90 minutes of your time and you might be surprised by the fun and energy generated.

Like any new format, we’ve learned a lot as we’ve gone along. More recent workshops have had more playing and less talking. This is a good maxim for live rehearsals, too, but of course when assistant MD, Mel, and I have been running the workshops, it’s a different dynamic and it’s taken us a little while to work out the balance between playing and exploring the score. We don’t try to replicate a rehearsal experience, because we can’t. That’s why they’re ‘workshops’ rather than ‘online rehearsals’. They aren’t just a nice thing to do to get our instruments out; they have a purpose: to keep our skills sharp for when we do come back together. That’s why the pieces we’ve chosen are all very likely to feature on future APO programmes – we’re planning and preparing for our future together rather than just getting through the ‘Covid now’. We may be on mute and unable to hear each other play, but we’re interacting as the phenomenon that is APO, plotting a long course together.

Leading the workshops generates a little of the APO buzz that I miss so much. It’s not the same as the real thing. Of course it isn’t. So why aren’t we doing as other groups are and bringing together small groups of players for live events/rehearsals? There are a number of factors at play. Firstly, finding a venue is very difficult. Most schools will not currently entertain the idea of hiring out their facilities. Indeed, I know of one non-professional orchestra which has rehearsed at the same school for many years and have offered to undertake the necessary cleaning/sanitisation of chairs, etc., but the school still refuses to hire the hall for rehearsals. I do not blame schools for taking this position, given all they’ve had to go through to get pupils back safely. Why would they add to the stress they’re already under?

Even if a venue can be secured and risk assessments completed etc. there’s a strong possibility, especially at the current time of rising cases, of making huge efforts to bring a small number of people together only for them to be dashed at the last minute by a local lockdown. Without complaint, the team that runs APO devotes many hours that frankly, we don’t have, to making everything happen. It makes sense to put those hours into events we know are almost certain to go ahead, rather than ones where our time and APO’s money could go to waste. It’s also worth mentioning that the APO committee has not been idle this year – we’re making lots of plans to put APO in a strong position for the future, including investing in percussion instruments, following up on what we learned from the relaxed performances of #APOplanets and promulgating that good practice, exploring new ways to support young musicians and music education (not just moral support – meaningful financial support) and commissioning new music (see below).

Then there’s the question of whether running a live event is worth the risk. For my day job, I work in a field where an understanding of safety risk is essential. The tragic statistics of 2020 obviously point to the fact that Covid-19 can be fatal – the worst consequence. But safety risk is a combination of consequence x likelihood. At 41, I’m lucky to be relatively young, fit and healthy. Even if I contract Covid-19, I’m unlikely to be seriously affected by it. The same can be said for many APO members, but not all. For some, it may not be their personal risk factors that are at play, but those of relatives they either live with or need to see often, for whom they want to reduce the likelihood of a bad consequence (which may not just be death, of course – the long-term effects of Covid can be highly debilitating, even for younger sufferers).

Before attempting to organise in-person events in a Covid world, Making Music’s guidance suggests surveying members to see who would be comfortable with attending. Such an exercise would likely produce a split between those who would be comfortable and those who would not. Quite a few APO members live some considerable distance from Reading, so even if they wanted to it would be impractical for them to attend. Many may feel that the musical proposition isn’t worth the risk; fixing a workable ensemble and finding appropriate repertoire that fits the forces when you’ve already got a wide range of technical confidence is a challenge at the best of times (more on that below, in a more positive vein).

Organising in-person events that only a proportion of our members feel they can attend may disenfranchise those who feel they can’t come (though of course I’m sure they’d be gracious enough not to begrudge others the opportunity to play), or worse put pressure on players to attend when they feel they shouldn’t. We’re all adults, but fear of missing out may skew people’s perception of safety risk. Of course, you may counter that fear of the virus is skewing mine and the committee’s into a position of being over-cautious, by focussing on consequence and forgetting likelihood. But put yourself in our shoes for a moment: if we organised an event and a player or players subsequently tested positive, with all the implications that would have for those players’ family and friends, how would we feel?

Personally speaking, if I had more confidence in the test and trace system, maybe my perception of the safety risk would be different. I’m hopeful that in the coming months, the situation will improve in this regard. In the meantime, we choose to suppress our impatience to play together again and stick with the online programme. Although Mel and I are both professional musicians, we are lucky to have other sources of income. As such, APO does not have the obligation to pay professional fees that other amateur orchestras have to their conductor and/or leader. We’ll shortly be engaging several professional musicians to tutor sectionals for the online workshops, and having raised over £15,000 for professional musicians since the start of the pandemic, nobody could accuse APO of denying anyone an income from our activities.

Most importantly, as mentioned above, the online programme is the start of a journey back to being together again. We’re very close to announcing details of a couple of exciting new commissions of original and arranged music for flexible ensemble, which will be available in the new year, if not sooner. This will enable APO members to form sextets, complying with the ‘Rule of Six’, to learn new music and versions of music that we’ll eventually play as an orchestra in their full scoring. There will be six pairs of parts, with a bass instrument at the bottom, a treble instrument at the top and everything else in between. One part from each pair will be geared to a string instrument; the other a wind instrument. Parts will be provided in various transpositions and clefs. This will make it possible for APO members to organise themselves in groups covering all six parts with a flexible combination of instruments. As the situation evolves, we’ll be able to scale up these arrangements for in-person events without worrying about finding a precise combination of instruments for a given scoring. It’s our route back to normality.

I don’t believe we’re ‘giving up’ or being defeatist by not holding in-person events until the winter is done. Instead, we feel that we’re reacting to the realities of the situation in a way that works for us. The online workshops and new commissions are important because we all need to work towards a time when we’re back together making music. During the tougher times of this pandemic, the hope and expectation of that happy time is what keeps me going.