These are times that try musicians' souls. They also foster creativity.
Many, if not most, Minnesota musicians are turning lockdown obstacles into opportunities, pursuing projects that an unanticipated plethora of free time has afforded them.
The most obvious and conspicuous activities have been doing what comes naturally: performing in front of an online audience rather than a live one. But others have charted entirely new courses, boldly exploring new enterprises to enrich the lives of themselves and others.
Bill Schrickel, assistant principal bass with the Minnesota Orchestra, speaks for his peers with a common goal of "trying to get something positive out of this … to use this forced isolation time to get a little bit closer to wrapping my mind around this creative energy."
While these endeavors most often have a musical component, Anna Lee Roberts and Mia Athey are the proverbial exceptions that prove the rule.
Roberts has two vocations in which she is sidelined: as a cellist who performs with Wellespring, Christopher Lynch and the Dust of Suns Ensemble and Natalie Lovejoy and the Ex-Lovers, and as a hospice music therapist with Allina Health. She has turned to a sidelight of the latter, starting work on a thesis for St. Catherine University titled "The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic in the Hospice Industry in Minnesota."
Athey, a mezzo-soprano with Minnesota Opera, also is at work on the written word: editing a psychological thriller she has been writing for the past couple of years. This task is arguably more challenging than the actual writing.
"It's not as easy as I thought," she said. "As you read your own work, some of it is impressive and sometimes it's very hard to read; you go, 'it would sound better if I did this.' I know there are some things I want to take out, some sections that are extraneous."
It has been quite a contrast to her stage work.
"Sometimes we perform roles written hundreds of years ago," she said. "I might have opinions, but I keep them to myself. As a writer, I have more autonomy. I can portray characters the way I want."
That's true, at least, until the ongoing editing process, although the results have proved as rewarding as the work has proven laborious.
"Now," she said, "I'm thinking a lot about a sequel."
Other musicians have been immersed within their fields.
Schrickel, who lost a chance to conduct Gustav Mahler's Fifth Symphony with the Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra when a late-March concert was postponed, took a deep dive into that composer's life and works.
Along the way, he has uncovered quite a few misperceptions about his favorite composer.
"In his later symphonies, the Ninth and the unfinished 10th, he has been depicted as saying farewell to the world," Schrickel said, "that he was weary and exhausted and ready to wave goodbye to the world.
"But the fact is he was very excited. He was not going gently into that good night. He was not frail and sickly; he was vibrant really almost to the very end. That makes me hear those later symphonies differently."
By contrast, "his most tragic piece, the Sixth Symphony, was written one summer when he was as happy as he ever was. And some of his most positive and assertive music was written when he was sad."
As he studied more, Schrickel also discovered fallacies in the conventional wisdom about Mahler's youth.
"The picture writers would paint of his childhood was that he grew up extremely poor, living on a military base in Bohemia. It ended up he was in a little Bohemian town, but his father had a store and bakery and the house was not in military barracks but in the town center."
The musical influences of that upbringing stuck, though.
"You hear the military notes, the trumpet calls, and klezmer notes in his music."
While it has been personally enlightening and enriching to learn so much about Mahler, there will be professional benefits, as well, whenever the concert is rescheduled.
"Hopefully," he said, "I can bring some of this newly acquired knowledge to my players and also hopefully translate it to audiences, the gods willing."
Jay Ferree has taken on a different type of task, but one that should have a similar result: engaging and inspiring his fellow musicians in the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.
The SPCO's principal horn has immersed himself in Johann Sebastian Bach's Goldberg Variations, a work written for harpsichord and even today usually performed on solo piano (most famously by Glenn Gould). Ferree credits an orchestra mate, violinist Daria Adams, who he said "saw the potential for it to feature every musician."
In concocting arrangements that the SPCO can perform, Ferree was "thinking of instruments but also about people, putting faces on what I'm doing," he said. "There are so many … I'm given the black-and-white frames, and I'm coloring them in."
The process has been organic.
"I want to be true to Bach's intent but also make it sound appropriate to the orchestra. I do love doing this now, because of the time it does take, knowing that I can work on a variation and maybe when I get stuck conceptually, I can leave and let it ferment for a while, maybe even start over."
This wouldn't have been possible in normal times.
"The horn is a great way to bring home a paycheck, but there's always been that repressed part of me," Ferree said with a laugh, "that says, 'When am I going to get to compose?' I've always imagined it being part of my life in certain proportions, and now it's getting a healthy proportion."
These explorations aren't limited to the classical world. Josh Misner, leader of the classical-pop crossover ensemble Laurels String Quartet, decided to steep himself in a different kind of composing.
"For years, I've wanted to sequester myself in the studio and take a mad-scientist approach," the violinist said. "A composer writes something down on paper and hands it off to a conductor, and then it goes to the musicians. I decided to take the opposite approach. It's probably closer to what popular musicians do, which is push 'record' and just play whatever comes out."
The process, Misner said, has been "exploratory and improvisational, and that's been freeing."
He added, "I've also taken more of a textural approach, inserting weird sounds and scratches. I wanted to go with the initial expression and follow it, trying really hard not to polish it. With digital recording you can do as many passes as you want, hundreds. I really wanted to avoid that."
At a certain point, he said, "if I tinkered with it any longer it might suck the life and excitement out of it." So he ended up with a 5- to 6-minute song that he likened to Philip Glass "in terms of the rhythmic aspect, with a lot of repetition, kind of harmonic and melodic at the same time."
Misner is pleased with the result, and so is a housemate at least to an extent: "My 9-year-old's reaction was she liked it, but part of it made her brain crazy."
Trying to more directly appeal to the younger set are rocker Chris Osgood and saxophonist Christopher Rochester. They are teaming with MacPhail Center for Music (where Rochester is an instructor) and Walker West Academy to offer free jazz lessons to families affected by COVID-19.
The lessons, Osgood said, are for kids in families affected "either by coming down with the virus or losing their jobs or being furloughed." It's an offshoot of the Twin Cities Jazz Festival, another sponsor, because the June event, which includes a Youth Stage, has been canceled.
Other music students have new undertakings as a result of the stay-at-home scenario. Local music teacher Rachel Bearinger, also an associate digital producer for Performance Today, has seen a strong trend, as many of her students have decided to learn a certain stringed instrument.
The whys and wherefores, in Bearinger's words: "The ukulele is a very accessible instrument that's been surging in popularity in the past 10 years or so. Artists like Ingrid Michaelson, Grace VanderWaal, Dodie Clark and Never Shout Never have released original songs that are fun to listen to and to play and sing.
"Ukuleles are inexpensive, and their strings are softer and more manageable than those of a steel-string guitar or bass."
For these and musicians of every other stripe, this "down time" can be spent in rich and rewarding ways.
"It probably goes without saying," Misner said, "that due to the tragic nature of this pandemic, I'm not looking at this time as an opportunity so much as an obligation to do something positive and meaningful with the situation."