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Our Response to COVID-19

I wanted to write a blog post sharing some thoughts and the approaches we have taken in response to Covid-19. I hope organisations and individuals sharing their perspectives like this can be useful in terms of creating a collective resource or, in the future, contributing to an archive of this period. This is new territory for us all and I think there will be things we (CMS) are getting right and things we could be doing better, and I welcome any thoughts and ideas which this simple blog might generate. We need to keep talking and thinking. The conversation in arts and society currently is changing at a fast rate and we need to acknowledge this and keep questioning and exploring. I have tried to focus on the positives and opportunities for the purposes of this text, but I am of course very aware of the deep impact on health, livelihoods, and creativity all across the sector, and the huge challenges which lie ahead.

In mid-March, when it became clear that lockdown was inevitable, and that this new Coronavirus was going to be impacting our lives, work, and future, we all found ourselves faced with a new set of challenges. Difficult circumstances and uncertainty are something artists and arts organisations are accustomed to, but this brought something new that none of us were expecting, nor were experienced in responding to.

The immediate impact was to events taking place in the days after lockdown was enforced - which in our case included one of our Coorie Doon projects taking place in Gallowhill which we completed remotely, and the cancellation of the remaining two Regional Gatherings which connect volunteer music promoters across Scotland. Since then, the impact has extended to artist residencies, our new one-day chamber music festival, a second Coorie Doon at the neonatal unit of the Glasgow Royal Hospital for Children, development sessions, our learning programme, performances, and much more. At this stage it is hard to predict whether the rest of the year's plans will take place and if they do, in what form, but it's important we keep listening, talking and supporting each other.

What we have done so far:

Staff

Although I want to focus on how we support the people we work with, it is of course important to look at our organisation and staff. All three CMS staff members are professional musicians and some we knew were going impacted financially in terms of their free-lance work. We decided to offer additional working days in the short term to support the part-time staff member and invest in additional capacity for us to respond effectively with new and altered activity to support the wider chamber music community.

The key to all of this, for us, was the communication and supportive measures from our funder, Creative Scotland. This gave us stability, at least in the short-term, which in turn enabled us to focus on supporting the people we work with who have been hit harder by Covid-19.

Artists

Live Streaming

As venues closed and projects and performances were cancelled, it became clear that these were going to be worrying times for us all. It was particularly apparent that artists were going to be hit hard. We wanted to move quickly to get support to them and on 17th March released the first five of our Streaming Home Concerts series, which began two days later. The Streaming Home Concerts are free to watch with the option of making a donation, 100% of which goes to the performers involved.

Live streaming (the performances are not pre-recorded) was something we had never ventured into before, so we had to move and learn quickly and invest in equipment — mics, stands, digital recorders, camera, etc. — putting together a streaming box with the necessary equipment and how-to guide for users. The box has since made its way to Fraserburgh and Moray as well as the central belt. As I write this, we have live-streamed 15 Home Concerts, supporting 24 musicians, reaching an audience of over 30k people. The home concerts are relaxed, informal, and intimate, and offer interaction with the artists and viewers via Youtube's live chat, creating an online community and allowing us to feel part of a collective experience. The first concert alone was viewed live by audiences in Finland, Indiana, France, Germany, Netherlands, Benbecula, Pathhead, Cromarty, Ontario, Michigan, Northumberland, Rochester, Italy, Oregon, and Kintyre. The concerts have also offered audiences comfort, and sometimes just a welcome distraction, during troubling times:

"What a lifesaver! We are so grateful, learned a lot, and had fun in the process. It was really good for me to have such an event to work towards... there's a lot to be said for having focus and a goal."

Performer

"Thanks for the space and the music. And the audience too for some chat in our isolation. It doesn't feel so bad just now."

Audience member

Importantly, it also means that musicians were paid at least as well as they would be in a "normal" concert setting. So, through our investment in time and resources we were able to leverage far more support for artists.

Whilst the majority of us would consider in-person live performance a far better experience, I don't believe that this diminishes the value of the home concerts. They offer a different experience and should not be compared like-for-like, and the home concerts can offer something different to a "regular" concert. Of course, not all live streams will be a success, from technical issues, to low viewing figures, and audio/visual limitations. But if we look at one of our more successful live streams, it was watched by over 400 people live and is now at 10,000 views. Donations from the audience meant that the performers were paid a far higher fee than would have typically been possible. If we transfer this to the "real world" context, we have a chamber music concert in rural Scotland reaching nearly 10k people across the world and paying fees which would exceed what would normally be possible. I am not suggesting that we should all forget live performance and switch to streaming, but I think we perhaps should not be too dismissive of it either. I think it can co-exist with traditional live music experiences and offer a different way of experiencing classical music for those who want to also enjoy this due to accessibility issues or owing simply to preference. I view this as adding value and alternatives to activity, not necessarily replacing it. There are also some interesting thoughts on how it negates the potential barriers to access live classical music in terms of venue, cost, and perceptual issues as well as the potential for reaching new audiences.

Commissioning new work

We looked at where is might be possible for artists to continue their work within the current restrictions and the creation of new music seemed, on the surface, to be an area to consider. Of course, there are many articles written on putting too much pressure on yourself to create and produce during this incredibly difficult time, and I think we all have experienced this. We have been able to honour, and actually advance, the timeline of the creation of three planned commissions and, although the premieres will not take place for some time, this allowed a way of getting payment to composers whilst they need it most. We have also commissioned three more artists since lockdown, in addition to 6 mini-commissions as part of an ongoing collaborative lockdown project. So, we are really delighted to be able to release details of these 6 full and 6 mini-commissions over the coming weeks.

Listening to artists

Always aware of the limitations of a top-down approach, we wanted to make sure we were asking what artists needed. We are in regular, weekly contact with our Artist in Residence (Kim Moore) and Ensemble in Residence (Alice Allen & Katrina Lee) to check-in with them since lockdown and see them as key members of our organisation, rather than solely as recipients of a development opportunity. From these conversations emerged our Friday Forum, providing a weekly open platform for peer-to-peer sharing via Zoom meet-ups with the content and approach being decided by the artists. I think this time has made freelancers feel particularly vulnerable and as if they have to go it alone. We have tried to create a situation whereby the musicians we work with closely feel that they are part of something bigger which always has their backs.

We are also aware that tech and online teaching, recording, and performing has become crucial to continued work and creative output. Classical musicians are having to quickly learn how to use recording software, video, microphones, etc. As a response to this, we commissioned a resource pack of videos, written guides, and recommended equipment created specifically for chamber musicians which is freely available to access.

Promoters and Audiences

We have also been working to support our network of 70 volunteer-run chamber music promoter organisations and their audiences during this time, and we are working on ways to support them in the short- and longer-term to ensure sustainability beyond this current year. The chamber music volunteers and audiences have a high proportion of individuals who would be considered at-risk in relation to Covid-19 and this adds additional challenges and barriers to getting live performances going again.

Covid-19 has also presented an opportunity for us to engage in new ways with our older audiences across Scotland. We have had a great response to our Streaming Home Concerts and I think this situation is providing a gentle push for some to try more online interaction. We are aware that older people can of course be more at-risk and suffer from increased isolation during the lockdown. As well as the communication and concerts, we have also asked artists to record short videos with messages to these audiences. We also know that it may be a long time before older audiences can come together to see live music, so we hope that these gestures can really help fill that gap and increase morale.

Beyond Lockdown

Although we are still in a period of restriction, it's important for us and those we work with to be able to plan and look forward to a time where we can make things happen together in person. None of us truly know exactly when this will be possible, but we want to reschedule and run the affected activity whenever possible.

We all want, and probably need, to remain hopeful and think to the future, and with this in mind, we are launching our Scottish Chamber Music Directory and halving the cost of entry to musicians. This can help with the current financial challenges and also perhaps give some opportunity to be proactive and generate future income through concert bookings from our promoters. We have continued with our planned New Chamber Music Promoters Programme, which will support the next generation of chamber music promoters over a two-year period to deliver more experimental series in Durness, Perthshire, and Edinburgh in 2021. We are, like many others, also looking at alternative methods and platforms to continue our events and projects for the duration of the year.

Some thoughts

We took a proactive approach from the beginning, meaning support went out to those who most needed it. But we must try to make time to reflect, plan for the long-term, and ensure resources used in the most effective way possible. The challenge is to be active and support others worse off, whilst ensuring we reflect and look at the longer term; be both responsive and reflective. In addition to this, there is the human aspect. We have been trying to look after ourselves and our loved ones and attempting to make sense of what is happening on a personal level.

In the grand scheme, the work we have done, the support and funds which have gone out to the people we work with may only have a relatively small impact, but perhaps it is about the collective impact of each of us doing all that we can, if we are fortunate enough to be able to.

It also seems clear that we must respond creatively. We need to be flexible, smart, and open, particularly when we are bracing ourselves for the longer-term financial impact of Covid-19 on the economy, and in turn, arts funding.

I also believe that this period presents an opportunity going forward to reflect, take stock, and consider how we work in broader terms and if this situation and our response could open up different ways of operating and thinking, which we want to continue to embrace. It should also reinforce the value of music and human interaction, which is central to all our work.

This situation is also a reminder that most people want to help each other. The generosity of individuals donating to musicians through the streaming concerts and the support offered to those who need it has been heartening.

Finally, as a chamber music organisation, it's interesting to see us all go back to performing chamber music as it was originally intended: in the chamber, the home.

It's all chamber music now.

Paul Tracey
Chief Executive, Chamber Music Scotland
paul@chambermusicscotland.com