Strata, ROCO, and COVID-19

Strata, ROCO, and COVID-19Part of an ad for one of our Strata concerts last month, now postponed until next season.

On March 5, just as the coronavirus began making its presence known in the United States, I flew out for a 10-day trip that included three concerts with my trio, Strata, an appointment for my annual visit with Mark Jacobi, the brilliant man who works on my clarinets, and a family wedding. Because of all the dire news about how drastically COVID-19 was changing life in Asia and Europe, I was concerned about traveling. I’m usually a fearless and eager traveler, but there was something about this situation that felt different, like it could end up being serious, so it wasn’t without a degree of concern that I boarded my first flight. Strata had signed contracts to play our concerts and, at that point, the potential for cancellations hadn’t entered anyone’s mind. It was reassuring to see everyone on the plane constantly using hand sanitizer, scrubbing their seats and tray tables with disinfectant, etc. Ironically, I thought it might prove to be an even safer time to travel than usual given the precautions people were taking. Little did any of us know . . . .

The first four days were spent in Philadelphia. I spent the day on Friday with Mark Jacobi, and it was great to see him and observe him as he looked over my instruments. I’m always fascinated by how he makes the most complicated things look quite simple and, by contrast, how adjustments that I might imagine to be rather simple end up requiring a great deal of time. He is a consummate master and it’s a great feeling to leave knowing that he has worked his usual magic, and reassured by the fact that his work lasts a very long time. From there it was on to a two-day celebration of a family wedding with a variety of festivities, concluding with the wedding ceremony, followed by dinner and dancing on Saturday night. On Sunday morning, I took the train to Maryland to meet Audrey and James for what I thought would be a week of rehearsals and concerts, though the news about the virus at that point was raising everyone’s concerns about what might lie ahead.

COVID-19 was beginning to have such a powerful impact that things were changing dramatically every 12-24 hours. We continued to enjoy productive rehearsals, moving forward as if all concerts would go on as planned. But by Tuesday, it became clear that the virus would change everything even more quickly that we feared, and all but one of our performances were postponed until next season. At least we will get to play at these venues again soon (fingers crossed), but we were, like all other musicians sharing the same kinds of experiences, quite disappointed.

I changed my flight schedule and came home a couple of days earlier than planned. Baltimore Washington International Airport was practically a ghost town at 5 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, which is unheard of. And my return flight to Austin was almost completely empty, reminiscent of a flight I was on a couple of weeks after 9/11. It was eerie, sobering, and I was glad when I finally arrived at home.

Even at that point, it was known that one could be exposed to the virus and be a carrier without presenting symptoms. So I self-quarantined for the requisite two weeks except for daily exercise and one very responsible trip to the grocery store. A visit to my 87-year-old mother in North Carolina had to be postponed. The news kept rolling in on an almost hourly basis, and things really began to fall apart: Performances and travel were cancelled for all musicians everywhere, including the remainder of our River Oaks Chamber Orchestra season.

I ended up feeling pretty depressed and anxious about everything. Even though I could recognize the larger problems of the world, I allowed myself to just feel it and move through it and try to learn from it. Fortunately back in February, a couple of people had told me how positively impacted they had been by the writings of Pema Chödrön, and I immediately bought a couple of books based on her talks, When Things Fall Apart and Practicing Peace in Times of War. Both of these books are making a big difference for me.

Chödrön’s books have introduced me to new ways of thinking, and strongly reinforced things I already know (but definitely need to be reminded of over and over again). In particular, I’ve found her ideas about hopelessness to be cathartic. I’ve always thought of hope as being at the center of wellbeing, that perhaps a loss of hope could be one of the things that causes people to self harm or even commit suicide. Hope feels comforting and optimistic and I hold on to it for dear life. But Chödrön teaches that only in the face of hopelessness are most of us able to truly be in the present moment. Our hopes for the future are seductive and allow us to dream in both good times and bad times. Current circumstances, complete cancellations, no sense of when this will all be over and what our world will be like on the other side, have all presented the opportunity to let go of hope and stare this very moment in the face. It’s proving to be life changing and I’m grateful.

After allowing myself to experience a kind of general malaise, I’m finally beginning to feel more motivated. Even on my worst days in all this, I know I’m incredibly lucky and have nothing to complain about. Ordinarily I’m very productive and active, but during much of this crisis, just going for a walk or a run, taking a shower, and doing some reading and/or binge-watching on Netflix have been my greatest “accomplishments.” I’m not going to beat myself up about that, but I am pleased that I seem to be finding a groove that allows for great deal more variety, possibility, and even consistent productivity in my daily experience. It’s very possible that all of us are going to be much better off because of our current experience for many reasons, not the least of which is that pretty much everyone in the world is going through this. Maybe we can come together and regain the empathy and compassion that have been lacking in our world for far too long.

I’m also hopeful that classical music will come out a big winner because of COVID-19. People are already turning to the arts in general and music in particular during this crisis, and with so many wonderful organizations offering rebroadcasts of all manner of performances, it seems like a great chance for everyone to learn or be reminded of what a big difference classical music can make in the quality of one’s life experience. To that end, I’ll give a shout out to ROCO, my Houston-based chamber orchestra. Head over to and visit our Listening Room where you’ll find recordings and videos of all of our past performances. If you’d like a more communal experience, join us on Facebook every Sunday at 2 p.m. CST as we listen together to a different past performance each week.

“When you can’t do what you do, do what you can.” —– Jon Bon-Jovi