The artist's life

Tips for musicians during COVID-19… from a Canadian artist in China

Canadian singer-songwriter Ember Swift has been living and working in Beijing for more than a decade and is now a veteran of weeks of isolation. She wrote this piece for us on how she’s coped as an artist.  You can visit Ember online at www.emberswift.com.

Lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic has happened in a way similar to a traditional folk song sung in rounds. China started the first verse in late January, and now, as our voices curl into the second, Canada has begun to sing those first lines of that first verse too. It’s a haunting song that no one really wants to sing in the first place. Yet, a hint of hope exists somewhere in its connecting phrases—in the fact that we are all singing this together as one global world. May this pandemic ultimately unite us, but until this whole (long and lonely) song has been fully sung and all the participants, in this staggered way, have completed all the verses, we will never really know. We’ve just got to sing it… until the last note sounds.

***

My COVID-19 story:

Chinese New Year fell on Jan 25 this year. As usual, the country of China went into a state of holiday hibernation with family. The streets were typically quiet. What no one expected was the government-mandated continuation of this hibernation for the next two months, transforming those quiet streets into hauntingly empty reminders of a nation in panic.

For musicians, the first result of a pandemic like this one is the cancellation of all gigs. Of course, that makes sense. The goal of our work is to gather large crowds of people into singular spaces, a perfect zone for virus transmission. I was very disappointed to see my robust itinerary of February and March shows (that included a lovely weekend in Sanya, the tropical paradise of China), just get erased overnight. I stared at the calendar in disbelief.

Many have asked me why I haven’t yet hosted any online concerts. My response is simply that during the first six weeks of our lockdown over here, everyone else in the world was still going out to see live shows, completely unaware that an online concert in February by a Canadian in Beijing would be anything symbolic of isolation or pending global struggle. It’s different now, though, and with the rise of this trend internationally, I’m becoming inspired to host one!

But performing is not all that I do. I also work in the recording industry as a voice actor, a music producer, and a vocal coach. It goes without saying that all in-person sessions of this nature got cancelled immediately. In fact, with commercial buildings closed and access to residential compounds restricted for non-residents, I was no longer going out to work, and my home studio became a solo zone. In less than a week, my regularly bustling life spiraled down into a quiet home existence offering a fraction of my income against a stunned silence.

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My coping methods:

That’s when the song of all this started to whisper its opening lines in my head. It has a kind of familiarity like only traditional songs passed down through generations can convey with their circling melodies and long, lyrical sagas. It’s the kind of song that Joni Mitchell or Gordon Lightfoot or Joan Baez would have sung—a song from centuries past that still relates to the human experience of now and has survived the test of time. After all, this isn’t a global issue that occupies the headlines for just a week or so; it’s an experience that defines a calendar year, if not a generation. In song form, that could be symbolized by a dirge lasting 15 to 20 minutes, almost hypnotic in its repetition, but comforting too, like a glass of abandoned beer long turned warm after a late night of singing in the pub with friends.

So when that song started to sprinkle itself into my stunned silence, I got to work on my music in a different way:

I’ve picked up my guitar every day. This could be a brilliant time for creation—many full albums will be written during this period, to be sure—but, for me, the best result of the lockdown has been a daily regimen of technical practice, which is a golden luxury. There’s so much more to learn on the instruments of our choice, even after decades of using them to create music.

I have done more production work for myself. My new album was supposed to come out this spring but, unsurprisingly, it will be delayed. This turn of events has given me time to really consider it carefully, with even more focus on detail than before. The result is a project I’m even more excited about. I can’t wait for you to hear it!

I’ve stepped up my home studio business. Since becoming a parent and diversifying my income streams, I don’t just rely on live performance to pay my bills anymore. This means that during a lockdown like this one, I’m one of the lucky ones. This whole situation has enabled me to migrate a lot of voice-over clients to my home studio and resume production work for clients in ways that work with additional musicians remotely, for example. May this result in fewer trips to outside studios in the future, regardless of any virus. And at least I can still put food on the table.

I’ve reconsidered my career path. There’s nothing like a forced homestay to help us re-evaluate what we’re doing with our lives. People who experience hospitalization or purposely isolate themselves in remote cabins for retreat purposes know exactly what I’m talking about. The result will be a collective emergence from some long-ignored fogs that, thanks to COVID-19, are being illuminated for us, collectively, at this very moment.

I can coach or teach remotely. I have a handful of vocal students, and although I haven’t yet done remote sessions with any of them, I know several of my musician friends have taken to giving online lessons to replace in-person ones. With the entire world switching to pure online education so suddenly, the number of suitable platforms and quantity of resources is going to explode, making such teaching methods easier than ever before.

***

In good news, after two months of lockdown, Beijing is starting to open up more. The lockdown isn’t officially lifted yet, but more businesses have opened up, kids are riding their bikes outside, and people have stopped looking so panicked. China will be the first nation to re-open schools (though no word yet on when).

As each nation, one by one, has started to sing the first words of the first verse of this in-the-round traditional “viral” folk song, I’m optimistic here in China that our round will soon come to an end. Eventually, Canada’s will too. And, even though the world will be exhausted by the singing of it, the silence after the last note sounds will, most certainly, be filled with hope.

I guess that’s when someone’s finally gotta drink that warm beer!

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