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Louise Braithwaite: Misconceptions Have Been Corrected, But the Damage is Done

Member and orchestral, theatre and chamber musician Louise Braithwaite discusses the effect of coronavirus and misinformation on wind players, and the wider industry.

Photograph of Louise, wearing a dark, professional looking shirt and smiling whilst holding a wind instrument. The background is white, bright and sunny.
The Wind playing and Singing study eventually brought us to a rational conclusion, but not before damage had been done.

Thanks to lobbying by the MU, industry bodies and individuals, it’s finally been shown to the Government’s satisfaction that wind playing and singing aren’t inherently more dangerous during the pandemic than other musical activity. Less dangerous than speaking loudly, as you might after some drinks in a pub.

UK clinical research finally dispelled the myths that had begun to circulate. Heresay and speculation had led to an unscientific three-metre social distancing requirement for winds and a ban on singing in religious services.

The government took credit for the research, but the fact is that it had to be lobbied- hard into commissioning it at all. It refused to use existing European research and made a terrible situation even worse for wind players and singers.

Our disciplines intersect with sport in so many ways but there was a longer delay in getting us back to work in any form. There was a notable absence of creative thinking about the potential crossovers in scientific advice.

The Wind playing and Singing study eventually brought us to a rational conclusion, but not before damage had been done. I read some irresponsible, sensationalist journalism and misguided social media comment from people I would have expected to know better. Musicians stepped up with some brilliant demonstrations and rational comment.

The reporting slant ignored the respiratory risk to wind players

What Wind players needed was for everyone to get onside. While the MU certainly did, fear that we are a danger to public health was being stoked elsewhere. I really didn’t need that. My mental health had already taken a battering. Ignorance was harming the employment prospects of a section of the workforce.

Was the risk from Wind playing and singing during Covid ever any greater than for someone handling glasses in a pub, clearing cutlery in a restaurant, or sitting next to someone on a plane?

The reporting slant on wind instrument playing, at every turn, was about how we posed a risk to everyone else. It was never framed as being about a respiratory risk to us.

Wind players have to inhale quickly and very deeply. We exhale into the instrument with extraordinary control. This generally takes a much longer period of time than the inhalation did.

It’s now known that there are some long-lasting effects on the respiratory health of those who recover from Coronavirus. Catching it could be career ending. We need to take distancing, mouthpiece, reed and hand hygiene extremely seriously. Think twice about how you work with students’ instruments if you’re able to give live lessons. Complete a risk assessment.

I took advice from a vet friend about disinfection. You need something like isopropyl alcohol to kill Coronavirus. The traditional vodka soak won’t work for reeds. To kill Covid, the alcohol content must be greater than 60%. Some disinfectant liquids can damage metals so be cautious.

Coronavirus has emphasized inequalities

Wind players, and the rest of the working population, have a quandary that’s impossible to reconcile. We want and need to work, especially where government support has been absent or inadequate. Working during Covid is going to pose a very particular risk to us Windies unless and until an effective vaccine is available.

Coronavirus has emphasised inequalities that already existed and brought us new ones. Groups that have been cohesive were faced with the prospect that half of them would be left behind when performing became possible again.

How could any of us rewind the clock to childhood and choose a different instrument? What repertoire was going to end up being programmed that was cost effective and possible to socially distance? Would we see half the profession returning to work and the rest not?

I’m pleased that we’re now allowed to gather under the regulations governing live music. For me, the best day of the last five months was playing live in a wind quartet for the first time, in early August. Social distancing at that point made for a weird layout where people couldn’t see one another – we weren’t allowed to face one another even with three-metres between us.

But we made it work for the dementia care recording we were working on with Orchestra of the Swan. OOTS had made excellent arrangements, provided clear information in advance, and stuck to the rules. This meant that I felt pretty safe about being at work outside home for the first time. We’ve remained well since.

The freelance Autumn season is now technically possible, but I’m not seeing a return to business as usual in the Midlands. We need to be clear about why this is the case so that we can advocate for further financial support to individuals who need it. The SEISS grants end in October, if you’re eligible at all.

Programming and venue decisions are affected

Taking a financial risk with socially distanced performers and audiences isn’t going to be possible for many organisations who employ freelancers. ACE has been trying to help but its pockets aren’t limitless.

In a typical year I work with about a dozen different groups in the Midlands. They’re not the “crown jewels” (itself a problematic term) of which the government spoke when it announced financial assistance.

What does this mean?

In practice:

  • Freelance organisations are either unable to put anything on because of the uncertainty about Covid and the absence of government backed insurance or other support
  • Any that do will be forced to present smaller ensembles
  • Some regular venues are under serious threat.

If you work in small venues, you can only get a handful of people on the stage with social distancing. The relaxation of the distance for Winds is very welcome, but came too late. Revised programmes had already been worked out on the assumption that small ensembles would be the only possibility.

For orchestral players, that tends to mean strings-based work, maybe with a wind soloist or single winds. This is the UK. Outdoor orchestral performance is hit and miss in a good year and out of the question in the winter.

Programming and venue decisions, borne of absolute necessity, push second players and those further down the line off the list of performers.

I am adapting, but this isn’t possible for everyone

My experience is bearing this out. By this stage of the year, I usually have a good outline of what I’ll be doing until the following Easter and beyond. More dates come in as time goes on and the diary fills up. My Midlands colleagues are in the same situation. I daresay this is reflected across the UK.

We all faced the upset of a season’s work lost in a couple of days. During that awful wait for financial support from the government – if we even qualified – it started to become apparent that new bookings for 2020-21 weren’t coming in either, as they usually would.

Orchestral freelancers are facing vastly reduced performance opportunities and income for the rest of the year at least.

I’m pretty well established as a Midlands woodwind freelancer. My specialism is Cor Anglais, which tends to appear in large scale orchestral works and Bach choral works. It’s not looking good. I expect orchestral players to be differently affected according to instrument. Looking on the bright side, we might encourage some composition for unusual combinations!

At the time of writing I have just two pencilled performance engagements between now and Christmas. One of those was deferred from April. Local lockdowns could prevent these from happening.

I am receiving enquiries and beginning to generate ideas for different types of music work online with non-professional ensembles. Have a think about that. Amateur musicians are very keen to help us, so get in touch with your local groups and ask what they need. They feel the loss of shared live playing just as badly as we do.

I’ve done what I can to adapt and worked from home where I could. I’ve learned some new technology and new skills. I’ve spent more time arranging and writing, and I’ve enjoyed not driving all over the place. I’ve moved my teaching online and attracted some new students that way.

Many of us are willing and able to adapt to survive, change the way we work, or take on different work to make ends meet. That won’t be possible for everyone.

We have to stand together for one another

Non-music employers tend not to be too keen on giving you the odd day off because a gig comes in. How many days off are they likely to give as offers start to increase? Until we return to full income from portfolio performance it’s going to be impossible. The footholds we’ve created for ourselves over the duration of our careers may have been erased. In a challenging time for work availability, it’s guaranteed that there will be someone else who wants that work.

Whatever we do, we must avoid the temptation to accept lower fees, and refuse to work for free. Donate the fee back to the group if you want, but make sure you are paid. Not doing so undermines our status as professionals.

Messages about SEISS and furlough have sometimes read as though this is “just a hobby for a few quid on the side”. If that’s what you want it to be, that’s fine. If it’s your entire living, it’s not. We have to stand together for one another.

I’ve seen a simplistic view expressed a few times on social media. In a nutshell, it’s that when things become a bit more ‘normal’, we can just go straight back to performing overnight.

I think this stems from a misunderstanding of how freelance orchestral performers develop and sustain a career. We need to be employed full time in order to maintain a professional standard and stamina.

If ensembles are likely to be smaller, any lapse in personal standards will be even more apparent. That being the case, you’re less likely to be offered the work next time. This is another potential stressor for many of us in a very difficult year.

Misunderstanding wind instruments, and the industry

I read last week that in response to concerns about Wind playing, one school had banned them and bought 37 ukuleles. Make of that what you will. I expect they’re still tuning up.

The sound that reaches your listening ear is not the air the Wind player has blown out of their lungs. It’s the effect of the vibration that small quantity of air causes by resonating inside the instrument, the player’s head and body, and the room itself. The same as for Strings, Percussion, Singing and speaking. Or dropping your keys. Or shouting into the abyss.

As a final thought, I’d like to ask that we look out for one another with even more care, at least for the time being.

If you’re retired from the profession with a pension that you can manage on, or you have a contract performance job, please think twice about accepting additional freelance work. If you can afford to, please consider whether recommending a freelancer for it instead could make a difference to them managing their rent that month or not. Thanks.

However you look at it, the debate and speculation about the perceived risks from wind instrument playing has shone a light on the staggering level of misunderstanding about how wind instruments work and about how the industry works.

That tells us that there’s an opportunity to engage and to inform. Let’s take it.

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Published: 10/09/2020

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