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Closing the gates--March 2020

March 21, 2020

Closing the gates

St. Peter took some hard knocks. In the hours before Jesus was crucified, he shamed himself by fulfilling Jesus’s prediction that he would deny his association with Christ, “before the cock crows three times . . . ,” and sometime around 60 A.D., he was crucified under the Emperor Nero of fiddling fame. (If he was in his twenties when Christ was crucified, he would have been over eighty when he died.) After all that, he was named the gatekeeper of heaven, which I suppose is one of those dream jobs that come with “be careful what you wish for.” His image appears in countless paintings, statues, stained-glass windows, even kneeling cushions, and he is always depicted holding a huge ornate key. Ecclesiastical buildings named for him bear iconic images of keys, and many a cartoon shows him sitting at a lectern wafting in the clouds before a great gate, the fortunate throngs enjoying themselves inside with wings aflutter and harps astrumming, the hopeful standing in line awaiting judgment. “You’re a tenor? We don’t admit many singers, but we’re short a few tenors. In you go.” Or “It’s all here on Facebook. Denied.” Or “Your account is not coming up. Give me your username and password again.”

On March 16, the most prominent earthly edifice honoring Peter dramatically shut its doors as Pope Francis announced that Easter services would not be open to the public at Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. The Archdiocese of New York has cancelled public Masses, and countless other dioceses are doing the same. At this moment, the American public is hunkering down and buying everything they are uneasy about doing without. The structure of the supply chain that we normally take for granted is wobbling and threatening to topple. Will distribution centers close so that nothing will be shipped from warehouse to store? We are learning a lot about what makes us tick as we witness otherwise civilized people brawling over toilet paper.

Wendy and I have left New York City for our home in Maine. That is not unusual as we come and go from this house at all times of the year, balancing the rapid pace of city life with the more relaxed setting at the end of a half-mile gravel road. But this time we are joined by daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter who live in Brooklyn. We arrived here separately, filling each car with groceries, booze, and household supplies. With a baby in the house, we sure do not want to run out of laundry detergent, and with five of us here, we are running the dishwasher twice a day.

Social distancing is our new way of life. In a matter of days, we have eschewed the pleasant practice of physical contact when greeting both friends and strangers. Handshakes and hugs are suddenly physically threatening. Public assembly is an important part of our society, but now restaurants, bars, theaters, and concert halls are closed, and we are advised to avoid airplanes, trains, taxis—and any other place where a stranger may have wiped his nose or sneezed before touching something. Someone sneezed in a subway car, and people started shouting.

Many are lamenting the loss of choir rehearsals. It may be easy for the organist and director to feel the grind of yet another Thursday evening, but for countless devoted volunteers, that evening of collaboration, conviviality, and creativeness is important, even essential to their well-being. One colleague wondered online if there is any internet platform that would support anything like a choir rehearsal.

A colleague mentioned that he had watched one of the late-night comedy shows and thought it strange how the host who is usually hilarious fell flat in the vacuum of the empty theater. Public performance of any type depends so much on the energy exchanged between audience and performers. Thousands of organists and clergy have hastily scheduled staff meetings to work out the logistics and dynamics of live-streaming worship from empty churches. One colleague whose church has just received delivery of a large sophisticated new organ noted on Facebook how strange it was to lead worship playing in an empty room.

Out, damn spot!

Wash your hands. We have shared lots of ways to count off twenty seconds. Sing the alphabet. Sing “Happy Birthday.” Recite the Lord’s Prayer or the Prayer of St. Francis. How about the bit from Act V, Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, when Lady Macbeth shouts regret for her evil ambitions as she washes her hands?

Out, damn spot! Out, I say! — One, two. Why, then, ’tis time to do’t. Hell is murky! — Fie, my Lord, fie! A soldier, and afeared? What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account? Yet who would have thought the old man to have so much blood in him.

I read it to myself in exactly twenty seconds. If you emote a little, your hands will be the cleaner for it. 

The word virus is derived from the Latin vīrus, meaning “poison” and “slimy fluid,” as is the word virulent. This lively etymology became especially prescient when the churchly conversation took up the epidemiological issue of the common cup. I have been receiving communion using the common cup for over fifty years, and I have never thought much about the sanitary aspect of it.1 Until last Sunday when I refused the cup, I have willingly put my lips to the wine. I know that the purificator is sacred, but it is a stretch to believe that it has scientific antiseptic properties.

Grinding to a halt

In the beginning of last week, significant cancellations started to appear. All of the in-season professional sports leagues suspended games, and colleges and universities announced campus closings and the advent of distance learning and teaching. On Thursday, March 12, the vibe in New York City changed dramatically as all the major cultural institutions closed at once, including the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the forty-one theaters that comprise Broadway. Wendy and the troupe had left for Maine on Tuesday, and this news was enough for me. I held two meetings on Friday—they seemed safe enough because they included just a few people in empty churches, and I drove instead of taking the subway and then spent the afternoon ransacking our pantries and cupboards to add to the hoard in Maine.

It was fascinating and eerie to watch the city grind to a halt. The subway system that ordinarily carries 5.5 million riders each day saw a drop of 18.5% on Wednesday. Ridership on the principal commuter railroads, Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North, dropped 31% and 48%, respectively. (Metro-North runs through New Rochelle, New York, the site of a virulent breakout of the virus.) Restaurants closed, bars closed, sidewalks emptied. The traffic was significantly lighter as my son-in-law and I drove out of the city on Saturday morning. And no sooner had I arrived in Maine, when Mayor De Blasio of New York City announced the closure of the public schools.

When organbuilders are at work inside an organ, it is common for one to yell for the blower to be shut off in order to open an access panel or clamber across a reservoir. Organ Clearing House lingo for this is “Organ off!”2 Someone at the console flips the switch, and you sit inside the instrument watching reservoirs go down, swell shutters flick open, and the wind noise dying away, maybe a little distant whimper of a cipher adding an eerie comment. You witness the life going out of the instrument. The great instrument that was so vital and full of life is reduced to dead weight. New York City felt like that to me last week as the great machine of Gotham ground to a halt.

This brings a converse experience to my hopeful mind. When we leave a dock or mooring in our boat, we use the “Iron Wind,” the snappy little twenty-horsepower diesel engine located in a well under the cockpit deck. It is reliable and easy to control and saves us from ourselves when our sailing skills are outwitted by fluid situations, but it is noisy and contrary to the pleasures of sailing. Once we are in open water, we motor into the wind to raise the sail, “fall off” the wind to fill the sail, and shut down the engine. It is a liberating and exhilarating moment, and I look for it, allowing the wind to take over. I look forward to it each time we set out. As the boat goes quiet, it becomes more powerful. Twenty horsepower is nothing when compared to an ocean full of wind.

Will we gain strength through this ordeal? Will this interruption of our routines bring creative ideas, new challenges, and refreshed outlooks? I hear friends talking about all the new music they will be learning. Maybe our exiles will strengthen our relationships with those close to us. Maybe we will find new and quieter ways to be creative and powerful, like the sailboat gaining its true power when the mechanical propulsion is removed. When life returns to “normal," you can let me know.

It’s personal.

As colleges and universities are closing, there has been a lot of chatter about what private lessons for performance majors will be like. Teachers are on social media asking each other how they plan to manage one-on-one “distance instruction,” and all sorts of online meeting platforms are being discussed and compared. I wonder if this could have a long-term effect on the dynamic of teaching music. One of the strongest memories I have of my organ lessons at Oberlin was the sound of my teacher’s red pencil making circles and notes on my score as I played from memory with my back to him. My ears would burn, and I would itch to be finished so my inadequacies could be revealed. It was immediate, intimate, and very personal. I wonder if those emotions could be translated through Skype?

As with any other musical instrument, private organ lessons are essential to the development of a musician. In that intimate one-on-one setting, the student’s aspirations, ego, and nascent artistic expression are at stake, and the teacher’s understanding of who and where the student is and where he should or could be going is essential. A good teacher and good student nurture each other.

A great performer is great because of the strength of his convictions and the depth of his academic and emotional understanding of the music, all above and beyond the pedagogy of playing notes. Her chops are assumed, she has worked out answers to all her questions, and she presents with conviction to her audiences. The effective teacher helps the student understand how to build a concept of a piece of music and present it with conviction. This intense one-on-one relationship is a privilege for both the student and the teacher.

I hope that all this teaching and rehearsing can continue somehow during this extraordinary time. I imagine we all will learn something from this, will come away with new perspectives about what we do and why we do it. I also hope that when this is all over, we are not tempted to consider that teaching from a distance is preferable than in person. If you are busy now trying to figure out how to teach effectively online, I hope you will use the experience to note why working in person with your students is more effective. If you have been taking the usual personal approach for granted, this may be a chance to gain the power of the wind as the usual motors stop grinding along.

If it isn’t live . . . .

On March 12, 2020, Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra presented a full-length live concert streamed online. The program included two complicated, searching pieces created in trying times: Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia, written shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, written just as World War II was coming to a close. There was no audience present. The orchestra has long had facility for high-resolution broadcasts of their concerts in Berlin’s Digital Concert Hall, normally available through expensive subscription. This concert was offered free, and Alex Ross, longtime music critic for The New Yorker, wrote of the power of the event, but he noted how strange it was when Rattle walked onto the stage not to the applause of a huge audience, but the polite foot-shuffling and tea-time clapping of the orchestra, not to mention the vacuum of silence at the conclusion of each piece.

In his article in The New Yorker of March 14, Ross continued with a description of a similar concert presented by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Beethoven gave his Fifth Symphony a high-octane conclusion with a succession of thundering cadences and swift tempos that whip the usual audience into a frenzy. Ross wrote, “the leaden silence that followed was unnerving. Nézet-Séguin and his players looked a little ashen as they stared out to the cameras. Music is at heart a social medium, and it desperately needs contact.”

If an orchestra plays to an empty hall, is it a performance? If a teacher instructs a student over FaceTime, is it an effective lesson? Live artistic performance such as music or theater is an exchange of energy. The actor sees the audience through the footlights and knows whether they are excited or bored. Even when playing a large organ sitting scores of feet from the nearest audience member, the organist feels the energy of the listeners. That energy rebounds to the musician, and the cycle continues as the music grows more and more exciting.

We are being advised to limit gatherings to ten people. Ten people can make a wonderful party, but it is not enough to generate the excitement of hearing music as part of a thrilled throng. I wonder if our lives will be going back to normal when these words reach you. I wonder what lasting damage there might be to our society, our economy, our tolerance and patience with each other. I hope we can all move forward with the power of a new wind as the engine of everyday life rattles to a stop.

Photo caption: David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, five minutes before the March 10 concert of the New York Philharmonic with music of Debussy, Ravel, and Scriabin (photo credit: Mark Pacoe)


1. During the distribution of Holy Communion on a sweltering summer evening, the priest inadvertently wiped his forehead with the purificator between communicants. Wendy and I were taken aback.

2. We have other lingo that is useful for particular situations. “The tremolo’s running” is code for “other people have just come into the church,” which means watch your language.

Editor's note: a version of this essay will appear in the May 2020 issue of The Diapason.

John Bishop

John Bishop is executive director of the Organ Clearing House.