UP CLOSE | Yale communities feel the pandemic’s effect on music making

UP CLOSE | Yale communities feel the pandemic’s effect on music making

Musicians at Yale shared how the pandemic impacted their psychological well-being and altered the nature of their music.
Published on April 12, 2022

If there were to be a medium of communication across boundaries, it would be the universal language of music. There is something magical about listening to live music while swaying your body, synchronized with those around you — an experience that all but disappeared during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Over the past two years, students, staff and faculty across the University were forced to adapt to ever-changing public health restrictions while seeking out avenues for Yalies to continue creating and enjoying music. 

“While the pandemic presented its unique challenges for the arts on campus, it did not let that stop students from creating art and sharing their music,” University President Peter Salovey wrote in an email to the News. 

Music groups were largely unable to meet in person for rehearsals and performances for the entire 2020-21 academic year following the start of the pandemic. Last fall, performance activities resumed on campus in phases — first with rehearsals, then performances with Yale audiences. Eventually, community members outside of the University were gradually invited to attend on-campus performances once again.

When these relaxed restrictions tightened briefly at the beginning of the spring 2022 semester in response to an uptick in on-campus cases, students raised concerns to the Yale administration about a perceived discrepancy between policies regulating the performing arts and other activities, including athletics. 

In conversations with the News, 12 musicians at Yale expressed how the pandemic led to burnout, isolation and disconnection from their craft.

“I just remember feeling so drained and fatigued,” music major Alex Whittington ’22 said. “I had enough Zoom and I didn’t want to log onto another Zoom call, even if it was for music making. I often found myself so constantly defeated, very often just feeling anxious about it, often not wanting to do it. It’s a strange conflict, because I’m glad to have produced music, but it was so hard to find the motivation sometimes.”

Musicians also shared how long quarantine periods and social distancing restrictions took a toll on their mental health, isolating them from the communities that were previously crucial to their craft. 

Still, while the gradual lifting of restrictions may remedy their feelings of separation and rebuild communities, the landscape of music has likely been forever changed by the pandemic.

Isolation, a lack of communication and emotional burnout

Although University-wide limits on audience capacity, vaccination and mask requirements still remain, musical performances on campus are gradually returning to their pre-pandemic norms. However, the return of sound reverberating through Sprague Hall does not negate the psychological impact caused by the three-year period of silence.

“Music is the common universal language,” Kimie Han ’23 said. “Not being able to really directly communicate with other people, directly seeing your music being shared with other people certainly changes how you feel as a musician.”

(Tim Tai, Staff Photographer)

At the height of the pandemic, Yale’s strict social distancing restrictions deprived performers of live audiences. For Music Department chair Ian Quinn, a live audience raises the stakes of a performance, giving musicians an adrenaline rush and making the act of performing more exciting. In addition, musicians express their emotions through music, requiring people they can express their emotions to. 

“Music is a communicative activity and it’s hard to have a conversation with somebody over screens,” Quinn said. “Online performances are like having a conversation where you record yourself, email it to somebody and then they email their response back. That’s not the same as a live, real time connection.”

As in-person performances shifted to online platforms, musicians grappled with a phenomenon known as “Zoom fatigue.”  

According to Mark Rego, assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine, individuals were cut off from each other as society moved to online meeting platforms. This sense of separation made people’s mental health more vulnerable. For Rego, micro-facial expressions — little cues that people subconsciously observe about others during in-person interactions — enable the exchange of information. 

Rego explained that the brain’s prefrontal cortex is where human beings process sensory inputs — such as textures and colors — which relate to images they perceive in three dimensional spaces. The brain “puts a person together” through the senses, he explained. In online interactions, the brain requires more energy to form a mental representation of a person — which can become exhausting after long periods of time. 

“There is just something about being in the presence of another person; you have that degree of connection,” Rego said. “If you put children in front of the TV all day, they will never learn how to speak. There are certainly some people who are very productive in their creative processes when they are alone. But [during the pandemic] there was something large missing that is present when you are together — maybe it’s things you hear, you feel or the spirit of things for more creative endeavors. When I think of people who are creative or collaborative [who can no longer be] together, I think of them like that kid watching Sesame Street all day instead of being together with the adults.”

According to professor of psychology Laurie Santos, humans are happier when they are more socially connected. She pointed to a study by psychologists Ed Diener and Marty Seligman, which found that humans are happiest when physically in the presence of other people, and that overall well-being improves with human contact. Research from a Yale study also supported this thesis, finding that sharing a positive experience with another person without communicating intensifies the pleasantness of that experience.

“My read of the science is that we can get a well-being boost [based on social connection] if we use platforms like Zoom, but the key is that those platforms need to connect people in real time,” Santos wrote in an email to the News. “Connecting via other technologies that aren’t in real time — for example liking someone’s Instagram post or reading through a social media feed — doesn’t seem to give the same well-being boost. One of the worst forms of torture is solitary confinement— as social primates we need to be around other people to be psychologically healthy.”

For musicians, social isolation arose from two sources: the lack of an audience and the lack of other musicians sharing the same performance space. 

Matiss Cudars MUS ’23, said that, like most musicians, he mainly thrives in the presence of others when creating music. Although music can be a solitary activity — according to Cudars, one could hypothetically take one’s instrument, go to the woods and play only for oneself and nature — music is primarily a social process. 

“Musicians are, like most human beings, sensitive to [other] human beings, and they feel when someone really loves or hates what they are doing — and anything in between that spectrum,” Cudars said. “When you’re just with yourself, it’s a different experience [from] the transcendental and magical experience of making collective music. It’s transformative and a very abstract feeling — I lose myself at one point and feel every heartbeat of the audience. My energy connects with others and I react to it. I guess why people like going to concerts is partly because of this.” 

For Cudars, while solo music can be a “wonderful” thing, it is a solitary activity which may lead to feelings of isolation. In-person performances and live music, on the other hand, embody the beauty of human love — which he defines as synchronization as one body. 

The pandemic not only brought an interruption to live performances, but also prevented musicians from rehearsing with one another. Virtual rehearsals eroded the boundaries between the distinct notions of practice, a solitary activity, and rehearsal, a collective activity.

According to musician Louis Sokolow ’22, what separates practice from rehearsal is that practice is one’s own time working through things. On the other hand, rehearsals create collective musicality with others. 

For Maggie Schnyer ’24, the experience of practicing felt more like submitting an assignment on a deadline rather than truly making music.

Some student groups, including the Glee Club, Opera Theatre of Yale College and the Yale Baroque Opera Project, organized virtual projects with each musician recording a section entirely on their own. According to Whittington, singing their part alone was difficult and made them feel isolated. 

Like people around the world who had to adapt to long periods of isolation during the pandemic, many musicians experienced symptoms of psychological burnout.

According to Santos, burnout can be split into three parts, with the first being emotional exhaustion, where one continually feels drained and worn out. People experiencing burnout also feel a reduced sense of personal accomplishment, caring less about the work they do. The third part, what is known as depersonalization or cynicism, leads to feelings of annoyance and a shorter temper than usual. 

But some musicians combatted feelings of burnout by adjusting their routines to help them adapt to the circumstances.

(Yale Daily News)

Herdís Guðmundsdóttir MUS ’23 found it helpful to imagine the camera as a person and set self-motivating personal goals. She acknowledged the difference between playing by herself and with others online. When she was alone with the camera, Guðmundsdóttir was increasingly conscious of small details of her performance. 

According to Anna Zayaruznaya, director of undergraduate studies for the music department, creating music in a collaborative format can lower stress levels, since people’s “hearts are [more] together.” 

Sebastian Ruth, a lecturer in music at Yale, found his relationship with his instruments redefined during the first few months of the pandemic, when he was practicing without working towards a set performance. When he produces music in-person with others, he thinks that musicians breathe together and feel the body language of others around them, reading social and musical cues to play as a synchronous whole. 

While playing in isolation, “is the music yours?” Ruth questioned. “My mind goes to playing correctly, because this is going to be recorded. [Playing alone requires] a really different mindset from playing communicatively, because [in a performance] someone in the room will be moved by this.”

The musical community 

Decreased human contact also threatened the musical communities that are crucial to providing support and creativity for the musicians within them. 

What Han loves most about music is playing alongside others, whether as a member of an orchestra or a chamber group. 

For Schnyer, the musical community has been a good way to connect with people. 

“What I’ve loved the most about [music] is the connections and relationships I’ve made with other people — both in and outside of rehearsal times,” Schnyer said.

As performances shifted online during the pandemic, many groups compiled individual recorded performances into videos that could be shared.

“With these virtual recordings that we did in the Glee Club, we were able to get a sound with all the notes and rhythms,” Sokolow said. “But I think what makes it music and what brings people to Glee Club and maybe other choirs, even with everything else that we have in our lives, is being able to — as our conductor Jeff [Douma] likes to say — lean into each other’s sounds, really hear each other, listen and find an emotional resonance in that.”

With sophomores stuck at home for the fall 2020 semester and first-years restricted from campus in spring 2021, new members of Yale’s musical groups were deprived of bonding activities that would have been held in-person if not for the pandemic.

For Gabby Montuori ’24, who joined the acapella group Doox in his sophomore year at Yale, bonding with fellow members was difficult as social distancing restrictions prevented many socials and group activities from taking place in-person. 

Yet musicians nevertheless attempted to compensate for this lost aspect of music. 

Zanuttini-Frank put on small-scale concerts for his suitemates and people in his social circle. Still, he felt that he lost his “group identity” within the larger community that he was used to. 

A redefined artform

Music, like all art forms, is constantly in flux. While some changes brought on by the pandemic are likely to only be temporary, the effects of others — like the rapid advances in technology — may shape how music is made and appreciated for years to come.

Over the course of the pandemic, Jamulus, a music performance software that allows musicians to rehearse, perform and play in real-time, was reinvented. According to Quinn, although this did not exactly replicate synchronous performance, the minimal lag time allowed people in different locations to feel like they were playing together. 

“[The feeling of togetherness] is the most important thing, right? It’s to feel that you are in real live time communication with somebody else,” Quinn said. “So musicians have really pushed for and succeeded in getting a lot of those technologies to emerge.”

The School of Music also updated its infrastructure with the installation of a new system allowing for real-time live digital audio communication between rooms. This allowed ensembles of musicians to come into the building and, with each instrumentalist in a separate room, play live and improvise together. 

(Yale Daily News)

Social media platforms such as TikTok also saw the rise of a new kind of collaborative musicianship — with people harmonizing and improvising with each other, layering performance on performance. For Quinn, this is a new kind of art form. 

The pandemic also led some musicians to reconsider their relationship with the art form.

Amidst the Black Lives Matter movement that took place in May and June of 2020, Ruth found himself contemplating the meaning of creating music, as it did not feel right for him to play traditional music like a Bach concerto given the societal conditions. Combined with the dilemma of making music together while being alone, Ruth composed a new piece titled “Praying,” which was based on a poem by Mary Oliver carrying the same name.

“What place does music have in all of this uncertainty, upheaval, questions and striving?” Ruth first asked himself. “Then [I thought] if maybe it’s like a prayer, it could come back to something really central and offer something to the world.”  

In addition to the changes in societal dynamics, Ruth also found solace in the stillness associated with the pandemic. All of a sudden, he wasn’t running around from one meeting to another and conducted meetings over Zoom instead. 

As the pace of life slowed down, so did his angle towards music. When he came across a piece of violin music by Reena Esmail called “Darshan” in a New York Times article, he thought it to be very “meditative” and fitting for the times. 

Although many musicians have felt disconnected from their art due to a lack of interaction during the pandemic, Ruth found himself closer to his music than ever before. He found more time to learn new music — time which would have otherwise been allocated towards preparing for concerts.

Ruth pointed to various evolving music forms throughout the world that resonated with his own experience. One of them was a performance by Andrea Bocelli singing in an Easter concert in April 2020 in Milan. The imagery in the video was an empty city where Bocelli was walking in and out of a church — against the backdrop of desolation. 

“It was so much pain and suffering to just hear music in that moment, which made it so beautiful and was something that we needed — the role of music in that moment felt very special,” Ruth said. “There was something about the psychologically significant role that music could play in that time.”

As the world slowly recovers from the pandemic, new ways of creating music and a return to in-person performances may fill the void left by months of isolation and social distancing. 

“One of the things humans are best at is making beauty under extraordinarily challenging conditions. If new art forms can be born out of this pandemic, I’m all for it. But is there any substitute for personal connection? I don’t think there is,” Quinn said. 


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