I can't, I have rehearsal

Most musicians have it virtually stamped across their forehead: "I can't, I have rehearsal." So what happens when performers can't perform?

February 7, 2021
Holly Mathieson
historic black and white photo or woman resting her head exhaustedly on the music stand of her fortepiano.

I've been working - or working towards working - in the performing arts since I was a kid. Every evening, weekend and holiday given over to rehearsals, performances, private study, summer schools and, in latter years, the British summer opera festivals. I've missed family birthdays, family funerals and, very nearly, my own wedding. I've probably missed the chance to be a birth mother.

Most musicians have it virtually stamped across their forehead: "I can't, I have rehearsal".

Stereotypes of young musicians foregoing social lives in feverish pursuit of their artform are fairly accurate, but not necessarily as a matter of choice. The long-haired, spectacled violinist in your imagination is probably gagging for a spliff in front of the telly, but she has 20 string parts to bow before tomorrow's rehearsal.

So, when the world's mighty gears shuddered to a halt in March 2020, alongside the uncertainty about disruption to contracts and income, I confess that the emotion I felt in greatest measure was relief.



No running to the train with half-eaten breakfast in one hand and a 30kg suitcase of music banging along behind in the other, wondering whether I'd remembered to pack my sticks. No endless pile of scores to be learnt. No morning nerves with a new orchestra at the start of the week; no pretending I wasn't going to read the reviews at the end of it.

Just silence, stillness and time.

I spent a couple of days lolling around the apartment like an overweight cat, cooking 3-course meals, ordering jigsaw puzzles and putting my bras and concert shoes into long-term storage. And then, as has been my habit since early childhood, I made a plan. How could I use this precious, precarious time effectively?

The 80s wallpaper by the front door is still there, and I've barely made a dent in the long-suffering bag of "things that need fixing with a sewing machine", but I've learnt how to grow spuds, started (and, more extraordinarily, continued) running, revised my pre-existing list of professional goals, and spent more than 3 weeks in the same city as my spouse [spoiler: it turns out we get on really well.]

But the most ambitious project by far has been an exercise in humility and curiosity.

When I was an undergrad at the University of Otago in Aotearoa, we used to spill out onto the steps in front of Marama Hall at lunchtime, a bubbling rabble of wildly gesticulating conducting geeks, hormonal pianists on the prowl, daytime-ball-gowned voice majors and one or two sepia-toned composers hovering on the periphery at 80% opacity. The building next to ours, with a matching set of steps, housed the computer science department, and around the same time each day a few crumpled BSc students would stumble out, blinking in the sunshine, for a ciggy. I was fascinated by these quiet, nocturnal creatures, such a contrast to the sequined, fog-horned music cohort, and I always had the sense that I could have felt equally at home on the other set of steps, in a parallel life.

It didn't spring out of nowhere; I remember the first computer my dad brought home when I was still at Kindergarten - an early-model IBM. I explored every byte of system configuration, opened the contents of every floppy disc and, eventually, learnt the basics of MS-DOS shell. Every 8-bit PC game delighted me, and when dad brought home the comparatively space-age "Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego?(1985)", an obsession with gaming was initiated. Since then, I've remained loyal to Microsoft Windows machines: Over the last two decades I've taken basic systems apart; Frankensteined their innards with beefier hardware; researched obscure, open-source software alternatives; and spent many hours exploring gaming worlds of breath-taking imagination and creativity.

So, 2020 was the year I turned back to that blank page in my life-book - briefly contemplated but promptly passed over and forgotten as the busy-ness of musical life took over - and started writing:

dark blue code block of a basic "Hello, world!" functino in javascript.

On average, I've managed a few days of study a week, dotted around patches of touring in NZ (where concert life continues, unabated), various recording sessions in the UK, and many hours of planning (and re-planning, and re-planning) with the various orchestras I work for. It has been invigorating and challenging in equal measure, and I spend at least part of each study session feeling like a pre-schooler learning a C-major scale on the piano for the first time again. But, far from being disheartened, after nearly 40 years of life in the insular classical music world - a world founded on centuries-old traditions, governed by subjective measures of achievement, and constrained by the competitive realities of a highly-skilled workforce far in excess of the available funding and openings - it feels like flying.

Code either works, or it doesn't. And if it doesn't, someone fixes it.

For a musician, that is a dizzyingly straightforward paradigm in which to operate. And, at a time in which the classical music world faces a long-overdue reckoning from various excluded groups, not least Black and Indigenous musicians and audiences, and finds itself hauled unceremoniously into the digital age by the curtailment of live music-making, it's one we would be wise to embrace.

There is much we can learn from other sectors to help us future-proof, digitalise and de-colonise our work. I hope that what I learn along my coding journey will lay the groundwork for me to help a little in that regard.