Stepping Back into the River

With startling suddenness, as vaccinations have been made available, it’s become possible to play with others again. I’ve attended open jam sessions – carefully-selected – for the first time in many months. Inquiries about rehearsals, dances, gigs and in-person workshops are starting to arrive.

What I did not expect was to feel such a level of resistance to resuming some of these activities. I know my feelings aren’t entirely due to fears about spreading COVID. Other friends have expressed the same reluctance. I have some ideas about what’s happening, though I don’t yet have the answers.

In some ways, the enforced stay-at-home of the last 16 months has allowed me to be more focused in my playing. Before the pandemic I was pretty busy, musically, attending four or five “camps” a year, hosting monthly jam sessions at my home and attending others, often with quite a bit of travel. I was in a couple of bands, played ad hoc in others and was trying to put together more.

In contrast, since March 2020, I’ve been limited to playing alone or in a small, socially-distant groups. During that time, I chose what to work on, entirely based on what interested me. This was reinforced by the ability to connect, via Zoom, with and learn from musicians all over the world who shared my interests.

My pandemic Zoom “set” for musical meetings
As a video professional, my Zoom “set” for musical meetings is carefully curated,

In that time, I added great tunes to my repertoire and deepened my knowledge of others. I explored their histories, learning the stories around the composers and the regions they came from. I also, slowly but surely, made real, measurable progress in my playing. I now play with more confidence and enjoyment – not just on one instrument but all four that I play.

Now I’m looking carefully at what I want to add back into the mix. I desperately miss being in the physical presence of others who share the love of traditional music, whether at camps, workshops, jams, bands or dances. I love playing for dancers, watching them react to our music. I long for the moments of communication that happen between musicians: the unexpected harmonies or countermelodies, the mind-meld of timing or feeling that comes from really listening to each other and being present to the music.

At the same time I want to retain some of the benefits that emerged from enforced solitary playing and the lack of distraction. I’ve developed a deep appreciation for the time I spend alone with my instrument, playing for only my own enjoyment. I’ve gotten pleasure from playing tunes that, pre-pandemic, I would not have considered “useful”: tunes that are unlikely to be played in a jam, for a dance, or in any band I’m part of.

As musical options become available once more, it’s not easy to decide what to resume, what to strive for, what to let go of. I’m working on some questions that may help clarify my thoughts.

Saying “yes,” to things, in general, has brought me great deal of happiness, both in music and in life. This is especially true if I initially hesitated, feeling a bit fearful or unskilled. But “yes” isn’t always the right answer. Considering the pros and cons, and the reasons for them, can be rewarding in its own right.

It’s said that no one ever steps in the same river twice. The river has changed and so has the person. As I look toward resuming some musical routines, and perhaps establishing new ones, I’m getting a clearer picture of how I’ve changed – and grown – even as I struggled with the musical limitations brought on by the COVID pandemic.

Thanks to my musical buddies Jim, Mary and Randy, who inspired this post.

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Judy Minot

A musician and author of the book Best Practice: Inspiration and Ideas for Traditional Musicians