When the Covid-19 pandemic broke out in the United States, I stopped eating, stopped sleeping and stopped exercising. I stopped making music — a lifelong passion — and even stopped listening to music. I ceased to have pleasure in my life, but I was not depressed. As an emergency physician and a writer, I was filled with intense energy and focus.
I was intensely drawn to music as a child. At the age of 9, a year after asking for piano lessons, I pleaded with my parents to let me join a children’s chorus. I went on to study music composition in college and graduate school, focusing on choral music, before veering back to the other great interest in my life: medicine.
During medical school, I kept up with music, sometimes to the detriment of my studies. Though music was tougher to fit in during residency, I was an occasional singer for hire in a few church choruses in Manhattan. Just before Covid, I had become director of a large chorus of medical and science professionals and students in Boston, the fulfillment of a lifelong goal.
All of this made it especially jarring when I found myself in a self-imposed music embargo during the first few months of the pandemic. I would drive back and forth between the hospital and home either in silence or to the sound of my own voice, frantically dictating memos to myself to memorialize everything that was happening so that I would remember it later.
Something changed on Dec. 13, 2020, the first day of coronavirus vaccinations in the United States. A nurse in New York received her shot on television, and as the footage looped over and over that morning, I became aware of an unfamiliar feeling: optimism. Later that evening, I watched a YouTube video of Mitsuko Uchida playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4. For the second time in one day, tears were streaming down my face. Music and medicine were intertwined in my life once more.
Concertos — in which a solo instrumentalist performs with an orchestra — have been said to “model human relationships.” There is give-and-take. They are simultaneously collaborative and oppositional. They have been described as paralleling the tension between the individual and the public. In most concertos, the orchestra plays first. But in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, the soloists begin alone.
How fitting, I thought. For the better part of the year, we had all been careening, in varying degrees, between the polarities of self-interest and self-denial, always trying to balance personal needs against public safety. Finally, with vaccines there would be an affirmative and purposeful action that each of us could take against the virus, for ourselves and for everyone else.
Maybe that had been obvious, but it took Beethoven to get me to that thought. When we hear music, we mold it to fit our own narrative, or sometimes a suggested one. This is what makes music, and other arts, so profound. It helps us process our experiences. Live performance is all the more potent. It allows us to be silent with our thoughts among, perhaps, thousands of other people. Would we ever go back to that?
When businesses closed to stop the spread of Covid-19, the arts also shut down. Over 99 percent of all arts-presenting organizations in the United States canceled events. As the economy began reopening, performing arts organizations still could not. Many artists and musicians found ways to reach audiences online, and many projected a sense of optimism and productivity. But I suspect that many may have also identified with Tracy Letts, the playwright and actor, who, when asked about his creative process during the pandemic, said, “I’ve made nothing.”
This is a call to return to the live performing arts. Please do so after you are vaccinated. More important, pursue the activities that make your life richer and that make you happy. Our collective vigilance has meant that many people guarded their own safety to such an extent that some are having trouble letting go, even after vaccination. I recently overheard a Zoom call between my parents and a group of their friends, who are all in their 70s. One of them said their book group would continue to be remote, for now. A couple said they would not be attending an in-person wedding in June. My heart sank.
Everyone has been through so much. For almost a year, I frequently treated people who were very sick with Covid-19. Now I haven’t seen a serious case in weeks. The miracle of these vaccines, which have exceeded my wildest hopes, means that we can safely return to the things that make our lives whole. Buy a ticket to something, anything.
I was once told that Beethoven, and certainly Bach and Mozart, has been playing every minute of every day somewhere around the globe continuously for over two centuries. That may be urban legend, but as the coronavirus spread across the world, I wondered if, for the first time in our lifetimes, the music did finally cease. We stopped living fully so that we might avoid dying or harming others. That sacrifice made sense. But now, for those of us fortunate enough to have survived, it is time to embrace the aspects of our lives that make us the most human.
Jeremy Samuel Faust is an attending physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital Department of Emergency Medicine in Boston and an instructor at Harvard Medical School. He directs a chorus of medical and science professionals in Boston.
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