Today Begins Pandemic Year Two

[8/12/2021 Delta variant update: following a rash of breakthrough infections among fully vaccinated musicians at summer music festivals, I’ve initiated a continually updated PUBLICLY VIEWABLE GOOGLE DOCUMENT that aggregates relevant Delta variant information for musicians, patrons, decision-makers, and any others impacted by this ongoing tragedy.]
Exactly one year ago today, all of Lincoln Center shut down. The MET Orchestra was subsequently informed we were being furloughed indefinitely without pay. Eight days later, NYC entered full lockdown. And only thirteen days after that, Covid had already killed 10,000 Americans. And so, while the CDC confirmed the first U.S. coronavirus case on January 21, 2020, for me personally the pandemic really began on March 12th. Today marks that dark anniversary — the first year of the pandemic. What follows is my reflection on that first year, and my struggle to draw meaning from it.

I should be honest about this upfront: I’ve found it incredibly difficult to continue writing consistently this past year, especially since January 6th. (Maintaining daily motivation to do anything has been a challenge.) In the Before Times of February 2020, I had a series of blog posts sketched out that would’ve covered a 12–18 month arc. I’ve abandoned that series almost entirely. Some of the topics now seem out of touch, or irrelevant, or tone deaf. With others, I’ve started writing…but after a few hundred words of fatigued ramblings, I hit a wall. Until this past year, I never fully appreciated how the act of writing — the process of creating something new on a blank page — requires a generative headspace. I didn’t adequately account for how Pandemic Year One would compromise that headspace. And I don’t think this is simply a case of “writer’s block”; like many others, I’ve been journaling a ton, it’s just that most of it is utterly unfit for public consumption.

And I’ve had it comparatively easy. I had the chance to live in Seoul for three months, and safely perform music in person with the Seoul Philharmonic. I’m safe and healthy; too many others in the U.S. performing arts scene are suffering far worse. And lest we forget, in one year “more Americans have perished from Covid-19 than on the battlefields of World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War combined” — 530,000 and counting.

President Biden’s inauguration on January 20th marked an essential, monumental turning point at the end of Pandemic Year One; we now have a pilot in the cockpit who’s actually trying to pull us out of the nosedive. But those 314 days between March 12, 2020 and January 20, 2021 were unlike any others in my life. Never have I lived in such a constant state of near-panic. Never has my future felt so radically uncertain. And never has following the news been both so bludgeoning and so unavoidable. Staying current was necessary because it had immediate impacts on high-stakes decision-making, but it was so exhausting. Each morning was a ritual of clicking “refresh” and wondering aloud, “what fresh horrific emergency will greet me today?” Never has my body been so thoroughly flooded with adrenaline and cortisol for so long.

Thankfully, I’ve noticed that deluge of stress hormones abating post-inauguration. I suspect it’s because we’re no longer accelerating into “worse” territory; Americans are getting vaccinated in increasing numbers, and entire weeks have gone by without the leader of the free world generating panic-inducing headlines. But I’ve noticed something else alongside this abatement: my brain had been jacked up on these stress chemicals for so long that I wonder if I’m going through some sort of withdrawal. I feel like a pathetic pandemic junkie, confused and stumbling into an oppressive wall. I don’t remember what it was like for my brain to feel “normal.”

I previously wrote about the feeling of hitting “the wall” in both opera performance and solitary deliberate practice; I’m very familiar with those feelings, and how to work around them. But this past year, the timescale and intensity has been something altogether different — off-the-charts, logarithmically different.

So I found some solace reading this piece: “It’s Not Just You. A Lot Of Us Are Hitting A Pandemic Wall Right Now.” It notes that “we’ve been at this for a year now, and our fight-or-flight system ― the emotional reaction to stress that has been otherwise energizing us throughout the pandemic ― is totally overloaded. When that happens, the constant flow of adrenaline starts to drain and apathy settles in. It seems that we’ve all gone over that tipping point.” This piece, “The Pandemic Wall is Here,” elaborates: “[Grey Gordon] made contact with the wall a few days after the presidential inauguration on Jan. 20 — the day when she thought she’d finally be able to exhale the stress of the past four years, but which ended up being fraught with reminders of how much stress remains. ‘I was like, how much longer can I do this?’ she says. ‘These are my lost years.’ The pandemic wall pops up at different times for different people, but for a vast group of people, the wall has smacked them in the face within the past three weeks.” And finally, “Late-Stage Pandemic Is Messing With Your Brain. We have been doing this so long, we’re forgetting how to be normal…. We’re all walking around with some mild cognitive impairment.”

Sounds about right. It’s nice to know I’m not alone.

[4/19/2021 update: Adam Grant published his incredibly relevant article about “Languishing” 38 days after I initially published this post. I examine “languishing” in greater depth in my 5/7/2021 newsletter.]

For that reason (and many others), I also want to acknowledge publicly what I know to be true from conversations with so many of my musician friends and colleagues: we are not well. One of my primary goals as a writer and educator is to be honest about my experiences in the performing arts, unflinchingly so when necessary. Many fields have been hammered by the pandemic, but U.S. performing arts have been devastated. This more recent piece notes that “it is excellent that the economy is coming back in some sectors and never harmed in others, but [the arts] is one where there was utter devastation.” And the devastation is financial, emotional, and mental, all compounded by basic physical health. I’ve lost track of the number of people I know who’ve contracted Covid. And for its victims (especially my Met colleagues), I feel a weird lingering cavity since we still haven’t had any proper way to gather in person and mourn their deaths.

My intention in highlighting this is not to clamor for pity, but rather to cultivate solidarity and empathy. For anyone who might be reading this and feeling similarly, I hope you can take comfort knowing you are not alone.

If you’re anything like me, along with feeling completely pummeled by the horrifying events of the past year, you’ve also been struggling to draw any kind of larger meaning from them. Continuous gaslighting from unaccountable people in positions of power distorted the nature of our shared reality. When reality itself is contested, meaning becomes an even more precious commodity.

In so many ways, I experienced Pandemic Year One like a looped waking nightmare, not because each day brought unsurprising fresh hells, but rather because those hells were predictable, and predicted. Given my former science career, I tend to take scientists at their word when they warn, “a bad thing is coming, and we’re unprepared for it.” So as the western world descended into Covid chaos one year ago, Ed Yong’s Atlantic article from 2018 was echoing in my brain: “The epidemics of the early 21st century revealed a world unprepared, even as the risks continue to multiply. Much worse is coming.” March 2020 was less surprising than it was sickening, like that feeling of being perched at the apex of a roller coaster just as it begins its initial stomach-churning drop.

The day Lincoln Center shut down, I wrote in my journal, “stay nimble, stay flexible, stay adaptable.” It’s remained my guiding principle ever since, and it’s served me well while trying to navigate the ensuing chaos. Again, I must acknowledge that I’m safe and healthy; my personal situation could be way worse. For so many other people, it has been worse. In many ways, I remain extremely lucky.

But staying nimble and adaptable has forced some difficult choices. This past year has been the most destabilizing year of my life. Upper West Side NYC rent is totally unsustainable when the Met has indefinitely furloughed you without pay. Consequently, I’m a pandemic nomad. I ditched my apartment, put all my belongings in a storage unit, and did my best to embrace radical uncertainty. I was constantly reminding myself, “we’ll know more in a month.” And that was true. It’s still true. But living with month-to-month uncertainty comes with other costs.

Because while the reckoning of a global pandemic wasn’t surprising in the abstract, I had absolutely no idea what the daily experience of the resulting instability was going to feel like. To state the obvious: it’s felt bad. Existentially so. Perpetual uncertainty is exhausting. Bearing continual witness to tragedy is emotionally gutting.

This past year has frequently been described as “apocalyptic,” not just because of the endless plague, but also because of all the other disasters compounding and interweaving atop the pandemic. I’ve frequently found myself thinking of the final scene of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, which draws heavily upon the old Norse concept of Ragnarök — the omni-disaster, not a single event, but rather a series of interwoven disasters culminating in civilization being submerged under cleansing waters. Likewise, Pandemic Year One had it all: wildfire infernos in California and Australia; polar vortex blackouts leaving Texans without heat or water; unprecedented flooding throughout vast swaths of east Asia; planned kidnappings, attempted assassinations, insurrectionists storming the Capitol; and a steadily rising ocean….

As always, BIPOC communities are disproportionately suffering the ravages of these catastrophes. I previously wrote that “Black Lives Matter and Covid-19 are not really two distinct issues, but rather manifestations of the same structural rot.” More than ever before, Pandemic Year One made clear to me that the structural rot is in fact lack of accountability. It underscores so much of what we’ve witnessed in the past year. It afflicts policing. It afflicts Republican leadership. It afflicts Wall Street and finance, journalism and journalists, social media and silicon valley emperors, infrastructure, energy, and climate policy. Unaccountability corrodes everything.

So, are we collectively capable of reimposing accountability?

I’ve lately been asking myself these types of fundamental questions — questions that go beyond my immediate circumstances, or the catastrophically beleaguered Metropolitan Opera, or even my career as a timpanist. Here’s another question: Is this perpetual instability just a taste of what’s in store? For all of the tragedy, loss, waste, misery, ignorance, conflict, devastation, malice, chaos, and uncertainty that Pandemic Year One foisted upon us, is it just a dress rehearsal for the coming decades?

Maura Judkis recently wrote that “chronic uncertainty is bad for our mental health…. For all the hope vaccines have brought in theory, uncertainty reigns.” And chronic uncertainty flows from that chronic lack of accountability. Will we be bearing witness to a world grappling with deepening political dysfunction, civil unrest, proliferating natural disasters, and more frequent pandemics…all amplified by accelerating climate change?

These are not idle questions. If the principal timpanist of the Metropolitan Opera — the largest and most influential performing arts organization in America — could be facing 2+ years of unemployment, we need to face facts: the performing arts in the 21st century are fundamentally unstable. That’s just the unpleasant, unavoidable reality.

And what becomes the role of a performing artist in this potential future? I’ll admit, I don’t know. But I’ve spent more time thinking about it in the past 12 months than ever before, provoked by my acute circumstances: the reality that timpani are “institutionally-tied” instruments has never been starker. They’re not portable. They’re best suited to large ensembles. They require space, buildings, resources, and stability. Pandemic Year One voided all of those things.

Even so, these are not new revelations. Paralleling my previous roller coaster analogy, separation from my instruments was less surprising than it was sickening. I’d been carrying deep unease about the fragility of my professional circumstances for years.

Election night 2016 was a very dark night for me. I spent the late hours of that Tuesday, November 8th, sitting on a bench alongside the Hudson River. Staring out across those dark waters, I felt long-buried fears and anxieties rising, almost visualizing them as pieces of sunken detritus violently bursting from the surface of the river. And as I got lost in that anxiety spiral, it seemed like those floating fear vessels began propagating themselves along different timelines, creating multidimensional projections of future hells. Then, all of those dark future timelines kept telescoping back into that one specific riverside moment — that brutal, seemingly endless moment.

I’ve thought about that moment a lot since then; I felt like I was losing my mind. Later that night, I wrote in my journal that “everyone and everything I care about is going to suffer.” Now that I’ve spent the past year living through one of the dystopian timelines from that clairvoyant night, I can belatedly rest assured that I wasn’t crazy.

For years, I’d been increasingly feeling like the systems and institutions upon which we relied were actually extremely fragile. To me, this fragility was rooted in that same lack of accountability, where across vastly different fields and situations there was seemingly no limit to what corrupt and malicious leadership could get away with. My concerns were clearly justified. Pandemic Year One revealed that the notion of “accountability” had vanished in countless areas:

First, cut off from my own instruments on March 12th, my personal accountability structure evaporated.

Then, accountable to no one, the Met Opera hung us out to dry. A year later, we remain indefinitely furloughed without pay. But that unaccountable road had been paved for years: the successive scandals of Levine and Domingo made it abundantly clear that there’s no functioning accountability structure between the Met’s board and management; no one presiding over those debacles was fired, no one was even reprimanded.

Lastly and far more consequentially, American democracy came within a hair’s breadth of collapse. Accountable to no one, the most powerful grifter in the world got away with attempting a coup. And the assault is ongoing: vast majorities of Republicans wrongly believe “The Big Lie” that the election was stolen, and a plurality actually approve of the violent storming of the Capitol. Despite my personal relief on November 7th when the networks finally called the election, I struggled with the reality that 74 million Americans had still voted for Trump; that fact was so damaging and intense that, like staring at the sun, I couldn’t look directly at it. But this new stolen-election-Big-Lie feels like trying to stare at an ongoing supernova. My brain simply cannot handle it. My personal concerns about the Met Opera have a hard time holding a candle to that kind of astronomical intensity.

We’ve been living through an era of hyper-unaccountability, and it’s hard to sit with that on a daily basis. I feel a deep and constant craving for any sort of demonstration that actions have consequences, or even that “cause and effect” is still a thing. Post-World War II Germans coined a word for “collectively working through the painful past,” Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung. In 2021 America, I need a different word for “the desperate feeling of simultaneously knowing Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung needs to be happening, and also knowing it’s not yet happening.” By vanishing, accountability affirmed its central importance more than ever.

As I’ve been wrestling with these two fundamental questions — “What’s the role of a performing artist in this new future?” and “Is our society collectively capable of reimposing accountability?” — I’ve arrived at another: Are these two questions actually related?

Sentiments like the following from President Biden and Vice President Harris are common: “The arts give people an outlet to view the world differently…. The future, who we are, lies in the arts. It’s the expression of our soul.” This is important and true, but have we been missing a larger point? Feedback and accountability are inherent in musical practice; feedback and accountability are also essential for the process of democracy. Democracy and the arts are united by process.

As I’ve struggled to find meaning amidst calamity, Pandemic Year One has catalyzed a series of personal reaffirmations: accountability is key, and feedback loops provide accountability. Never have I more firmly believed in iterative improvement driven by feedback loops as the core engine of both individual and societal growth. Or, simply put, deliberate practice. Strangely enough, it’s been the removal of my ability to consistently practice on my instruments which has reaffirmed my core beliefs in expertise, the scientific method, and ultimately, the lessons embedded within process-focused deliberate practice.

Over the past twelve months, I’ve become increasingly attuned to how the precepts of deliberate practice intertwine with healthy democratic functioning:

  • Evidence-based decision-making
  • Consistent feedback grounded in reality
  • Feedback as a mechanism to enforce accountability
  • Clearly articulated ideals (mental representation models) guiding evolution and improvement
  • Patience to slog it out, through good days and bad, recognizing there’s no “magic bullet,” and
  • Seeking not “perfection,” but rather “more perfect

I alluded to this in my previous post from July 19th, but I think the United States as a whole basically needs to get much better at deliberate practice, at every level of society, and in every field. I wrote about “a meta-version of the deliberate practice recipe applied to human civilization: deliberate practice requires us to learn from our individual mistakes, but this moment calls upon us to apply this framework far beyond music. If we want to get better, we must fully examine our deficiencies via focused feedback…and then make those improvements.”

Now admittedly, for anyone like me who’s passionately committed to an area of work and education, it’s easy to start viewing the whole world according to those tools. But I don’t think this is just a case of “when you’re holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Because, as Ezra Klein recently wrote, “democracy is designed as a feedback loop…. That feedback loop is broken….” I’d never thought of it this way prior to 2021, but after experiencing the failures of so many fragile institutions, I now fear the failure of the most important institution of all — the one upon which all modernity rests: shared reality. We’ve taken shared reality so thoroughly for granted that, like oxygen or water or your own beating heart, it’s a terrifying shock when you realize it’s gone. We are living through a time when tens of millions of Americans have become unmoored from reality, thereby breaking one of the most basic feedback loops of democracy; pervasive unaccountability breaks another feedback loop of democracy.

For me, the past twelve months have thus been a stream of constant parallels between the way I conceive of practicing, expertise, cultivating expert performance, and wider world events. I believe a critical aspect of these parallels relate to the lies we tell ourselves. At an individual level, specifically in the practice room, specifically about our own musicianship, we lie to ourselves. Our egos get in the way. We’re often unwilling to confront the reality revealed by self-recording. Likewise, we Americans have told ourselves a host of lies that are being torn down in rapid succession. Sinclair Lewis provides a titular mocking example: “It Can’t Happen Here.” Well, it did. For the first time in U.S. history, the peaceful transfer of power was interrupted by a violent mob incited by a sitting president. And then, accountable to no one, least of all the American people, his enablers acquitted that president. Again. Consequently, one might easily feel disillusioned. So be it. In fact, bring it on. Let’s embrace it. Because the opposite of disillusioned is “illusioned,” and I far prefer shared reality to living under a veil of illusion.

So, this is the meaning I draw from Pandemic Year One: it’s been a profound case study for the accountability enforced by broadly-framed deliberate practice. Our process of practicing can reflect, support, and inform our core values. It’s the most teachable era in human history for the necessity of expertise, and the necessity of accountability.

Pandemic Year One has clarified all of these parallels for me. In so many ways, deliberate practice is fundamentally about accountability; feedback makes you accountable to yourself. Feedback forces you to confront reality, as an instrumentalist, and as a nation. Like listening back to a painful recording, we now have a better idea of who we really are. That’s the feedback loop at work — the foundation of the scientific method — and deliberate practice is just the scientific method applied to your craft. (Notably, the scientific method also yielded extraordinary vaccines, and a hopeful light at the end of this pandemic tunnel.) [8/12/2021 Delta variant update: that hopeful light was sweet while it lasted. The celebration of “hot vax summer” turns out to have been premature.]

And so it’s in the final vein of these parallels that I hope you can recognize once more that you are not alone. Pandemic fatigue is real. Pervasive unaccountability is real. And our democracy remains under the most severe threat since the Civil War. Perry Bacon Jr. wrote that “in his inaugural address, President Biden described America as in the midst of an ‘uncivil war….’ His invocation of a civil war and the American Civil War was provocative. It was also accurate.” I was stunned to hear President Biden invoke the term “uncivil war,” but it was also reaffirming. I felt less alone hearing that. I often say this about musical practice, but I believe the same holds for democracy: it’s not a destination, but rather a continuous process. As the Post’s pandemic wall article advised, “When all else fails, just put one foot in front of the other.”

The processes of democracy and deliberate practice are messy. But we’re in them together.

8/12/2021 Delta variant update:

Following a rash of breakthrough infections among fully vaccinated musicians at summer music festivals, I’ve initiated a continually updated PUBLICLY VIEWABLE GOOGLE DOCUMENT that aggregates relevant Delta variant information for musicians, patrons, decision-makers, and any others impacted by this ongoing tragedy.

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