Reflections on Connecting through Music in a Pandemic

Wigmore Hall’s Learning Director Daisy Swift reflects on our 2021 Learning Festival’s theme of ‘connectivity’ in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

DS Blog1At Wigmore Hall Learning we talk about ‘connecting people through music’. And this past year has been like no other; in many ways we’ve experienced an unparalleled lack of connection. So it was with foresight that two years ago Wigmore Hall’s Director John Gilhooly asked me to explore the theme of ‘connectivity’ for this year’s Learning Festival. Little did we know just how pertinent that theme would become.

Since March 2020, people around the world have spent much of their time confined to their homes, physically distanced from friends, families and colleagues, many of us feeling the lack of live music, and many experiencing loss, poor health and isolation. So finding ways to connect with one another has felt more vital than ever, to hold on to those connections which give our lives meaning.

Before the pandemic, I had the opportunity, alongside some incredible artists and creative young people, to write a testimony for Peter Renshaw’s book, Young Artists Speak Out, in which Peter and others call for passion, compassion and purpose in the arts and education. In it I made the case for the power of the arts to connect us ‘for real’, in a world that is ‘hyper-connected’ online:

"The internet has fostered literally billions of social connections. Our hyper-connected world enables us to always stay connected; we’re always there — but does that make us less here? In the present moment with the people who are physically around us? Or is our idea of what here is changing? Are our physical and digital worlds coalescing, and if so what is facing us at the end of this collision course?"

Back in 2018 when I wrote these words, I had no idea what was coming! I continued:

"Surely a fundamental part of living a fulfilling human life is to connect with others? In some parts of the world, personhood is defined by the connections that an individual has with the people, places and things around them. That is, to be human is to be part of a network, connected. We are relational as well as individual; we’re both. So, in a culture dominated by a multitude of online connections and seemingly fewer physical connections, how do we create a space in which we really connect, really listen, really respond?"

DS Blog2The past year and a half has compelled me, and many others, to grapple with that question. How could we continue to connect people through music in a pandemic? We felt we simply had to find ways to meaningfully connect people remotely, particularly those who were isolated in their homes. The alternative was too much to bear.

So when we closed our doors in March 2020, we asked ourselves, how can we continue to connect people through music when we’re not together? And the questions kept coming: What about people who don’t have internet access or devices? How do we make music together from our separate homes? How do we engage people for whom technology is a challenge, for some prohibitively so?

DS Blog8And those were all questions we asked once we knew we could lead activity with people. With some groups getting to that point was even more challenging; many of our partners are organisations and individuals hit hard by the virus and its effects: care homes, women’s refuges, centres for people experiencing poverty and homelessness. Some needed space and time, and others became our initial priority. The latter were participants in our Music for Life programme, specifically people living with dementia who are living independently. It became clear that we must overcome the challenges, we must enable these people to take part in music making so they can continue to connect, to be part of a community, and to express themselves in a safe, welcoming space.

“I felt connected, engaged and supported. I felt that I was being seen as myself, not defined by my diagnosis.”

“I felt included from the very first minute of the first session ... I felt like I could make important contributions ... and that anything I contributed would be valued”

Participants from an online ‘Out of the Ordinary’ project, led in partnership with Royal Academy of Music and UCL Rare Dementia Support, as part of the Music for Life programme

DS Blog6And so the online workshops began! It has been a steep learning curve to make meaningful activity possible online, and I have been amazed at the brave and creative approaches our incredible musicians have discovered and explored together with us, particularly with our brilliant Programme Managers, Lydia and Ben. It’s astonishing to see the breadth of work now taking place with young children, families, young people, and people living with dementia and their families and carers, often working closely with our wonderful Pathways placement cohort, Royal Academy of Music / Wigmore Hall Fellowship Ensembles and Rosie Johnson RPS / Wigmore Hall Apprentice Composers. And it’s been a privilege to witness how meaningful and impactful these online workshops are, for participants and for us – one of our musicians put it beautifully:

"I’m sure I’m not alone in having felt an acute sense of loss of identity during the past year. I wasn’t prepared to have such a strong emotional reaction after my first online session. I knew I’d missed working in this way but it hit home just how much I need this kind of human connection and outlet for creative expression in my life; to feel inspired by others in this way. Suddenly the inner void felt a little smaller than it had done for months."

DS Blog5I feel incredibly grateful to be at an organisation that has weathered the storm of the pandemic so well, under the guidance of John Gilhooly. We have certainly had our challenges, just as all our sector and many others have, and it hasn’t all been plain sailing. But I am proud to say that since April 2020 we have led 310 events, many in collaboration with our incredible partners: Resonate Arts, the Royal Academy of Music, Jewish Care, Solace Women’s Aid, Music Circles, The Wallace Collection, NHS North West London Clinical Commissioning Group and UCL’s Rare Dementia Support.

“I’ll never forget this”

Solace Women’s Aid parent and project participant

DS Blog4I’m so pleased that whilst we’re leading around 10 remote events a week, we’re also planning for in person workshops, and have recently announced our Learning Festival 2021: Connectivity, which signals a return to live music at Wigmore Hall.

The Festival welcomes children, families, young people and adults to a range of events, and we’re also launching a special Festival website which enables visitors to listen to and create music with compositions made by participants from across the Wigmore Hall Learning programme during the pandemic.

This year’s Learning Festival will be like no other; all being well, we’ll come together (albeit socially distanced) in the Hall to experience and take part in live music for the first time in a year and a half.

To experience a sense of community in that space, to connect through music.

You can read more about the Learning Festival and apply for tickets here.

You can read more about the work Wigmore Hall Learning has led during the pandemic here, and listen to music written remotely by our Come and Create band here.

Peter Renshaw’s book Young Artists Speak Out can be downloaded as a free PDF or purchased here.