Issue 2: Rediscovering “Liveness”: A Musician's Reflection on the Pandemic's Impact on Live Performance

Rediscovering “Liveness”: A Musician's Reflection on the Pandemic's Impact on Live Performance

The Covid pandemic gave me, a classically-trained instrumental musician, a new appreciation for the importance of liveness in performance. For the first time in my life, I was not allowed to go to, or perform, live music. It was only when this was taken away abruptly that I realized just how integral performing “live” was to my wellbeing and identity.

I have been a performing musician my entire adult life, and lucky enough to sustain a career in it. Making and sharing music with other people is a massive part of who I am and what I consider to be my calling in life. It is a challenging, stimulating, and deeply rewarding life that I am incredibly grateful for. Barring a catastrophic accident, I had previously presumed that playing live, with and for other people, either in an orchestra or in a small ensemble, was just what I did on an almost daily basis and would continue to do so as long as I wanted.

In early 2020, as we watched countries around the globe shut down, I naively thought Aotearoa would be immune to this fate because of our isolation and protective sea border. It came as a complete shock to me when we “locked down” and all my gigs were canceled almost overnight. With the horrible realization that this pandemic was going to stop me from getting my much-needed liveness fix for quite some time, I joined musicians from around the world and “pivoted” to performing online. My more tech-savvy friends researched the best way to do this and we enthusiastically downloaded the Acapella app—“the ultimate music maker… you can collab with any musician around the world”—thinking it was going to be a fun and novel way of creating music together. Believing the difficulty would be limited to my own lack of technical prowess, I set about learning how to put everything together. One at a time, each member of a chamber group would record on Acapella, gradually overlaying the parts of those that had recorded before them. I quickly learnt that it was preferable to be the first person to “lay down” your part as it was unbelievably frustrating trying to play with headphones to a pre-recorded musician. I had thought that seeing my friends playing online would provide me with enough musical information to follow them accurately, and soon realized that trying to play with a person recorded in 2D, not in real-time in real life, means that you miss all those subtle physical musical cues that allow you to collaborate satisfyingly through split-second live decisions and intuition based on how things are feeling in the moment together.

The limitations of imitating the live performance experience with other musicians online led to severe frustration and dissatisfaction with this technology—a very unsatisfying and hollow musical experience. The immediacy of feeling and following the physicality of someone’s musical gestures and breathing simply cannot be replicated online. These intrinsic and intuitive building blocks of playing music in a live ensemble were crucial tools that I had taken for granted. Musical connection was almost impossible to find and replicate online, which made the recording process feel pointless, dull, and forced. It also meant that if I didn’t like what I recorded I would keep recording over and over and over until I was happy. (I was never happy.) Things never seemed to get any better, no matter how many times I recorded. I once spent an agonizingly painful day trying to record five minutes of music due to a combination of technical mishaps, extraneous family/household noise, and my own relentless and impossible quest for perfection.

For the first time in my life, I was forced to truly consider and appreciate the concept of “liveness” in performance. Post-pandemic, I have come to appreciate the following aspects of liveness, which I intend to cherish in every live performance I give from now on:

  1. The glorious imperfections of live music: we classically-trained musicians might all be striving to play perfectly but what makes a live performance magical is the real-time interaction, interpretation, and spontaneity between performers. This includes the bits where we don’t play precisely what we intend to and somehow it all works out anyway. This reminds us and the audience that we’re human, not robots, actively creating a unique performance that is raw, ephemeral, and full of risk-taking. Otherwise, wouldn’t we all just stay at home and listen to our favourite, “perfect” recording of a work?

  2. Heightened senses: Sight, sound, and touch interaction in online performances is completely dulled using a 2D screen to record/view video footage. There always seems to be a millisecond delay that makes everything just a little bit “out”. Liveness is conveyed by all the spontaneous interactions and reactions that musicians have when they’re physically performing in the same space. Contemporary classical music often requires the use of specialized techniques that need to be coordinated in real-time. The execution of these techniques can’t be fully appreciated in a recording and need to be seen and heard live to be effective. Eye contact, breathing, and a range of physical gestures are all intuitively and subtly used to help “feel” and communicate the music with each other and the audience. The physical embodiment of the music by performers is done through our gestures and facial expressions. Musicians physically express emotions, nuances, and intentions of a composition, adding depth and meaning to a performance, and allowing an audience to connect with the music on a visceral level.

  3. The audience is a wonderful thing: The core of “liveness” is the simultaneous presence of an artist and an audience. Even when you get horribly nervous: this can be channeled into an enhancing nervous energy that makes the music more exciting. It’s hard to get excited about recording a performance to your iPad. The tangible connection performers have with a live audience directly helps the music to come alive and gives the music more meaning and relevance for the performer. Ultimately, what a live concert does is create a community from a disparate collection of people seated in a building to listen together to music being performed. After a concert, the community exists in the collective memory of that dispersed group of audience and performers. Performers project music’s depth and intensity directly to audiences. It’s hard to project this sincerely and meaningfully in a recording. 

  4. Performance venues are awesome: recording “live performances” in your bedroom or lounge on your own sucks. There is no “vibe” or acoustic, and it’s difficult to get in the mood, to give an inspired performance. There’s something special about going to a concert hall/art gallery/theatre/public space and performing (or being in the audience) in a spatial arrangement. Even if it’s not an incredible acoustic, the fact that the performers and audience have come together in a venue to share the music is what makes the occasion memorable. If there is a good acoustic, it's a bonus and the resonance of the venue will enhance the performance and create a special musical experience.

Almost all recorded music falls far short of the experience we get from a live musical performance, both as a performer and audience member. In a live performance, we get to feel what it is another human being (both composer and performer) is saying without stating it in words, but in the transformative emotional experience of “liveness.”

I value this more than ever after living through the challenges of the pandemic. The absence of live performances during lockdowns underscored their irreplaceable value. People missed not just the music but the communal experience, the shared emotions, and the sense of connection that live events provide. For me, the pandemic highlighted our deeper need for human interaction, physical presence, and authenticity in an increasingly digital and fragmented world. Live experiences in music, theatre, dance, and other art forms play a crucial role in enriching our lives, and remind us of our shared humanity, especially in times of global uncertainty.

Bridget Douglas lives in Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington. She is Principal Flute of the NZSO—Te Tira Pūoro o Aotearoa, an Artist Teacher in Flute at Te Kōkī—NZSM, and a founding member of the new music ensemble Stroma. Bridget enjoys collaborating with a diverse range of musicians to create music that is unique to Aotearoa.

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