NZS, Episode 0005: Finding Meaning In The Time Of Covid

Nate: Hi everyone and welcome to episode 5 of the Nate Zeisler Show. Before we get started, I want to give a quick shoutout to Buzzsprout, the easiest and best way to launch, promote, and track your podcast. I use Buzzsprout and it has been a phenomenal platform for getting my podcast up and running. If you’re interested in starting your own podcast, simply click this link, which lets Buzzsprout know I sent you, gets you a $20 Amazon gift card if you sign up for a paid plan, and helps support this show. Now onto our question, which comes from Jessica.

Jessica: Hi Nate, thanks for taking my question. I’m a 28 year old white woman and an orchestral musician with a full time orchestra job. I haven’t played a concert in over three months and I have no motivation to practice, seeing as I won’t play any other concerts for another three months. Seeing the protests against racism in our country has me feeling like my job actively contributes to the ideas of white supremacy and inequality in the arts. And, with COVID killing our senior population at much higher rates than the young, I can’t see symphony audiences ever returning to crowded concert halls. I have ten years of experience and training as a musician, do you have any ideas of how I—or anyone who feels similarly-—can use my skills and talents to contribute to a more equal and just world? Thanks. 

Nate: Jessica, thank you so much for the question. It resonates with me because so many of us are trying to figure out our next steps in the wake of Black Lives Matter and the pandemic. What’s interesting to me is that I feel like in recent days we’ve moved into another phase of the pandemic. We’ve settled on the notion that COVID-19 is going to be with us for some time, regardless of our ongoing reopening plans across the country. The virus has displaced our workforce in ways that I certainly haven’t seen in my lifetime and this way of life is going to extend at least until the beginning of 2021. That creates an opportunity for us to use this time to think about ways we can affect change, both in our personal lives but also in the world around us, which is why I love your question so much!

Ok, I have a few suggestions that might help you think about the next steps to take in your life and career.

The first thing that I want to mention here is that this doesn’t strike me as a work/life balance question or a financial stability question as much as it has to do with you searching for meaning in your life. If this pandemic has done anything, it has allowed us to contemplate the path that we’ve been on, especially when it comes to finding meaningful work. These last several months have allowed me some time to refocus my energy on the things that matter most to me. My hunch is that you’re doing the same thing as you reflect on the last 10 years of your career. With that in mind, there are really four different areas that I’d like to address.

First and most importantly, even though you’re not going to be on a concert hall stage in the near future I really encourage you to get back in touch with your instrument. I’ve heard several people say over the past few weeks that they’ve exchanged the word “practice” with word “playing” and it has made a huge difference in their ability to continue their pursuit of perfection in their art.  More than ever it’s important for you to get your instrument out and play things that bring joy and meaning as the process provides a form of creative expression that I suspect is missing from your life. If you can recenter your mindset around the idea of play I think it might bring you some stability as you think about the other elements in your question.

Second, your concern about classical music actively contributing to the notion of white supremacy and inequality in the arts is something that I know many of us including myself are grappling with on a daily basis. We’re all being challenged to think, listen and learn about ways that we can make the world a more just and equitable place. Like you, I continuously think about ways that I can be a part of the change that is so desperately needed in our field. While I don’t have all the answers and I’m certainly doing way more listening these days then anything else, there are a few things that I’ve noticed that might help us all become better allies in this work. 

Our job is to get to try to get to the heart of why systemic racism is happening in this art form that we care so deeply about. Reading, listening and engaging in a thoughtful dialogue is the first giant step to change, but it is only a small part of the equation. The most important thing we can do as allies in this work is to take action and be a part of the change that we’d like to see. 

I know a lot of you are thinking about leaving the field of classical music altogether to pursue something that provides more meaning, and more financial stability but we need individuals like you who can push these changes from within. In this scenario Jessica, your contributions are not necessarily going to be playing notes on a page, but more about supporting the transformation of the organization itself.

As crazy as it seems, you’re in a position of power because you have a tenured position in an orchestra. My challenge to you is to look at all facets of the organization and see if you can identify an opportunity to dig in with the skills that you have to make the change that you’d like to see. I would start by connecting with the leadership of the organization and ask how you might be able to roll up your sleeves and help.

Third, in regards to our aging audiences in classical music, I don’t disagree with you, but I think that the challenge of attracting large audiences to indoor venues actually goes beyond our senior citizen population. For example I’m not going to attend any concerts until there’s a vaccine as I don’t want to put myself or my family at risk. This is a time for our entire field to be more thoughtful about how we’re going to engage our audience in the future. So much of the work is going to be dependent upon the leadership of our organizations but I would say that one thing you could do—now that you’ve made the commitment to start practicing again—is to explore your own agency in this work. Maybe in the coming months you invest your time in producing a series of beautiful recordings of yourself or commit to a bubble with a few of your fellow orchestra musicians to livestream a concert. 

Overall, this is a very short moment in time. We’re talking about 12 to 18 months. We will get back to work and normalcy will return.  Your job as an artist is to take this time to reflect and start to enact some of those ideas and plans you’ve come up with to help make the world a better place. 

In the particular context of your question, I might suggest that you spend some time exploring organizations that work at the intersection of classical music and social justice. Though I know there are many, three organizations come to mind: Street Symphony and Urban Voices Project here in LA and Music Cambia in New York City are all great organizations for you to gain inspiration. Spend time exploring these organizations, and build programming in your community that enables you to work at the intersection of classical music and social justice. 

Finally, I have a few specific tactical suggestions for you to explore to help bring some of these ideas into action. 

  1. First, as you think about your next steps I encourage you to start small. I’m a huge fan of micro-movements. Big sweeping changes that happen by thousands of small actions, led by people like you who are trying to make the world a better place. The hardest part is taking that first step, so make it a small one and go from there. 
  2. Second, look in your local community at organizations that are doing social justice work and see if there’s an opportunity for you to bring your talents as an artist to the organization. Reach out to the organization and volunteer your time. I find that with many social justice organizations, simply showing up is about 80% of the battle. 
  3. Third, as crazy as this sounds, you are in control of your career, not the cancelled orchestra season. You have been given a tremendous gift of time in this pandemic. Take this time to reflect on where you’d like to go and turn it into action. Whether you volunteer or launch your own program, be open to the possibility of change. 
  4. Finally, we are in an important election year and I would encourage you to consider canvassing for the candidate that you believe will give you the best shot at having a meaningful career. Volunteer today and don’t forget to vote!!

The win-win for me in this case would be that you come out of this pandemic with your full-time orchestra job in tact but you have combined it with work that feeds your soul. Ideally this all happens under the same roof but do not shy away from the idea that you may have to go outside of your full-time job to find meaning. 

Jessica thank you so much for the question. For my listeners, contributing a question for this podcast has never been easier and I’m including information on how to send a question my way in the show notes and on the written transcript of the podcast. Thanks so much for listening! 

Show Notes: Want to submit a question to be answered on this podcast? Simply make a recording of your question on your phone and email it to me at and I’ll answer your question on a future episode.

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Nate Zeisler is the Dean for Community Initiatives at the Colburn School in Los Angeles. He envisions a world where students majoring in the arts have a clear path to a sustainable career, where creative minds are empowered and inspired to rule the workforce, and where access to the arts is not just for the privileged few, but for all.

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