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Verena Sennekamp

Musicians Reflect on the Pandemic

Verena Sennekamp

Tell us about your normal, pre-pandemic life:

My pre-pandemic life was basically based on three pillars which all shaped my daily life: teaching, playing concerts, and organizing the concert series “Nonnenwerther Inselkonzerte” which takes place on a beautiful island on the rhine river near Bonn. Throughout the year the activities for each project varied in intensity, but all of this was continuously present in my daily life.

Tell us about how your life changed last March, were there momentous concerts or events that were canceled, did you dive into virtual projects? Try to just wait it out? Enjoy the time off from your instrument and career pressures?

The first project that got cancelled last year in March was a concert tour to the US West Coast. Since I hadn’t travelled much on the west coast ever before, I was particularly sad about this cancellation, because I had some really nice travel plans for after finishing my concerts.

When everything suddenly stopped there was a part of me that felt a big sense of freedom and excitement about the opportunity to look into some ideas that I had in the back of my head I I never had time to do. Surprisingly I had quite a number of ideas which circled around the possibilities of presenting musical content digitally and I embraced the opportunity to get more familiar with recording technology, digital platforms (youtube, instagram) and audio/video editing. I bought a bit of equipment and learned a lot! For the first few weeks my apartment looked like a recording studio. It was full of cables and mics, audio interface etc. and I watched uncounted numbers of you tube tutorials. It was kind of fun. I came up with two formats that I presented on youtube: 

  •  “Music Postcards“: I recorded short pieces of Bach Solo Suites for cello all by myself in empty churches and combined the music with a spoken introduction about the music and particular ideas that Bach used in the movements that I recorded. 
  • Practice Hacks“: a format targeted at my students who were sitting at home trying to keep practicing and improving while I could only offer digital lessons with terrible sound and frequent video interruptions. The “practice hacks” are a series of short video tutorials talking about how to structure your work, how to practice more effectively and also about specific questions in string and cello playing. 
First reaction to lockdown

I never felt like taking time off my instrument. I did throw most of the repertoire aside that I was supposed to play over the next few months. Instead, I chose pieces which I had always wanted to learn and never found the time to do so. I am still doing this and it feels a bit like being back in my student times, when I could choose any piece I wanted to learn and start working on it with no real deadline. Especially for very challenging pieces which need time to grow, it is wonderful to sit down and practice without time pressure. 

Tell us about how your 2020-2021 concert season has been. As you adjusted to pandemic living, did gigs come back at all? Did you dive into more virtual work? Find something else to keep you busy entirely?

I played a few concerts in Austria in the summer of 2020 when the pandemic cooled down a bit. Austria was much more proactive than Germany or other countries in starting concerts again after the first lockdown. I am still really impressed with the Salzburger Festspiele who ran the Festspiel live in the summer of 2020 under strict hygiene conditions. I happened to have a concert around that time in Austria and I went to two Salzburg Festival concerts as an audience member. It was fantastic to hear live music and feel how happy everybody was – musicians and audience – to be there. 

After the summer there was very little chance to play, but I realized that the conservatory that I was teaching at (BFSM Dinkeslbuehl) was so hopelessly backwards in its digital development, that there really need some work to be done to provide some kind of valuable education to our students if we had to deal with the pandemic for a longer time. Over the summer it was possible to teach live, but it was clear that we would have to go back to digital as soon as there was a new wave of the pandemic. My somewhat extreme learning curve in digital media and computer technology during the first wave had taught me one thing: it is not so hard to learn how to handle technology, to learn new systems and to set up collaboration platforms, video conference tools or whatever it is you need to move things into the virtual space. As I realized that there was nobody else around at my school who would be willing or able to this, I took up the position of an IT Admin and introduced digital teaching technologies to the BFSM. It was a lucky coincidence that a new dean took over the school in fall 2020. Together with him we have to opportunity to rethink and reshape the school, with digital development being one of the core aspects of setting the school up for the future.

Snow fun

How has this crisis affected the way you feel about your profession? The arts in general? Has it inspired you to find new ways to connect with audiences and reaffirm your passion, or has it brought about a realization that there are other ways you might like to spend your time…

The crisis moved arts and music entirely into the digital space. I have to admit that I am not really interested in consuming music or art online. Even though there has been plenty of opportunities to watch great performances, it doesn’t attract me at all. I began to wonder why I can’t get excited about any of those fantastic digital offers. I suspect that art is much more of a social and collective activity than I was aware of before and that a live concert stimulates much more than our ears and eyes. Live music concerts strongly benefit from the atmosphere and from the fact that every single live music event is unique and irretrievable. If we are at an exciting live concert, there is really a spark in the concert hall. As a musician on stage we get this strong sense of attention and excitement from your audience that you can connect to. As an audience member you can connect to whatever is going on on-stage, but also to the vibes around you. There are numerous aspects like location, audience mix, music style, concert format, etc, which all influence our senses. I think that a live concert is such a complex mix of stimulation of our senses as well as a social stimulation that any digital offer which we can only consume alone at home will sadly lag behind. As a result I am more fond than ever of live music events!

Did you find solace in music? What kind of music have you been listening to or playing?

Most of the repertoire that I picked to practice and work on during the lockdown are pieces that are really close to my heart. One example is the sixth Suite for Cello solo by Johann Sebastian Bach, a piece originally written for cello piccolo with 5 strings. It takes time to make it sound easy and beautiful on a regular cello with 4 strings, but it is such good music that I enjoy every minute of my time with it.

Another opportunity came through a friend who suggested to play Rachmaninov Sonata together. Since we work together anyway, we were part of the same “bubble” and therefore decided that it wouldn’t be an extra risk to play together. In our profession rehearsal time is usually quite limited and pieces go on stage with a few hours of rehearsal. It is a totally different and unique experience to actually spend time on lots of details, try many options, change your mind about things and really immerse into a rehearsal process.

Were there unexpected silver linings for you amidst the upheaval, anxiety, and loss of the past year?

I am organizing a concert series in Germany and I have to say that I was extremely impressed with our audience when it came to the all the sudden concert cancellations at the beginning of the pandemic and later again when we had to deal with long term lockdown consequences. In the first phase of the lockdown, we asked people to keep their tickets and wait for the postponement dates so that we wouldn’t have to go through a huge act of administration, first refunding then selling tickets again. Out of 250 – 300 tickets that people were holding for various concerts, only 6 people asked their money back. This was a huge act of solidarity towards the artists and the concert series and I was very, very grateful. Later on, when we tried to schedule concerts for late summer and fall but had to cancel most of them again due to the second wave, our audience started to ask whether they could donate their tickets for the artists. We created a donation fund for all the artists that we had invited in 2020 and who couldn’t play their concerts. Again, I was overwhelmed with the response from our audience, not only in terms of donations but also in terms of emails that reached us to express support and compassion. 

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