COVID-19, crisis and Coltrane: My journey to the studio in a pandemic

In my life as a musician, I have three primary streams of income: composition, education and performance; most of what I do on a daily basis can be filed into one of those three cabinets. Usually, these things keep me very busy—sometimes to the tune of having performances every day. However, in mid-March, everything changed. As the college shut down last spring, so too did many of my opportunities to perform. With a major disruption in my life as an artist, I was forced to reconsider what it meant to me to have a career in music. I watched helplessly as friends and colleagues suffered during the shutdown and venues shut down. All of this plunged me into a deep despair. I was still practicing every day, but I couldn’t bring myself to write any new music for a month. I had planned a recording session for mid-July prior to the stay-at-home order, and as I saw my first Hope College Jazz Summit get canceled, it looked like this session would go the same way. 

What does an artist do who feels frozen in time? The shutdown gave me time to think about my career. Who had I been working to become for my entire life? Who was I at that point? Did it even matter? I may have stopped composing, but I started reading. Writing. Listening. Learning. I remembered the advice of one of my teachers: “Writing and performing music is about humanity. If you get stuck composing—work on becoming a better person outside of music. Read. Travel. Live. The music will come again.” 

I read several books. I re-read some more. I pondered what I really wanted from my career—what was really important to me.

And the music did come again. The music came when I had least expected it. In early June, I played a livestream concert with my colleague Prof. Jeff Shoup and our friend Jim Alfredson. Jim had been hosting concerts from his basement after the stay-at-home order had been lifted. On the way to the gig, I was not feeling up to performing. George Floyd had just been murdered, and my despair was a pit from which I could not escape. Every time I heard names or saw the news—I just saw my friends. My colleagues. My teachers. My heroes. 

It is no secret that the pandemic has adversely affected BIPOC both directly and indirectly. For Asians and Asian-Americans such as myself, we were vilified for a pandemic that we neither created nor controlled. Emboldened racists shouted profanities and slurs at me from their vehicles as they sped by me—as if they knew that what they were shouting was wrong but the hatred in their hearts consumed them and they did not care. 

I had tried several times to document my anger and frustration at our current events. With each crumpled piece of manuscript paper I thought—what could I ever write that would be enough to honor the memory of those who had been murdered before their time and due to injustices in our system? 

Then I played the livestream gig at the Alfredson residence. There was nothing inherently special about the basement where we recorded, save for some cameras and high-quality microphones. However, the emotion was palpable—the three of us needed this gig. All of a sudden, being in a space with such raw emotions transformed me from the inside out. Playing music with friends who were listening and not with a metronome or a drum track, I felt myself come alive again. It was far from a perfect gig, but that did not matter—what mattered was the opportunity that I had to build community with others through music again.

When I got home, I started composing. I wrote four new starts—not necessarily introductions, but beginnings of new music. These starts would eventually become fully realized compositions, and I quickly finished them to keep my recording session alive. 

When emoting through performance is a core part of one’s being, the absence of this core is debilitating. When the shutdown started, I felt lost. I did not even know who I was again. However, music always finds a way, and it found a way to replenish my soul. 

On July 16 and 17, we cut the record—right here at Hope College studios. I poured my heart and soul into this record, and two months later, the record, a snapshot into my life at this point in time, is almost ready to share. 

As I examined my own life, I remembered the words of John Coltrane, “My goal is to live the truly religious life and express it in my music. If you live it, when you play, when you play, there’s no problem because music is part of the whole thing. To be a musician is really something. It goes very, very deep. My music is the spiritual expression of what I am—my faith, my knowledge, my being.” 

This quote consumed my consciousness when I started writing again. I was no longer plagued by my worry of making a good record or writing compositions that fit my lofty expectations of what I had imagined that my teachers and colleagues thought a composition should be—I simply wanted to make a record that represented as much of who I am as a person as it did who I am as a musician. 

BIPOC artists are still in crisis right now, especially musicians who are unable to perform as their primary means of income. However, the pandemic will not last forever, and our society will find new ways to satisfy its need for musical communication. Even now, musicians all over the world are finding creative ways to express themselves. Music is a gift that transcends the artificial boundaries of time that we have set for ourselves, and musicians are survivors. And someday soon, we will thrive again.

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