BWW Feature: Six South East Asian Musicians Discussed COVID-19 Survival Strategy
Bandung Philharmonic, a philharmonic orchestra based in the Jawa Barat capital of Bandung, hosted a discussion session with the topic "Discussion on the Future of Performing Arts in the South East Asia Region". The online discussion was attended by music artists and educators residing in five South East Asian countries.
The five panelists were Dr. Joel Navarro, Professor of Music, Conductor, and Chorusmaster hailing from the Philippines; Leslie Tan, cellist of T'ang Quartet, Singapore's premiere string quartet and Artistic Director of Bach-in-Bali Festival from Singapore; Dr. Christopher Schaub, Woodwind Department Chair and Principal Bassoon of the Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra; Singaporean Gabriel Lee, Founder and Director of Music Society of Myanmar; and Dr. Ang Mei Foong, Vocal Department Chair of University Putra Malaysia.
The session was moderated by the Bandung Philharmonic's pianist, CEO, and co-founder Airin Efferin from Indonesia. The six of them combined hold decades of experience and dozens of awards, recitals, and publications in Asia and beyond.
The COVID-19 global pandemic has led to the cancellations of many art and music events and projects, impacting the livelihood of those working in the field. The panel drew from their pool of expertise to share their outlook and advice on how to adapt to the changing COVID and post-COVID world as artists.
Be Proactive and Creative in Promoting Your Content...Globally
For generations, artists have offered private or semi-private classes where they tutor those interested in honing a particular craft, such as singing or playing an instrument.
However, COVID-19 brought many of these classes into the virtual space, joining online classes that already existed before the pandemic situation. As live events got cancelled, even more artists and institutions look to online classes via Zoom and similar apps to bolster their earnings.
Music educator Gabriel Lee reinstated the fact that the internet makes it possible for tutors to get attendees from anywhere in the world - Lee himself has people from outside of Singapore joining his classes. However, the violinist also gave a reminder that the unlimited connectivity also meant global competition.
Fellow Singaporean Leslie Tan added that artists have to be more proactive in getting their voices heard during these times. For those starting out, find ways to get discovered, as finding opportunities gets easier once you're known.
He also suggested artists to try out other avenues of income, such as Patreon. Patreon is a site where creators can put out their work to look for patrons who will support them on a subscription-basis; typically, higher tiers mean higher subscription fee per month, but allow the patrons to access different perks, such as exclusive works, behind-the-scene posts, or a chance to speak with the creator.
Soprano Dr. Ang Mei Foong also advised fellow tutors to keep their students' interest and motivation up, in addition to honing their art, as the lack of human interaction can induce a feeling of loneliness.
Pick Up New Skills
As restricted movement policies in most countries mean more time indoors, Christopher Schaub recommended those with free time to learn new skills online.
Many online learning platforms offer free and paid structured classes with lesson plans and assignments (including Broadwayworld itself!), while other sites like YouTube have thousands of tutorials from different content creators to watch at one's own pace. These skills can even be unrelated to one's current career - it can be a fallback plan to earn more during these trying times.
Dr. Foong agreed, adding that media production skills like video and audio editing can be especially beneficial for those working in the music industry. She encouraged people to experiment, as we can learn a lot even from errors.
She also offered a couple of tips for better recording. First, invest in audio equipment if possible, as better equipment means better quality (though those just starting out can use mobile apps from their phones). Secondly, if you're recording a video footage, edit the audio separately to enhance the quality, cut out parts, and erase unwanted noise, before recombining it with the video.
Start Live Performances Small and Local
The panelists agreed that despite recorded performances becoming even more common, live music is still the best way to experience music.
Bandung Philharmonic's Airin Efferin talked about their plan to hold a live concert within the year. The orchestra is still figuring out the logistics and technicalities to best present the live experience.
Gabriel Lee concurred that musicians should plan to resume holding live concerts. He stressed the importance of adapting to the new expectations people will hold after the pandemic; for example, concert holders should guarantee both the safety and comfort of their audience.
Moreover, he also focused on marketability, noting that shows should offer an experience that cannot be replicated through a computer screen, such as live interaction and talks with the performers.
Baltimore-born Christopher Schaub also shared the opinion; artists need to reintroduce the benefits of live performance. He suggested musicians start with a smaller ensemble, such as with chamber music, before returning to a full orchestra that would require bigger investment and space.
Such scaled-down events would require nontraditional performing space in place of concert halls; he threw the idea of holding performances in hotel lobbies, which sometimes already have a grand piano of their own. Lastly, he advised music groups to keep things local for the near future, both in scouting musicians and selling tickets, to better support the immediate community.
Stay Relevant While Maintaining Long-Term Strategy
With no live events in the upcoming months, many performing art groups are struggling to maintain their relevance.
Airin shared some of the tactics employed by Bandung Philharmonic, including hosting webinars, hosting Instagram live sessions with notable local musicians, and posting previously unreleased videos for a limited time on their YouTube channel. They are working with their digital marketing partner to reach the orchestra's audience, who might be looking for a feeling of comfort and solidarity at these times.
She also opened up about Bandung Philharmonic's current operational approach. The 2016-born orchestra is currently operating in a crisis management mode, tightening their purse strings and being very strident with any spending to ensure their long-term survival.
Leslie Tan gave a reminder to performing art institutions to stay mindful of the content they're putting out for free. Audiences who are too used to free content might lead to financial problems in the long run. This is a time to be entrepreneurial, he stated, and suggested the idea to work pre-existing content into a patronage system such as the one available on the aforementioned platform of Patreon.
Practice Self Care and Community Care
Last, but not least, the discussion also highlighted the importance of caring for oneself and each other.
To artists affected severely by the pandemic, Chris Schaub suggested going home to one's family - should the circumstances allow for it - and live with them for the time being, as sharing living expenses can be more affordable.
Leslie Tan, meanwhile, emphasized the importance of involving other people in the creative process.
"Don't forget that we create music in a community," the cellist added. "Try to connect with other musicians. Don't forget the human aspect."
He also asked people to start talking to each other more. Although the music industry and community can be very cut-throat, the current situation is hard for everyone.
"Now is not the time for competition," said Tan.
Another recommendation came from Gabriel Lee. The Peabody Conservatory graduate reminded the audience of the importance of keeping a sense of humor. As previous coronavirus outbreaks have been linked to worsening mental condition that potentially lead to increased fatality rate, this advice is truly a timely one.
Airin underlined how Bandung Philharmonic has been working together closely with its members during the pandemic.
"Communication is so important with your team members. Figure out who your core members are, work out how we can move forward. Discuss potential scenarios, optimistic or not."
She also encouraged people to open up about any financial challenges they might be facing. Those needing help should attempt to get help now before going into debt, which might lead into further financial troubles down the line.
"Survival is a team effort," stated the Bandung-based pianist.