The 'Essential' Nature of Music

March 22, 2020, 2:02 PM · I was on a disturbing phone call, the purpose of which was to determine whether a non-profit that's very close to my heart will be able to move forward in these turbulent times. The phrase that kept surfacing was "we aren’t considered essential." This is an organization, by the way, that exists to provide one-to-one mentoring to our underserved youth. A great mission, but on the surface, one that doesn’t necessarily meet the definition of "essential." We’re not feeding people, not providing homes, not providing jobs, not providing medical supplies. Make no mistake, I’m all for putting our energy and resources toward what really matters in times like these. That said, being labeled "non-essential" stung.

violin fork knife

As I contemplated the harsh reality of our fiscal woes, the person speaking said something that was designed to make everyone on the call feel better, but had the opposite impact on me. To mildly paraphrase, he said, "Nothing is considered more non-essential than the arts." What?? Had I been able to leap through the phone line and rip out his tongue, I would have done so. Thank goodness that wasn’t the end of his statement. He continued, "Yet arts leaders around the country are taking a stand, connecting with their patrons, and preaching about the viability of their organizations." He went on to say that many arts organizations are using their creativity and outside-the-box thinking to figure out ways to reach and sustain contact with their audiences and donors despite shutdowns and cancellations. In other words, while some arts organizations may not survive, they certainly don’t plan to go gently. And they can serve as an example to us all.

That’s when it dawned on me. Whether we make a living in the arts, support them through our patronage, simply love music, or all of the above, the arts ARE essential. More than essential, in fact. For many of us, they’re the reason we get up in the morning.

Searching for Inspiration

No sooner did I get off this phone call, I went to check out my most valued news source: I suspect I was looking for solace more than news, and I found it. Laurie had posted a wonderful piece titled The Week in Hope - Inspiring Spontaneous Music Online. When I clicked on Yo-Yo Ma playing the Sarabande from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 3, my universe went from dark to light. I was transported from my solitary gloom to a state of wonder and awe. Glorious music played by a magnificent musician. And if that weren’t enough, Mr. Ma dedicated his performance to the healthcare workers on the frontline, writing, "Your ability to balance human connection and scientific truth in service of us all gives me hope."

Listening to 2 minutes and 9 seconds of Bach completely changed the trajectory of my day. Mr. Ma was simply doing what he does best. And in doing so, he did something incredibly essential — he brought beauty and joy into a random stranger’s life. And not just this random stranger. The last time I looked, he had well over one million views and close to 50,000 likes. Those numbers represent individual lives being touched. The true power of music. If music can harness that type of power, how can it possibly be deemed non-essential?

Sheltered in Place With Music

Although hostage in my own home, I have hundreds of scores on the shelves to be studied, a violin that never tires of being played, a piano awaiting my touch, and etude books that have not been cracked in decades. I could be sheltered at home for years and never run out of musical work to do. For me, music is absolutely essential. And although I am alone, playing to no one in particular, it is still live music. It still challenges my brain and activates my imagination. And I am comforted in the knowledge that millions of other musicians are doing the same — be it from balconies, living rooms, or backyard decks.

As one of my dear violinist friends recently said, "It's unbearable to see performing arts all around the world holding a ‘fermata’ in this horrible way!" Yet we all know the meaning of fermata. And I truly believe there will come that point where we take a collective breath, move our bows to the frog, and begin the da capo.

Author’s note to classical music ticket holders: If you’ve purchased tickets for live musical/theatrical events that have been cancelled and you are in a position to do so, please consider converting your tickets into a donation rather than asking for a refund. If enough people do this, it could well be the difference between an organization staying afloat during the crisis or going under. Even though an event was cancelled, thousands of dollars have already been spent in the preparation process.

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March 22, 2020 at 09:48 PM · Whilst your neighborhood musician(s) probably will not be the one you call in the crux of a catastrophe. We certainly will be the ones called upon in the days, weeks, and months following this cataclysmic, life altering world event to comfort the masses, fill the void, honor the dead, and sing the praises of those who solved the problem. We will be the people called upon to sweep up the pieces, and that will be no small task. We ARE essential.

March 22, 2020 at 11:14 PM · All one can say is "Amen" and let's move on in the most positive ways possible.

March 23, 2020 at 12:30 AM · Lovely idea, Diana, converting tickets to donations. Unless that means you have to go without food, then by all means get the refund.

March 23, 2020 at 02:03 PM · The "functionalists" will never "get-it." To be sure the basics of survival and medical care have to be front-and-center at this time. Yet, what do we do with our shattered emotions? Music, as I tell my students, is the language of emotion. I know this by experience because I feel myself soaring when listening to the Mendelssohn Octet, playing a Vivaldi piece, or wailing out "The Quest" from Man of La Mancha on my violin. My emotions soar, as I am sure yours do when you hear or play something meaningful to you.

A program that reaches out to "under-served youth" is even more essential in these times of near-existential fear and terror. To my way of thinking - I can teach and coach from over six feet away. Maybe meet you in a large and safe space (outdoors if the weather permits).

We need to deal with peoples physical and emotional health but, as I said at the beginning: The "functionalists" will never "get-it."

March 23, 2020 at 02:50 PM · I actually find the discussions on this site (and others where I hang out) to be more therapeutic than playing the violin. Curiously playing the violin is more stressful because it annoys me that my concentration is disturbed by fear and anxiety over the pandemic.

March 23, 2020 at 02:53 PM · Diana,

Thank you for writing this article. After reading it, I have decided to donate any tickets I have for concerts that get canceled this spring. I will also make an extra donation to help out in these difficult times.


March 23, 2020 at 04:07 PM · As I was reading your outstanding article, before I got to the part where you were finished with the phone call, all I could think of were the wonderful postings on Facebook by so many marvelously talented people to offer solace to everyone in these awful times we’re going through. My cousin Bill Fayne from Las Vegas, a marvelous pianist, conductor and musical director, posted a song he sang and played. I shared it and got countless comments:

1. My heart absolutely melted. Thank you! ??

2. That was so beautiful. Bless him. Thanks for sharing, Joe.

3. Absolutely fabulous. Made my day thanks Bill.

4. I'm in love. Wonderful. Thank you for sharing…..

I also heard Yo-Yo Ma playing the Sarabande and he and Bill and everyone else sharing their music at a time like this brings hope to the world. I actually broke down in tears many times while listening to the music. It brought me from the depths to a new day. It was so therapeutic. I had the same reaction as you had. Yes, this is the true power of music, but only the tip of the iceberg of the power. I have never been able to, nor never will be able to put into words what the true power of music is as it is so omnipotent, preeminent, unmatched, transcendent….

So yes, if music can harness that type of power, how can it possibly be deemed non-essential?

March 23, 2020 at 05:07 PM · George: As always, you've hit the nail on the head. We're finding that we are more essential to our underserved children now than ever before. I share your thoughts and am grateful for your comment. (And I'll listen to Mendelssohn's Octet tonight in your honor!)

Paul: Sites such as are incredibly therapeutic, I agree. Laurie is my hero!

Joe: Thank you for sharing your wonderful story! You and I seem to be endlessly fascinated by the transformational aspects of music. I, too, cried listening to Yo-Yo Ma. They were cathartic tears, however, just as you described. Thank you for such a thoughtful comment.

To Beautifully said! Thank you!

To Yes, amen, and move on with positivity!

To: Agreed! Please don't stop eating.

To (Kent): Your donations will be greatly appreciated. Thank you!!

March 23, 2020 at 06:36 PM · Since the Stone Age, and probably earlier, humans have HAD to make art/music/theatre. The cave paintings in Lescaux (and other places, I'm sure), drums and bone pipes, the architecture of ancient Egypt, Greek theatre-these were not created out of thin air, but out of NEED-emotional expression that transcends mere conversation. So it is not and has never been, NONessential. Even in the concentration camps, artistic expression was needed, created. So many artists have been reaching out, creating posts to share, using technology to make contact with anyone who has a device to receive it. Thank you for so eloquently stating how essential we are.....

March 23, 2020 at 08:43 PM · TO Thank you for this beautiful, heartfelt, thought-provoking comment!! Case made!

March 23, 2020 at 10:56 PM · “I could be sheltered at home for years and never run out of musical work to do.“ this is such a fantastic observation! And this journey of progressing through music keeps the mind healthy during these difficult times. From one musician to another, thank you for this perspective!

March 24, 2020 at 06:12 AM · Diana - thank you for your wisdom, realism and hope.

Stay well, all!

March 24, 2020 at 12:50 PM · You are most welcome! Thank YOU for the lovely comment!

Richard: Your comment is so kind. Thank you! And, yes, stay well, all!

March 24, 2020 at 10:31 PM · Music is not a material necessity, but all cultures, rich or poor, sophisticated or pre-literate, current or ancient, do music. There is a theory from the anthropologists, impossible to test, that singing developed alongside spoken language.

March 25, 2020 at 12:11 AM · Joel: I'm so appreciative when you weigh in on an article, because you always have such interesting thoughts. And while the theory you pose may be impossible to test, it seems entirely plausible to me. Thank you for sharing!

March 25, 2020 at 08:59 PM · I am a string teacher. I realized a long time ago that I would not be acknowledged or paid for my time and talent. Why is Lady Ga-Ga paid more than Yo Yo Ma? Because she appeals to the masses, water seeks its lowest level which is the public. Serious musicians like ourselves have to be satisfied in pleasing ourselves, the public just doesn't get it, and they never will!

March 25, 2020 at 09:31 PM · Thank you for illustrating beautifully the many ways the arts fulfill us. Beyond what a composition says to me, I realize how it makes me feel more whole.

March 25, 2020 at 09:57 PM · Victor: Classical music lovers may be small in numbers, but we are definitely enthusiastic! Thank you for commenting.

March 26, 2020 at 01:54 AM · what an eloquent way of communicating what many of us know and feel.....the music, the arts satisfy where nothing else can. I have been spending lovely hours in my living room, happily immersed in the joy of playing, however good or poor that may be. I am rich.

March 26, 2020 at 11:24 AM · Thanks, Diana, for the reminder that the personal connections, and especially the musical connections, among us are as essential and nourishing as food and water. I'm delighted to see the innovative ways people are connecting during this period!

March 26, 2020 at 01:01 PM · Thank you for your comment! Beautifully put! I'm so glad you have the comfort of your music! And I'm with you... I even have a good time when I'm struggling on a piece. It's just such a pleasure to play! Thank you for commenting! I continue to be inspired by the creative ways people find to connect.

March 27, 2020 at 08:30 PM · I am a nurse and considered an "essential" employee. I am spending my days trying to take care of elderly people who are sick with COVID-19, helping families who aren't allowed in to the nursing home to see their loved one, calming down staff who do not have enough personal protective equipment and are getting sick themselves, and trying to figure out how to make isolation gowns out of garbage bags and duct tape. So I do consider myself essential. But at the end of the day, it is hard to imagine saving lives to a world that didn't have music. At the end of the day, turning on youtube and listening to all of you alleviates my stress and brightens my day. Life is meaningless without a soul. And it is music that enriches that soul! Music is what makes us human. So thank you for all that you do!

March 27, 2020 at 09:58 PM · Dear Nurse ( Thank YOU for all you're doing to help our most vulnerable people get through this crisis. I believe I speak for millions of others who are beyond grateful for the work you and your fellow nurses are doing... at great personal risk! Your perspective on music is one that brings me great joy. What a beautiful and heartfelt comment. Thank you again!

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