Well, that was a year! Talk about challenging everything we took for granted. And challenging the very notion of being a musician with no concerts, no audiences, no income, no outlet for our key means of expression.

My last concert was on March 8 at the Adelaide Festival. During the course of the weekend festival I had curated it was clear that this virus was getting closer, causing us to wonder whether we could continue on a daily basis, and what it meant for, well, everything. A week later, my main place of work the Melbourne Recital Centre closed its doors to staff, artists and audiences, and, as of 30 January 2021 we are still not open for live audiences on a regular basis. This has caused a few disruptions.

Marshall McGuire, by Bridget Elliot.

A musician without an audience is a lost being. In many ways it’s the WHY of what we do – all the practice and the notes and travel and the ambition – all of these lead to the moment in front of an audience, in the same room, listening and looking intently as the musician tries to hold their attention, and to communicate. How to do this when there’s no stage, no venue, no one in the room to listen? It’s a previously unimaginable situation, and yet here we were.

It’s this notion of why we do what we do that has informed my random set of career choices over the years. As a young musician, I played piano early on, and then sang in a choir (until puberty intervened) and then was faced with a choice – ‘you can be a reasonable pianist’, they said, ‘or consider an orchestral instrument. At least that way you might get a job’ (I paraphrase only slightly). So being the wilful and difficult child I apparently was, I chose the harp – one of the most expensive, rare, difficult, cumbersome instruments, and not an instrument that one naturally associates with ‘getting a job’. But harp it was, and it opened up a series of unimaginable adventures. It was a completely involving and unforgiving path – every day the 47 strings needed to be tuned at least once, it had to be slid into and out of cars, carried up stairs, wheeled down pathways, lifted onto stages…precision in planning was the key to success. Hard to be spontaneous when you’re a harpist. And then, in an orchestra, you’re more likely to be found counting bars rest than actually playing, which afforded the luxury of observing at close quarters how the rest of the orchestra got on with their business. So much to observe and revel in, let alone the glorious sound of a full symphony orchestra at full pelt – like being on a great ship in the middle of a mighty ocean. Grand, luxurious, immense.

Marshall McGuire, by Steven Godbee

This enjoyment of others’ music making led me, it seems, by natural curiosity, to then wonder about the other side of the business – the planning and the scheduling and the logistics. Who decides the repertoire we’re playing? Why do they choose those pieces? Who decides how large or small the orchestra is? Who plans these intricate schedules of performances and concerts? And in the case of an opera orchestra, where I spent four of the happiest years of my playing life, how do the singers, extraordinary creatures that they are, do what they do?

Gradually, like some but not all of my colleagues by any means, I drifted into presenting my own concerts. How hard can it be, I wondered. Needless to say I found out quickly. A seemingly endless list of details, all interrelated but discrete, with competing timeframes and pressures, with some weighted to the artistic and others to the operational, proved to be enormously energising. And then, to sit and be with the audience as they listened and applauded the concert you had arranged, that was a special sort of quiet pleasure. No applause for the organisers, no flowers, no gifts at stage door, but an immense sense of having done something to facilitate the coming together of musicians and audience. The main game.

Through necessity I found myself curating and scheduling more and more concerts – for Sydney Festival, the Mardi Gras festival, for Melbourne Festival, Sydney Opera House as well as my own freelance touring career, which required additional skills in terms of travel and hotel bookings. And with each adventure, the skills added up, one by one, in a sort of unexpected but reassuring way. The key to it was having mentors and guides, bosses and artistic directors, who trusted and let you present the ideas as you saw fit. This was liberating and empowering, and unlike playing in an orchestra where so much is preordained and imposed (necessarily, I should add, and not in a totally bad way) this experience allowed for real growth and risk taking and ambitious dreaming. But it needed a team of people to support and enable in order to get the most out of it. For the most part I’ve been incredibly lucky to have this support, and for people to give me the opportunity to go for it. Not that it always worked.

One of the early lessons I learned was – Don’t program music just because it appeals to ME. Just because I like the music doesn’t mean the performers will, or that the audience will. It’s important to know who your audience is, and what they respond to, and how far you can work with that knowledge to extend the artform through new voices and new pieces. It’s all about the planning again – presenting the wrong work to the wrong audience at the wrong time in the wrong venue – yep, been there done that. But engaging with an audience over many years, talking to them, listening to them listening in the hall, talking to artists about their passions and their experiences – all this contributes to good engagement and meaningful musical conversations.

And in many ways this is what we’ve all had to relearn and review in 2020 – how to engage with listeners through Zoom and YouTube – sending our music out to audiences but not getting anything back. Some clever ones early on worked out how to be interactive with their audiences, ensuring everyone could have the opportunity to talk to the artists during and after the performance, and often streaming concerts directly into people’s bedrooms or living rooms. This in many ways set up a very different and intimate form of concert giving – a concert for one – that is very different to the experience sitting in a hall. Of course, when we go to a concert, we listen on our own – but we do it as a part of a greater collective. And it’s that collective experience that often informs the vibe – it supports and challenges our responses, it gives us a moment of solitary listening pleasure in the midst of a thousand other solitary pleasures, but also enables us to share (if we wish to) our experience with others. A community of listeners is built up of a thousand individual voices. So the sharing of our experience is in many ways as important as the experience of listening itself. It’s the same with so many areas of our lives – the cinema, the MCG, the local footy, the ballet class, the yoga session – all bringing us together. Until COVID.

Melbourne Recital Centre exterior. Photo by Mark Chew

Concerts are now slowly returning to indoor venues, with audiences and artists in the same room. In some states (hello Western Australia) this has been going on for months. In Victoria, it’s only just starting up. My first concert since March was for the forward thinking Peninsula Summer Music Festival – nimble, adaptable, inclusive, sensible – and it felt, well, normal. Familiar. But at the same time had an added degree of difficulty – there was nowhere to hide. I couldn’t re-record that bit, or excuse a poor connection if the sound wasn’t quite right. There were people, strangers, 1.5 metres in front me, who had paid money to hear me. The pressure was on. After nine months of not experiencing it. I guess I learned two things – that audiences continue to crave the live experience of music, and that musicians can continue to practise and keep in shape even when the audience has gone. Because we know that they’ll be back, and we know we need to be ready for them. And they need to be ready for us, cos we’ve got a lot to say after being absent for so long.

Melbourne Recital Centre, Elizabeth Murdoch Hall. MRC & MTC Architectural Images.

From a venue perspective, it’s exactly the same. We’re ready to go, but we’ll go slowly as we all get used to the new restrictions and changes that have been forced upon us. We’ll need to sit apart from others, we may need to wear a mask, we might not be able to get a drink at the bar, there might be an interval, we’ll have to scan a QR code to get in, and we probably won’t get to mingle with the artists at a post-concert event. But we’ll be there, and the music will sing, and we’ll be reminded of why we do what we do, and how much we need people to listen, after all those hours and months and years of playing and practising alone in a room.

Marshall McGuire is Director of Programming at Melbourne Recital Centre and an acclaimed harpist, having performed with leading ensembles in Australia and internationally, and at many international arts festivals. He has been a member of the ELISION ensemble since 1988, and is Artistic Director of Ludovico’s Band.

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