As told to Greg Cahill
Strings caught up with Elinor Frey, a Canadian-American cellist and researcher who specializes in early and new music—critics have opined that her playing is adroit, expressive, and engaging. Strings contributor Laurence Vittes once noted: “Enterprising Elinor Frey recreates the impact the new instrument had on the classical music establishment of the time with playing of eloquence and style; for example, that probes the emotional edges of the music’s beauty without entirely losing control.”
Read more from our Keep Connected series
In recent seasons, Frey has performed as a soloist throughout North America and Europe, as well as with her quartet, Pallade Musica. Frey holds degrees from McGill, Mannes, and Juilliard. She teaches early cello at the University of Montréal, lectures at McGill University, and is a Visiting Fellow in Music at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University.
Keep Connected chronicles the ways in which string players are staying in touch with their audience or students during the global coronavirus pandemic and its lingering impact on live concerts and classroom education. Even as society struggles to reopen, virtual performances and social media outreach programs have kept performers in the public sphere, since concerts, festivals, and other large gatherings remain largely unsafe.
Where are you quarantined?
At my apartment in Montréal, Québec, Canada, which is in the neighborhood of Verdun, which is thankfully close to the St. Lawrence River, where there is a spectacular park to walk in.
Tell us about your daily routine while quarantined.
I’ve getting up a little later than I used to, but every day is quite different one from the next. I have a huge mix of projects having to do with performing and teaching, which means learning myself and a lot of reading, and so I’m moving between those projects. I like to practice at night, so usually after dinner I go into my workspace and start to chip away at bigger cello-related projects. During the day, I often practice for smaller things—other people’s projects—or work on emails or grant writing or financial management or teaching. By about 11:30 PM, I’m winding down and spend the next hour reading something that will soon go in a class I’m teaching, or doing some homework—I’m learning German, which is slow and so hard.
What have you learned about yourself as a person and as a player while working and living in solitude?
The changes brought about by the pandemic have been a revelation for me. I saw more clearly how my various skills and interests had a place in these new realities. I was excited to see how I could flourish under these circumstances by focusing on my truest interests and by helping others through my playing and through my teaching.
I went straight for what I love the most and started off by giving an online course called “Early Italian Cello.” The success of that led me to develop five more courses and an online concert series. Another good thing was that I saw myself playing the cello more thanks to these videos. I started looking at a few habits in my playing and saw where I could find more freedom, ease, agility, and confidence. I’m sure that this time of reflection and growth will serve me in the coming years.
What are your thoughts about how the pandemic has changed the string world, and how it will change the string world in the future?
The pandemic forced everyone to re-examine how they participate in the music community, especially one that is at present so much online. The pandemic also forced string players to give or take online lessons and courses, even those students who live nearby their teachers. This has shown us that musicians can take a lesson or a class with someone who also lives quite far away. So in the future, when we go to a festival, or travel for a concert, or move to a new city to study with someone, we will have a stronger sense of what that “in-person” interaction is bringing to our community, to each other. We know that there is this alternative, the Zoom lesson, or the live-stream concert, or many other newer offerings.
Also, a lot of people had a moment of “I always wanted to learn this,” or “I always wanted to play that,” and then they could go for it. This has taught people that maybe they were just giving into some myth about what a string player “should” do with their life rather than getting excited about—and then doing what they really love.
How are you staying connected with your audience and/or students during the quarantine? Tell us about virtual sessions you’ve participated in.
The two biggest things I did were to create a live-stream concert series called “Bach and Historical Places” and to create online courses about cello history and interpretation. I already knew that I wanted to teach a course about early Italian cello music—I had even started to set up an online system before the pandemic hit: Acuity Scheduling system, Zoom membership, USB mic, Powerpoints, etc. But then the right moment appeared and boom! I went for it. I also did guest master classes for other people’s creations—Kate Kayaian’s Virtual Summer Cello Festival, Phoebe Carrai’s Bootcamp, CAMMAC’s lectures—and some videoed performances with colleagues and ensembles.
How have you selected your internet programming?
At first, I wanted to play music that was calming, joyous, and peaceful for audiences under the stress of the pandemic, so I chose a lot of Bach. I’m still playing Bach, but since the concert season for a year or two will be heavily online, I have decide to share the music I am most interested in, or that I really want to learn. This means Boccherini, Dall’Abaco, and repertoire I’ve only just discovered, like the sonatas of Jean Baur, which I hope to record soon.
What is the response like?
The response has been inspiring. People love music and many are happy to watch online, especially on their own terms, meaning that some people watch the concert later in the day, or they watch while munching a snack, or wander in and out as they need to. I also love how listeners can live chat on most of the platforms. There is a sense of community among the “regulars” who watch my series and they are also getting to know me and getting to know the music in a new and intimate way.
Why is it important to stay connected on social media?
Social media is an amazing way to give your fans and your community a sense of your professional activities as well as a window into who you are. You stay present in their minds. Importantly, social media gives musicians the chance to encourage their peers and to discuss various developments in the field such as unusual repertoire, new books, and research, and performing innovations.
What have you learned about your audience in this difficult time?
My audience is curious and flexible, but they also want a quality experience. Having decent cameras and decent microphones, as well as renting a beautiful performing venue is really worth it and the audience appreciates that. One lesson I learned was after I finished my first big online course; I got feedback that when I played videos during the Zoom session they didn’t load well. I knew it was because my computer was old and weak. So I spent a big portion of my earnings on a major upgrade. Now when I play videos during class, it works great. I know ever more that I need to care about my audience experience and improve when possible. Showing that I care also gets people to come back again and again.
How do you rate your experience with virtual performance?
Overall, I find it quite similar to live performance. I get a little nervous and feel connected to the audience. The only difference is when the two lockdowns were happening and I couldn’t be in the room with anyone, I had a lot of technology and machines to manage on my own, with phone support from my technology angels, the Martineau family. That could be a little jarring and stressful. I think if performers are willing to spend some extra time setting up a nice camera angle, getting good lighting, and renting or using quality microphones, then they will find virtual concerts to be quite nice!
Is this something you will continue even as venues reopen?
Absolutely. I see live-streaming as a concomitant activity that can be part of almost any concert. Imagine that a parent wants to go the concert, but their babysitter gets sick at the last minute, they can still use their ticket by watching the live-stream. Or a music-lover who has two concerts they want to see that week, but they both happen to be at the same time, so they watch one later in the day after having received the video link. Hopefully, it will lead to people consuming more music and musicians reaching a wider audience.
Any tips for other string players considering this path?
Just try it. Try one virtual or live event, no matter what it is, even a simple Instagram story, then write down three things that you could improve and do it again.
Also, test out the distance of your microphones from you. That can make a big difference in the sound result and consider investing in some extra lighting—light box or reflective umbrella or something. Controlling your lighting makes the video look way better.
What are your goals going forward as performance venues reopen slowly?
To share the music that fascinates me and to take risks by playing from the heart.
I played a live concert last September at a concert hall that had moved their entire series outdoors. The very day turned out to be unusually cold and I was freaked out because I had programmed the Bach Chaconne on the cello and I thought my fingers wouldn’t move fast enough. I went through with it and decided it was OK no matter what came out. The audience and I shared a really beautiful moment. We thanked each other. I am just so grateful to have the chance to do that.
How will you continue going forward as a player? Will the quarantine or limitations of the virus change your path?
The lockdowns and concert hall closings have shown that I need to rely more on myself to make performance events, that the concerts that are most likely to happen are those I organize and therefore won’t cancel, if possible. The quarantine has also shown me that when I am learning more, I’m a better teacher, and also as I’m teaching, I’m learning so much. We know now that our whole professional structure can change in an instant, so I’m planning on change and flexibility as a lifestyle, not only as an emergency measure.
What projects are you working on?
I’m planning two CD projects for 2021, starting with a new recording for the Analekta label of four Italian cello concertos that use small cellos—violoncello piccolo. The second project is more music of Giuseppe Clemente Dall’Abaco, incredible sonatas and duos! As a side project, I’m learning the three Bach violin partitas on my “tenor” cello tuned an octave below the violin. It’s fascinating!
Is there a message you’d like to share with our readers?
Don’t wait for permission to perform, teach, or to connect to your audiences. Now there are fewer walls to online performance but the internal boundary is sometimes the one we need to break through. The usual places that “grant” permission to perform: concert halls, established ensembles, concert series, agents, schools, record labels, etc., they are still a part of the fabric of music making, but musicians themselves can now ask the public to participate in their artistic lives directly. Try it out, no matter how small, and build from your own experiences of connecting to listeners.