Keep Connected with James Wilson

As told to Greg Cahill

Keep Connected chronicles the ways in which string players and organizations are supporting and keeping in touch with their audiences or students throughout the global coronavirus pandemic. Even as society reopens, virtual concerts and social-media outreach programs are a phenomenon that have kept performers in the public sphere, since concerts, festivals, and other large gatherings remain largely restricted.

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra cellist and artistic coordinator James Wilson, a co-founder of the Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia (CMSCVA), teaches cello and chamber at Columbia University and Sarah Lawrence College. Although his professional life is based in New York City, he is quarantined with his husband, Carsten Schmidt, at their second home in Staunton, Virginia.

Tell me about your daily routine while quarantined.

Like so many people, the circumstances of the global pandemic have made me very anxious, and one result is that my sleep patterns have shifted. I wake up daily as the sun rises—here that’s a little before 6 AM. I’ve been enjoying going for runs first thing in my day and using the cooler morning hours for gardening and other outside work. I spend the afternoons working on business for Orpheus, CMSCVA, and other professional projects. In the evenings, I review the news and my social-media feed to catch up with the world and what people are up to in the music business. Of course, cooking three meals a day takes hours! In a way, it’s a simple life. But because of the difficult circumstances surrounding this free time, it’s also hard to focus and think creatively. Some days I end up doing nothing.

What have you learned about yourself as a person and as a player while working and living in solitude?

I’ve always seen the cello as only one in a set of tools I used for my education and use now in my professional work. I am also a passionately collaborative musician, at this moment in time when there are rare chances to collaborate. So these days I’ve allowed the cello to recede in importance in my life, and frankly that’s OK with me. Instead, the focus of my work has shifted to more important goals that I can work on rather than instrumental excellence—striving for racial equity in classical-music structures, envisioning the impact of programming on community, and ways to support younger musicians.

How are you staying connected with your audience and/or students during the quarantine?

I’ve stayed connected with all of my professional work through a veritable keychain of virtual programs, including meeting platforms, live broadcast on social media, pre-recorded video, and cloud-based platforms. Through Orpheus’ Reflections program, I’ve played on Zoom and video for people with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. I’ve hosted online conversations for [the conductorless] Orpheus and the Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia. And I play over social media in real time here and there when I’m asked or when it feels right.


Surprisingly, I have found online cello instruction rewarding and useful. But since these platforms don’t allow a realistic audio representation of musical sound, it was also a challenging adjustment. One student sent a good-quality recording to me as a year-end project, and to be honest it made me cry—in the weeks from late March to early May I had completely forgotten how great this student actually sounded. Another essential aspect of communication brought out in this pandemic is the importance of personal interactions I have with my colleagues. I’ve spent good chucks of meeting time just checking in on people’s lives and how they are doing and coping. And, recently, I’m had some challenging, exhilarating discussions about equity and racial bias in classical music. It’s good to experience this amount of solidarity and compassion. It reminds me that all musicians are in this moment together.

How have you selected your internet programming?

A lot of the programming I have been involved with is with Orpheus. It’s been energizing to plan content with a group of colleagues, have everyone bring a different expertise to the table, and to feel strengthened by that. Since I didn’t maintain a personal media presence before this recent pivot to online content, the learning curve was very steep and I am still challenged weekly with some new technological skill I’ve never had to use before.

What is the response like?

One thing I’ve learned is that connection through media—social networking, creating audio and video libraries or playlists, or broadcasting performances—is necessary to maintain audience/patron relationships. As for using these platforms to further build your base, it’s a bit of a crap shoot—some projects receive a lot of attention, others really don’t. To be honest, technology seems a strange bedfellow for an acoustic and interactive art form. Because of the technology required to maintain an online presence, projects take a lot of energy and time, and it feels that musical content has taken backseat to the online platforms themselves. Because the technology gets in the way of communicating directly, it’s hard to for me to gauge response except through the numbers of views, et cetera. That seems a sorry means to quantify the impact of art.

What have you learned about your audience?

Because of this pandemic, I’ve learned that the existing audiences I have for Orpheus or CMSCVA are very loyal, appreciative, and want to offer support. That feels great. But in my experiences in the digital world these past few months, it’s really sunk in that that my “audience” can be anyone, anywhere, at any time. The level of engagement can be as light or deep as can be. People will like or dislike your content. It’s a whole other ballgame. In the end, the more personal the approach you can use to connect with your audience the better. And that is different for every musical community.


How do you rate your experience with virtual performance?

This is a tough question. I personally find it tremendously frustrating and hollow to perform virtually. It’s hard to put all the energy of performing into a camera and hope that people are appreciating it. But, on the other hand, I’ve enjoyed many of the virtual concerts I’ve seen over the weeks. I especially enjoy the performers who somehow acknowledge the awkwardness and vulnerability of the situation. Months ago, I watched a fantastic recital given by pianist Aaron Diehl in his home, and at one point he said out loud “This is really weird,” or something like that. I can’t tell you how good it felt to hear a fellow musician say that.

For me, the virtual performances that fall short are by musicians that take themselves too seriously. I wonder if I would ever want to hear these artists in live concerts. I’ve also been enjoying the social aspect of watching live-streamed concerts, when there are chat and reaction options. I wish we could introduce this concept into in-person concerts. It’s fun to hear music, react to it in real time, support the performer, make comments, and say hello to your friends who are also attending the event. Of course through much of the history of classical music, etiquette was less structured and this totally happened during concerts—nothing is new!

Is this something you will continue even as venues reopen?

Like it or not, this digital component is something that all musicians will have to continue going forward. It seems to me that it will take a long time to build back the in-person audience, and because of this, the nature of our work will change. However, I am hoping that the technology catches up to the demand for online musical content—then all of this will be more pleasant!


How will you continue going forward as a player? Will the quarantine or limitations of the virus change your path?

I would say that this experience has quickly shaped my priorities going forward. The quarantine and pandemic have ultimately revealed how fragile the classical music “business” is, and because of this I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about my professional calling. I am very proud to have created a freelance career for myself that feels impactful, fulfilling, and important—one at a very high artistic level. But seeing almost all of it vanish overnight was devastating. At age 55, I wish I could see into the future toward what my musical life will be. I wonder if I have the luxury of time to rebuild, even if the professional infrastructure in which I thrived will be built back.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also highlighted the economic and social inequities in our society. And of course the tragic deaths of Black people during this time have brought racial justice and equity to the forefront of social consciousness. I hope that coming out of this crisis, all American musicians will look differently at our workplace, our projects, or funding models, our schools, and our ensembles with different eyes. And that if we see oppression, bias, or inequity, we won’t just pay lip service to injustice but will call it out and demand change.

When or if I go back to doing the same work, I’ll look at it differently. Is playing around the world the ultimate goal for serious musicians? Or is bringing beauty and inspiration to your local community more important? Is it worth it to remain in such a competitive, emotionally taxing profession if the money-making opportunities contract? These are things I think about on a daily basis, and I’m sure I’m not the only musician contemplating these questions right now.

Is there a message you’d like to share with our readers?

Since my professional world is all about collaboration, I would like to ask all of the readers out there to share your thoughts, and to take the thoughts of others to heart. If you’re a professional musician, please engage in dialogue with your wider audience to see what they would like to hear from you. If you’re a music lover, let your favorite musicians know what is important to you, and what your dreams and hopes are for classical music. If you’re a concert presenter, listen to your constituency rather than profit, and find a way to shape your programming to your community. Don’t be afraid to be curious and demanding. This time is confusing and devastating to so many in the performing arts. But it’s also a golden opportunity to reshape the classical-music landscape in the U.S. It’s a perfect time to step up and play your part!