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 and its lingering impact on musical life. 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 forbidden. Grammy-nominated jazz violinist, chamber musician, composer, and concertmaster Jeremy Cohen—classically trained and a student of Itzhak Perlman and Anne Crowden—has been quarantined at his home in Oakland, California, since March 9, when he returned from the ASTA Conference in Orlando, Florida. “I was relieved to not be on the road when the shelter-in-place order came down,” says Cohen, the founder of Quartet San Francisco (QSF).
Tell me about your daily routine while quarantined.
It’s been beneficial to get up, shave, get dressed, and make an attempt to look good. Doing that simple thing has helped me to define the productive part of the day as separate from the couch-potato part of the day. I suppose I’ve maintained some emotional equilibrium by structuring my days that way.
What have you learned about yourself as a person and as a player while working and living in solitude?
I’ve learned that I have allowed too many small interruptions to stand in the way of my artistic and composing pursuits. It turns out that most of these distractions were not necessary in the first place.
What projects are you working on as a group?
QSF [Cohen and Joseph Christianson, violins; Chad Kaltinger, viola; Andres Vera, cello] continues to meet regularly by phone and we discuss as a group what we want to put out there, focusing on what are the most engaging and rewarding things we can do. As long as we can keep harnessing our passion for playing and agree on the rep, we are all in; it’s all we have. This has kept us going for 20-plus years now. We are currently working on an August program for the Cabrillo Festival here in Northern California, or on your computer screen, wherever you are on the planet. There are also Quartet San Francisco videos of us playing in our four homes, recording, and making videos of my duets, developing and giving demos of the String Masters teaching platform. There’s plenty to do!
Tell me more about how you’re staying connected with your audience and/or students.
I participated in a Classical Revolution webcast music festival a few weeks ago. I’ve produced some new Quartet San Francisco videos for our website, Facebook, and YouTube. I’m teaching private lessons through the String Masters web platform, and as a member of the String Masters team I’ve helped a number of organizations set up their summer sessions for one-on-one studio lessons while we finalize the development of the group and master-class components of the platform.
What is the response like?
We recently did a piece for an online music festival in Italy. They really appreciate our American take on their European tradition of chamber music. We love it when we can offer a new spin on an old tradition. The response has been very positive and encouraging.
Why is it important to stay connected on social media?
Consider that any social-media video or post has the potential to reach far more people than you can put in a single concert hall. Ears are our currency—they are the things we strive to reach. Once we reach yours, the rest is up to how our music or performance moves you, and we can’t control that.
What have you learned about your audience during this difficult time?
After all these years, they trust us to bring our passion to whatever style we play. They have stayed with us through years of tango, jazz, Latin, rock and roll, and original compositions, and trust that we bring our full energy and joy to what we do.
How do you rate your experience with virtual performance?
The first time I played online during the stay-at-home orders was in an online music festival. I was sort of stunned to see the real-time feedback and find that my audience was sending love from seven countries and people were being nourished by the experience. This was as invigorating as any live performance I’ve ever done with QSF. It was totally unexpected and fascinating to realize this during the performance. Once I cleared the tech hurdle, I could have kept playing for hours.
Any tips for other string players considering this path?
I remember during the 1980s musicians were worried that synthesizers were going to take over the world and that string players would lose their work forever. Eventually the new technology took its place alongside live musicians: not replacing them, but joining in. I think the same will apply here. Social media will never fully replace the necessity for humans to get together to socialize and experience music and art as a community. But technology will become a larger partner in this experience. It’s up to us to make it a good experience.
What are your goals going forward as performance venues reopen?
I want to always remember in a live performance that the possibility exists for us to change the course of someone’s life as a result of being with us in concert. We plant seeds and never know what will come of it. We must always play our best and remember to respond with kindness whenever someone reaches out to us to say they enjoyed hearing us play.
How will you continue going forward as a player? Will the limitations of the virus change your path?
This forced time at home has helped me improve my focus and understand exactly what is important to me as an artist. It’s helped me find the discipline to reimagine myself and the group, with an eye to finding new ways to connect with more ears and hearts. I have been doing some volunteer work by playing for seniors and when I see how much the music means to them, I can’t help but think about the power of music and the gift we have. Sharing it with others is so much more valuable than we generally realize.
Is there a message you’d like to share with our readers?
Hone your skills, improve your accuracy, train your instrument to reflect your voice. Be a better player so you can better express your internal musical voice through your vehicle, your instrument. You’ll find that you can touch another person’s soul when music really is a language of human emotion. When you hear something you like, acknowledge it. If you like what someone is doing, tell them you admire their skill, or musicianship, or whatever it is you like about it. Be supportive. Music is a gift to both the performer and listener. Don’t ever underestimate its potential power.