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 quarantine.
This week, violin soloist Kelly Hall-Tompkins, who is quarantined in the Pocono Mountains, has been exercising, practicing, hosting a series of “ZoomCasts,” preparing for her upcoming Forgotten Voices concerts at Carnegie Hall, and staying in touch with New York City and Los Angeles homeless advocates with whom she is working on a joint arts and charity project known as Music Kitchen: Food for the Soul.
Where are you quarantined?
I live full-time in Manhattan, but as my performance schedule started clearing in mid-March, and as New York City began surging with virus cases, my husband and I decided to come out to our house in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. Of course, the pandemic has reached every state, and we are taking every precaution, but here we have the fresh air of the mountains and more space for an extended quarantine. I remain deeply concerned about my fellow New Yorkers and those battling this crisis in other areas of high population density, and especially those experiencing homelessness at this time. The COVID-19 crisis, in general, and homelessness, in particular, have compelled me even more to use my time during quarantine to uplift people through music.
Tell me about your daily routine during quarantine.
My daily routine is to get up and do two back-to-back exercise videos, then practice for a few hours. In New York, I typically run six miles a day, but here I have inexplicably taken to another routine. I often have a working lunch and, for the next couple or few hours, I then get business correspondence and other professional work done. I make daily calls to check in on family, friends, and colleagues around the world and neighbors back in New York City. I also stay in regular contact with my partners at the New York City Department of Homeless Services, Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, and many individual shelters to see how Music Kitchen can best continue to serve their clients’ needs during this time.
It took a while for me to have a calm enough state of mind during this crisis for reading books, but I am finally relishing my reading nook’s flameless candle, set on a timer to come on at 3:30 PM, as a reminder to spend some time reading by the fire. On good weather days, my husband and I take a walk for about an hour through the hills and have dinner when we return. I like to end the night practicing. Throughout the day, I read the New York Times and the Washington Post, listen to daily briefings by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, as well as Pennsylvania Governor Thomas Wolf and Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine. And in the evening, I always check in on the news of the day.
What have you learned about yourself as a person and as a player while working and living in solitude?
I’ve learned that even though it is a very difficult time, that I am driven to stay productive: learning new repertoire, expanding my fitness routines, developing creative new ideas, and pouring some of my anxiety into helping those most in need to get through this crisis through my non-profit organization Music Kitchen: Food for the Soul. Music has always grounded, centered, and inspired me. I want to give that gift to others during the crisis. Since I was a child just starting out, I always fantasized about ways to share the up-close experience of music with others. I’ve learned about myself that though I’m not a doctor who can treat COVID patients or a scientist to discover the cure, I am urgently and passionately committed to reaching out to those I can help with the healing power of music. The further we get from the past days of normal life, and the more protracted a delay it sometimes seems before we might return, the more I fully realize just how much I love performing music in concert settings and that I can’t wait until we can get back to it.
How are you staying connected with your audience during the quarantine?
So far, I’m keeping connected mainly through Music Kitchen, which I founded to bring top artists into homeless shelters. Even though we cannot play live concerts right now, we have some beautifully recorded videos from our concerts over this last year. I have curated videos of some of our performances and host what I’m calling “ZoomCasts,” the video-performance presentation followed by live Q&A Chat on Zoom. I conceived of this series to continue reaching those in homeless shelters, but since this is a difficult time for everyone, I have also begun hosting these events for the general public as well. Even though I can’t wait to get back to performing live, I love the fact that [through the internet] we can actually reach more people around the country at once. For our first ZoomCast, we had an audience from New York to Los Angeles. And we can also share some of the amazing Forgotten Voices songs that we commissioned and will present in partnership with at Carnegie Hall, when we finally get on the other side of this crisis. Many of the songs, featuring shelter clients’ concert feedback comments set by 15 award-winning composers, speak powerfully to this moment while also offering transcendence and hope.
What is the response like?
The response by the ZoomCast audience has been overwhelmingly positive, both to the music we share and also to experiencing it through the eyes of the exuberant audience reactions captured in the filmed concerts. Plus, the interaction with the ZoomCast audience is new and exciting each time. I’m very excited about the expanding interest in this new program!
Why is it important to keep connected on social media?
Not too long ago, I heard someone on a news broadcast draw an important distinction with the terms of our new—but temporary—normal; it’s not “social distancing,” it’s “physical distancing” that is required of us to fight this disease. But in the meantime, we need to maintain our social connections with each other more than ever. I have always believed in social media as a powerful tool, but now it is particularly important. Social media gives us a way to enjoy the strong bonds of community remotely and in the much-needed safety of our dwellings, to express ourselves, to enjoy some daily humor, to comfort each other in sadness, and to connect with audiences eager for uplifting. It is also an important way to share information curated by the community itself. Therefore it becomes an important outlet for conscientious and empathetic people to bring emphasis to important issues and the Forgotten Voices among us.
How have you selected your internet programming?
I select music that both speaks to the moment and also helps us to find joy and transcendence. I have always said that, at least for me, it is classical music that expresses the entirety of the human experience and I believe it is the power of music that will help see us through.
What have you learned about your audience as a result?
I’ve learned that many people out there feel the way I do, that since we’re all in our living rooms and will be for some time, that we’re most excited to see, enjoy (and ultimately perform) concerts back out in the world. Along those lines, I was recently invited to enjoy a release of videos from a performance of the early-music ensemble TENET. It was a lovely performance; the camera was “in the audience” and it felt wonderful to be among people, if virtually, and hear an ensemble that was actually together in one room. But we are called by our circumstances and our muses to use whatever we have in this moment and I am also enjoying the amazing things my colleagues are doing, such a gorgeous multi-part Bach arrangement written and performed on the app ACapella by my friend Patrice Jackson-Tilghman. But, for me, in this particular slice of my virtual offerings, I have learned that supporters and followers of Music Kitchen are really excited to have a window into the concerts we’ve done in the shelters for 15 years and I’m delighted to have a reason to share these rich experiences. And I remain just so excited to partner with Carnegie Hall to bring this celebration to Carnegie (Zankel) Hall. When we are finally able to come together again, in light of all that we have lost and been through as a society, and all that we yet have for which to be grateful, we will probably never be quite the same. But it is my hope that our “Forgotten Voices” world premiere will be that much more meaningful, powerful, celebratory and filled with purpose.
How do you rate your experience with virtual performance?
It’s a great way to have the reach of broadcast media with the interactive intimacy of teatime. I’m always happy to reach audiences in new ways, so it’s a creative outlet to explore while we anxiously await the time to be able to make music and listen together in person again.
Any tips for other string players considering this path?
Everyone is stuck inside and looking to be inspired—if there’s something you’ve always wanted to try, go for it!
How will you continue going forward as a player? Will the quarantine change your path?
Just before the pandemic was declared, I was soloist with the Baltimore Symphony and I was preparing for a major world premiere at and in partnership with Carnegie Hall next month, as well as many recitals, concertos and a recording. The quarantine has caused all of those things to be postponed to future dates. So I will continue learning new repertoire, developing creative and entrepreneurial ideas for now and for our return to concert life, and playing to uplift the most vulnerable among us. Even when the quarantine is officially over, I will continue with “Music Kitchen Bridging the Distance” to reach shelter clients around the country. Artists are always called to listen closely to the rhythm of our time, adapt, and speak to the moment while being true to our own calling. Sometimes the path can be windier than we had planned, but it can also sometimes offer unexpected blessings. For me, one of those blessings is that I realize just how much each performance is a celebration of life and I will be more committed to my path than ever.
Is there a message you’d like to share with the ‘Strings’ audience?
If you would like to join us for a Music Kitchen Bridging the Distance ZoomCast, contribute to Music Kitchen: Food for the Soul, or join us for our big event at Carnegie Hall, we will be delighted to hear from you. Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.