Christopher Ocasek

This is a story of hope and community. As I write this from my desk in Vienna, I have a view of the church and home of Haydn, two places this super-human of a man spent much of his time at the end of his life. To me, since living in Vienna, it’s been one of the positive visual reminders of the deep connection between country and culture. In the last months, however, it’s also taken on a new significance—reminding me that Haydn’s last years were accompanied by a decline in his health thought to have been brought on by stress and depression. Two blocks from my front doorstep this “super-human” dealt with the very same serious issues many battle with daily and, now, millions more are also encountering at a heightened level: stress and depression.

I bring this up to emphasise that no one is immune. Everyone—even the “Papa” Haydns of the world—are affected by outer and sometimes inner pressures, by the chemical makeup of our minds and bodies, and by the circumstances that surround us. It’s human. A catalyst for these feelings is a pandemic in which we all currently find ourselves: heightened states of emotion, insecurity about the present and future, health of ourselves and others, and—to my story’s thesis— a disconnect with those human and artistic interactions that on the surface might seem trivial or even superficial, but in truth nourish and maintain the soul.

So that’s what I’d like to write about. In my life and work as a conductor I find myself weaving in and out of many circles. Many of us do. Pre-pandemic I was in Madrid and Beijing, Washington and San Francisco, Armenia and Kazakhstan. Each culture brings with it an enormous richesse of languages, customs, and values. The connecting thread amongst the various countries and cultures, however, is clear: the human need for expression and support.

The idea of support in the performance and artistic world comes in a variety of forms, and I’d like to focus my story on the interpersonal & community versions. I hope with this story to shine a small beacon of hope in this difficult time by telling you my thoughts and about a hopeful project that helps us address this.

Interpersonal support between artists exists in a variety of ways: there’s, of course, encouragement and positivity throughout the preparation, rehearsal, and performance processes. Being creatures who regularly expose their musical thoughts, values, training, and opinions to the world and each other in each note we play, sing, or conduct requires an enormous amount of resilience, vulnerability, and flexibility. What so many don’t realise or forget is the amount of labor and time that go into each note. It’s hundreds or thousands of hours that are invested into, for example, the consistently executed tone of a note. Couple that with the responsibility of telling a convincing musical story when gluing all of these subjective black and white dots and lines together and you can start to appreciate that a forty-minute concerto executed with technical and musical brilliance doesn’t happen by chance or with ease. Compound that with the fact that we ‘present’ these musical thoughts, values, training, and opinions within a system that is meant to be judged, interpreted; and in such, an additional layer of vulnerability is inherently present in what we do because no two people will ever agree completely that what we’re playing or singing or conducting is good or right. Therefore, simple encouragement between one another is paramount in moving forward with our heads high, to bringing our best to rehearsals and performances, and is naturally given and gratefully taken by the most empathetic of us.

Then, of course, there’s the ways we musically support one another.  I love hearing and watching a quartet play together, for example, because it’s a distilled version of what happens en masse in a Beethoven symphony or Act II of La Bohème. We can observe, firstly, the visual elements: of head nods, corporal gesture, the pendulum effect of bringing the bow to the string to play an entrance exactly together. Then, there’s the aural element. From breathing for ensemble to playing the lower line of an octave slightly more presently so that the top line can finesse the beauty of the melody, we have countless aural support systems occurring on every level of the musical spectrum simultaneously both consciously and subconsciously. Duets between singers on stage are always particularly telling moments to me from the pit because of the need to provide the same level of visual and aural support but while in a spotlight (with or without HD screens amplifying the smallest nose hair to the size of a tree trunk) and while inhabiting a character. So if you know what you’re looking for, you can observe the angle of the singers’ heads which allow their partner to hear both voices evenly, you can catch the occasional hand squeeze as one of the two lovers (usually one of them about to die) indicates the end of the pair’s long note, or you might see one partner relying on the other to lead the pair’s phrasing and tempo when only one of the two has a sightline to a monitor or the conductor.

Without providing a chapter on each of the many other systems in which artists support one another, I’ll simply say that there are countless mental, physical, and emotional ways we hold one another up which are part of the fabric of who we are. Now that we’re physically distanced, working less, and alone artistically, I believe many artists are becoming more aware, perhaps for the first time really appreciating (in retrospect) the beautiful detail, design, and texture of the weaving of this fabric that—in the course of a busy work life—can easily be overlooked for its beauty and significance, underappreciated, or even blend into the background. Now that we are all looking at our work in a different light, perhaps we better see what it is that makes this fabric unique and important and how the interactions that are sometimes seen as quotidian are, in fact, what nourish us.

Several months ago—a couple months into the pandemic—I started observing a pattern when checking in with so many artist friends and colleagues. Time and time again, discussions, without my prompting, would hop onto a predictable but valid track:

 

*Lull in the conversation followed by a deep breath*

-Chris, I’m worried how I’m going to put food on the table. Contract after contract is being cancelled.

or

-I can’t even pick up a score right now. I sing two notes and I feel hopeless.

 

We’d then start talking about it. Financial worries were the most cut and dry. But beyond the disappointment of cancelled contracts (which at some point or another we’ve all, unfortunately, dealt with), many of the concerns centred around a lack of ‘doing’—we are doers and makers, artists; a lack of solutions—many artists were forced into unemployment (if they were eligible to begin with), limited organisations were hiring, and artist relief organisations were drying up or already dried up—we value job security and social safety nets the same as any profession; and an inability to be proactive (i.e. do anything about it) in order to give ourselves a sense of forward-movement—artists are conditioned to look ahead and prepare for what’s coming.

This troubled me deeply and gave me sleepless nights like many. Where were the resources for our community? Where was our safety net not only financially but also socially? I spent hours researching and most always came up with the same results—a handful of question marks. I greatly appreciate the countless artists I saw posting performances, interviews, or new Zoom ideas. I loved the online performances to boost morale and simply to perform again. I saw new ways of using social media. But even with all of this good I struggled to find a resource that combined a way to hold each other up financially, to nourish each other’s souls by giving back to one another, to squeeze the other’s hand when running out of breath.

So this pushed me to do what I’m doing now. In April 2020 I began with an idea which attempted to address our unique needs as artists and create answers for these questions. With a talented and small board of directors, I created a US-based 501(c)(3) organisation that would be an artist-forward community effort to support one another and beyond. The project was conceived and executed with the organisational and artistic thinking, concerns, and standards of the professional artist in mind and, after countless hours with my team, I’m proud to say we created something that resulted in a handful of exclamation rather than question marks.

The project took on the name CLICKCOACH and was launched January 15th, 2021 after 9+ months of lining up all the elements that go into creating an artist relief & support organisation. The concept is surprisingly simple but yet extremely effective and multifaceted: It gives professional artists a way to support themselves and each other financially; it allows professionals to use the same high level of knowledge and skillsets that go into playing that forty-minute concerto; it provides an outlet for us to be proactive while also staying relevant in a world of overwhelming social media; and it creates a great informational resource that can really make a difference both within our artist community and beyond to a global music and music-appreciating community—lining our industry up to change how artists and music lovers learn and support one another.

It’s all done at clickcoach.org, a video hosting website. The way it works is that professional artists in classical, jazz, and musical theatre upload 10-15 minute musical discussions to share their unique viewpoints and real-world experience with musical advice, tips and tricks, and demonstrations on topics such as repertoire, musicology, technique and warm-ups, music history and composition, educational outreach, audition advice, mindful practice, improvisation, and any number of relevant topics—the world is the artists’ oyster, honestly. The videos aren’t performances, but rather 10-15 minute looks into the perspective of the professional creating the video. By bringing together singers, instrumentalists, conductors, composers, musicologists, theorists, dramaturgs, stage directors, educators and so on we create an informational resource and give the world access to professional artists, all for a great social cause, all for the good of artists and their needs I’ve been discussing, and all to support one another—both inside and outside of the professional artist community.

With the videos we can address the financial issues so many artists are having. Each video is offered at a price point of $1.99 plus fees per video with no subscription obligation. With CLICKCOACH we have a unique opportunity to hold each other up as well. Artists who create videos can choose to either receive nearly 75% of the video revenue for themselves as a much-needed income stream during the pandemic (food on the table) or they can choose to forward 100% of the video revenue to support others. Voilà! A way to give back to one another! The organisation also allocates 1% of all video sales towards low-income, socioeconomically disadvantaged, and underprivileged groups as well as funding other nonprofit organisations working to support artists such as those dried-up artist relief organisations. As a 501(c)(3) organisation, all donations made to CLICKCOACH are also tax deductible and we absolutely need those who see the value in what we’re doing to support us here. There are even perks for donors.

To get this thing off the ground, we needed to launch the project with great people who believed in the message and who also had a hunger to support their community. I am humbled and grateful for the first artists who saw the value in creating this resource with me in these exceptional conditions and it seems right to mention and publicly thank this superstar list here:

Mezzo-sopranos Jamie Barton, Briana Hunter, and​ Sasha Cooke; ​conductors ​James Gaffigan, Bill Eddins​, ​Viswa Subbaraman, Amy Acklin​, and​ Daniela Candillari; ​sopranos​ Lise Lindstrom, Leah Crocetto, Amanda Majeski, Janai Brugger, Sheri Greenawald, Irini Kyriakidou, Elena Tsallagova, ​and​ Indra Thomas; ​baritone​ Christopher Maltman; ​violinist​ Myroslava Khomik; ​horn​ ​player​ Claire Hellweg; ​stage directors ​E. Loren Meeker, Susan Stone Li, Corinne Hayes, Maria Todaro, Sara E. Widzer, ​and ​Matthew Ozawa; ​coach-conductors​ Martin Katz, Dan K. Kurland, Anthony Manoli, Alden Gatt, ​and ​Warren Jones; ​flutist​ Sarah Ouakrat; ​composers​ Jake Heggie, Christopher Theofanidis, and Ellen Taaffe-Zwilich; ​educator​ Rebecca Shorstein; ​tenors​ Nicholas Phan, Arturo Chacón-Cruz, Andres Acosta, ​and ​James Kryshak; ​diction coaches ​Nils Neubert ​and ​Hemdi Kfir​; jazz bassist ​Barry Stephenson;​ jazz trumpeter​ Alphonso Horne;​ jazz pianist ​Dave Linard​; international musicologists​ Jean-Pascal Vachon ​and​ James Helgeson; ​and​ ​dramaturg​ Gretl Satorius.

These is not an insignificant list and it’s just the start. Each of the people on this list spoke with me for at least an hour about helping our community, about the issues they saw, and about the need for something more. Many of us talked about the stress and depression amongst our friends, our colleagues, and even ourselves. We agreed upon the virtue of an outlet to share professional knowledge and to do more. After contributing, so many of these artists came back to me saying how wonderful it felt to be part of something bigger—to give back, to support one another again, to be proactive, and to be part of creating something that we would build together and that would live on as a resource we could say came out of an unprecedented need. I was humbled and so please that, already, this project was giving hope.

My hope is that by focusing again on others… by giving artists and followers of artists the outlet to support one another—by being charitable, by talking about music like we do with each other and for each other, and by creating something that can reach people in the furthest corners of the world—we can hold each other up in a new way. We can build something that includes rather than excludes, and we can give our community a renewed sense of purpose and optimism.

As was apparent in the case of Haydn, none of us are, in fact, super-human or immune from the negative. We are all products of our surroundings and genetic make up. We don’t, however, need to be victims of them. I believe—just as in rehearsal and performance—we are stronger together than alone. It’s perhaps a question then of choice and one that we as artists will decide: do we accept this pandemic as a catalyst for the bad or do we work together to use it as a catalyst for hope, community, and creating something good? My choice—and the choice I hope you’ll make with me—is the latter; I encourage you to help us make that path possible, successful, and something that can live on for years to come. This is, after all, a story of hope and community.


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