Performers in the Time of COVID: Abigail Dance
I caught up on Zoom with Abigail Dance, a violinist, violist and educationalist of enormous passion and energy, on a rainy Tuesday in October. She had just rushed from another online meeting with her mentor in Chile (more of that later) and had sat down in her kitchen without even a cup of tea.
I asked Abi to paint me a picture of her life before March of this year and couldn't write fast enough noting down all of the ventures with which she was involved. To mention just a few, Abi is Head of Early Years at Redbridge Music Hub and teaches at Southwark Music Hub's Saturday Centre as well as two other schools. She is also a founder member tutor at 'In Harmony', an El Sistema-inspired programme in Lambeth (http://www.sistemaengland.org.uk/in-harmony-lambeth/). She leads two community orchestras, the Angel and the Kensington Philharmonic, and performs frequently both as a chamber musician and soloist.
Abi described March as a rollercoaster, likening her emotions to those typical of bereavement. 'My first reaction,' she said, 'was to wonder how I could keep everything the same. I certainly didn't understand the depth of the situation at first.' She said that like other musicians she has talked to, she initially thought that she had to quickly find an interim solution. But grief set in when she realised this was not going to be a short-term hiatus from normality. 'I remember,' she said, 'that the turning point was when Philip, a mentor from Sound Connections (an organisation that helps improve the quality and status of music education) said to me: 'I don't think we'll ever work in the same way again.' At first I was devastated. But now I realise that not only was he right but that there are positives in the changes that have been and will be made. We had perhaps become complacent about the way we did things in the spheres of both performance and education.'
So Abi rolled up her sleeves and made changes. She contacted a couple of her students and offered them a free lesson on Zoom in order to try out the technology and the different approach that would be necessary. And when the Music Hubs gave her training in child protection and then set her the task of providing online content which meant creating lessons with no component of interaction, Abi went to her employers and made the case for lessons with an interactive element. She pointed out that parents participated with the child during Zoom early years music lessons which addressed any child protection worries. She also discovered a programme called Seesaw which allows her not only to send videos to young students but to receive videos that they have made for her in response. 'That has been hugely motivating for young children,' she told me.
'It's very labour intensive,' she said, 'but I am so aware of how much it has meant to many young people who have been bored and lonely during this period. For some of my GCSE and A level students who had been robbed of the goal they had been working towards, online lessons became very important.'
Struck by her concern for and involvement with so many children, I asked Abi about her own childhood. “It was difficult,' she told me. 'The violin was my way to find a connection to a musical family, a community and rewarding aspiration. In any case, I'm a child at heart. I took a music class into the park to find leaves for our songs and dances last week and I think had more fun than the children did,' she laughed.
Abi acknowledges that we have all experienced the upheaval of the last 8 months in our own ways. 'When I played in Parliament Square along with 400 other freelancers I knew people there who had shown up to play their West End show on that Monday in March and found the door to the theatre locked. There were musicians now working as drivers for a delivery company, basically doing anything to survive.'
In May, once Abi had overcome the shock of the previous couple of months and set up a routine for her teaching, she made the decision to go ahead with a new and inspiring initiative. 'I had got to a place in my life’ she said, 'and I was thinking: What next?' So she applied and interviewed for the Global Leaders Program (https://globalleadersprogram.com) based in the USA and was accepted as one of a cohort of 60 from 26 nations to study pedagogy, psychology and business models related to arts leadership. She attends twice-weekly seminars, has mentors in Chile, Australia and Lebanon and a team she works with based in India, Singapore, USA and Europe. This is truly a global enterprise and Abi is clearly both excited and inspired by her involvement. 'It's a chance,' she told me, 'to look outside more, to learn about the community and to come out of all of this in a positive way.'
I asked Abi about what the current situation has meant for her in terms of performance and she described a trio concert she was fortunate enough to give in a vineyard! She said that the tickets sold out within 4 hours of being made available. 'People are hungry for culture,' she said and we are just going to have to find new ways to and places where we can provide it. During lockdown,' she said, 'I acquired two new adult students who had contacted me because without the chance to attend concerts or enjoy music in the usual ways they had decided they would just have to make their own music! At the beginning of lockdown,' she said, 'I had felt unable to pick up my violin. I just thought: what's the point? But I think the last months have made us all re-examine our relationship to everything.'
I asked Abi if she sees the new road that we are all on converging with our former path or branching off in a new direction. 'I see us now as optimistically driving along the new road and just hoping we don't fall off a cliff!' she laughed. It seems that with Abi's degree of talent, energy and compassion, there will be no cliff falls from what looks likely to be a superhighway.
You can find out more about Abi's String Collective here
and visit her website here