With live concerts on hold, Nashville students perform for music lovers over video conference

Louisa Wang, student at the Blair Academy at Vanderbilt University, plays the violin for residents of a Nashville nursing home. Photo courtesy of Zack Ebin.

It took only a few gentle bars of violin before Jodi Richfield started feeling the tears well up behind her closed eyes. If the music – the first movement of Henri Vieuxtemps’s Violin Concerto No. 4 in D Minor – hadn’t taken a sudden turn into jagged shards of dissonance, she might have lost it on the spot. Instead, she suddenly opened her watery eyes and focused on the performer, transfixed.

Richfield hadn’t been expecting much from the strangest concert she had ever attended – her and her mother seated next to each other in the kitchen of her Nashville home, the music filtered thinly through the internal speaker of her computer, violinist Abby Reed standing alone in her bedroom at her own house across town, the third and fourth windows of the Zoom videoconference occupied by a music teacher and a reporter.

She had never met any of them, and yet here they were, virtually, in her kitchen.

But somewhere among the beauty of the composition, the beauty of the performance and the overwhelming beauty of the moment – at a point, some 2½ months into a novel coronavirus pandemic that had left her, her husband and her 86-year-old mother isolated together at home – Richfield, a regular symphony patron during normal times, felt something she hadn’t felt in what seemed like ages and wasn’t sure she would feel again in ages more: the transportive power of live music.

“I was about to break into tears,” Richfield said into her computer to the smiling image of Reed at the end of the latter’s three-piece, 15-minute performance, which also included a couple of J.S. Bach partitas for solo violin. “It was so moving to me.”

“I love performing,” Reed said from her bedroom, under the dull glow of an overhead light, a crisply made bed in the background, a bouquet of flowers on the dresser. “I love how this gives me some experience as a performer and also helps people feel like they’re transported to a different place.”

It was a moment, amid all this darkness, to marvel at the sustaining genius and brilliance of mankind:

The great composers, for one thing.

The performers, such as Reed, a 17-year-old rising high school senior.

The architects of the now-ubiquitous videoconferencing apps, which allowed this virtual moment (and many millions of others during these days of isolation) to happen.

And then, too, the kindhearted vision of Zack Ebin.

Ebin is the music teacher who sat in on Reed’s Zoom violin concert for Richfield and her mother on that Wednesday night in May, taking notes to go over with her later.

In fact, Ebin, the senior director of Suzuki Violin at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music, has been sitting in on a half-dozen or more of these virtual concerts each week, about 60 in all – ever since he hatched the idea back in March to bring together music students who had lost their performance opportunities with music lovers who had lost their connection to the music.

The idea was born from a desire to do something nice for Ebin’s parents, isolated in Stony Brook, N.Y. David and Barbara Ebin have four children, including Zack, and 11 grandchildren, and almost all of them are musicians. With everyone isolated from each other by the coronavirus, Zack decided to organize an all-family concert over Zoom. It was such a hit, he knew immediately he needed to expand it.

Ebin’s new second job as an online concert promoter began with a few phone calls, then a debut concert pairing his two older children – 8-year-old Zev, a violinist, and 5-year-old Ezra, a cellist – and a Nashville assisted-living and memory-care home, Abe’s Garden. Residents there, through the wonders of technology, gathered around a computer in a common area or watched from their own rooms, their spirits raised both by the performances and the kids’ enthusiastic bows at the end.

Over time, Ebin quickly came to understand and appreciate the power of Zoom’s administrative mute function, to turn off the microphones of all but the performers, but you can’t always control the whims of a 5-year-old cellist – which was made clear the time Ezra whipped off his button-down shirt, which he had protested wearing in the first place, at the end of a performance, all of it captured on the camera of the Ebins’ computer.

The Abe’s Garden concerts were eventually expanded to full, 45-minute extravaganzas twice a week, featuring six or seven performers, each in their own homes. But even that wasn’t enough to satisfy the performance needs of all of Ebin’s students, and the other students, from kindergartners to collegians, across the different programs at Blair School of Music – all of whom had seen their spring recitals, concerts and even touring opportunities erased by the coronavirus outbreak.

So Ebin decided to open the Zoom concert series to the public, starting with an email blast to all the patrons on the school’s mailing list and eventually through the Nashville media and word-of-mouth.

“It’s heartbreaking we have to do this,” Ebin said, “but it’s also uplifting that we can.”

The response was overwhelming. The list of performers grew to include not only string players but pianists and flutists, from 5-year-old Suzuki students to 21-year-old college seniors and even an occasional faculty member. Audience slots began filling up, first days and then weeks in advance. Mother’s Day was an especially hot ticket – four separate concerts that day, four more each on the Saturday before and the Monday after.

Eventually, Ebin could barely keep it all straight – which is where Nora Wang came in. Wang, a 17-year-old violin student at Blair with deep skills in the art of organization, began as a performer in the Zoom concerts, but perhaps recognizing an operation in need of some organization skills, offered to be Ebin’s assistant. The offer was quickly accepted.

Wang eventually took over running the Tuesday night Zoom concerts at Abe’s Garden, lining up the musicians and audience members, maintaining an Excel spreadsheet with the schedule, sending out the Zoom links, introducing each performer during the videoconference and facilitating some friendly dialogue at the end.

“I’d performed at retirement homes in the past, and it was always amazing to see how grateful everyone was,” Wang said. “But performing for the same people online in some ways is even more meaningful, because with everyone isolated, you can see how much people need that connection, that interaction.”

Meanwhile, the individual performances, available to anyone with Zoom capabilities, have grown to a rate of roughly one per night. Most of the audience members are in Nashville, but there was a Mother’s Day concert for a mom in Mexico City, another for a grandmother in India. There have been shows for people watching from Israel, the United Kingdom and Canada. Someone in New York asked for some Vivaldi for his wife’s birthday and got a personal, all-Vivaldi concert.

The concerts are free and the performers unpaid, but many audience members ask if they can make donations to the music school, which are graciously accepted.

Inevitably, the Zoom concerts began to feature the same set of issues: the technical glitches, the poor connections, the inadvertent un-mutes, the random figures – a husband, a child, a dog – strolling past in the background of someone’s screen. But aren’t there distractions at any concert – the coughing, the humming along, the indiscreet glow of a cellphone screen in someone’s hand?

“It’s a new experience for everybody,” Ebin said. “We’re used to understanding, at a concert or recital, we have to sit quietly and watch. But we don’t always have the same understanding when we’re watching something on a screen in our living room.”

But there are also nightly moments of transcendence, or at the very least the possibility of them, the same as any concert, anywhere.

Barbara Sullivan, a retired television news reporter living in Nashville, signed up for a concert, and a couple of weeks later welcomed – virtually – 16-year-old pianist Luke Turner into her home. Turner sat at an ebony baby grand at his own home, in front of a majestic stained-glass window, and without any sheet music, brought Sullivan to tears with a Chopin ballade and nocturne.

“I’ve found Chopin to be particular impactful to the audience,” said Turner, who estimates he has done eight Zoom concerts this spring.

Afterward, they chatted over the Zoom connection about music and Turner’s future, something that would be unlikely to happen at an in-person concert.

Asked days later about the experience, and about how Turner’s performance made her feel, Sullivan, a musician herself and a devoted subscriber to the Nashville Symphony, started to answer, paused, then buried her face in her hands.

“It makes me cry just to think about it – I’m sorry,” she said finally. “I’m in a church choir, and we haven’t been able to do anything for months. I’m devastated that it may be another year before we have live music again. Luke’s playing was so beautiful. I knew the sound quality wouldn’t be perfect, and I didn’t care. Music is everything to me.”

The morning after Turner’s performance, Sullivan signed herself up for another concert and was given a date three weeks out. This time, she is planning on inviting three or four friends. All they will need is a screen, the Zoom link, and perhaps a box of tissues.

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