My alarm went off at 9:00 a.m., early for another day in quarantine. Once I had rubbed my eyes and silenced the alarm’s piercing beep, I instinctively reached for my phone. Moments later, at 9:03, it buzzed with an email notification from Yale University President Peter Salovey. Subject: “Fall 2020.”
I quickly started to read the email. Line by line, the now familiar contours of the year ahead began to crystalize: The Class of 2023 — my year — is barred from campus for the first semester and nearly all classes are occurring through Zoom. As I read, I remained hopeful that Yale’s performing arts, a fundamental part of my campus experience, would continue in some form. That was until I reached the email’s penultimate section, where President Salovey dedicated a single passing clause to inform us that “performances will not be held.”
Dean of Yale College Marvin Chun was slightly more generous in his follow-up email to undergraduates, writing, “Activities that cannot be conducted with appropriate social distancing, such as dramatic performances, undergraduate productions, singing groups, and some other musical groups will have to be reimagined to take place online.”
I agree that we need such restrictions for public health reasons. And I know that the arts are understandably far from the priority when an astronomic U.S. caseload, record unemployment, an imperative discussion about systemic racism and the President’s continued incitement of violence dominate the news. Even so, I am still trying to process the ways in which yet another facet of our lives has been disrupted by this disease. From my side of the proscenium, it is obvious that Dean Chun fails to recognize that there is simply no reimagination possible that maintains both the artistic integrity and — more importantly — the joy fundamental to these now-forbidden performances.
Art and music have always been a central part of my life, from my early childhood memories dancing around the house while my father played piano to singing in synagogue or making my professional acting debut at age 11. Now, as a rising sophomore at Yale, the arts have continued to be just as important to me — within weeks of arriving on campus, I joined both the cast of a production of “Sweeney Todd” and an a cappella group, Mixed Company.
Clearly, college life extends far beyond classes, and so much of that experience relies on in-person conversations and interactions. Although I miss laughing over a pre-rehearsal meal with fellow singing group members or sharing a funny story backstage after a dress rehearsal, these bonding experiences translate well enough to virtual means of communication. The performances we’ve grown accustomed to creating together — the singing, the scene work, the choreographed numbers — do not.
There has been no shortage of virtual performances. In fact, the sudden abundance of time for artists everywhere has led to a more densely-packed five months of new creative content than at any time in recent memory. Choirs, bands, orchestras and celebrities have all released virtual performances or participated in livestreams, sometimes even performing from a bathtub.
Many of these events have been truly phenomenal pieces of art, seeming to transcend the inability to perform together live. Nevertheless, whatever the experience of viewing these livestreams may lack compared to sitting in a theater, concert hall or arena, the shortcomings are magnified tenfold for us, the performers.
The slight delay during a Zoom or FaceTime call renders live group performance effectively impossible. I felt this first-hand in May, when my a cappella group put together a virtual performance of one of our songs. Although I’m very proud of the final product, the experience of each of us standing in our rooms alone and singing into a camera provided no solace from our longing to make music in person once again. And, unfortunately, the well-documented risk that singing poses right now guarantees that it will be a while longer yet.
The feeling of standing in front of a microphone ready to sing or stepping downstage to deliver your first line of a play, knowing the audience’s eyes are on you, is irreplaceable. In that brief moment, the room buzzes with energy. We, as the performers, feel that anticipation and use that connection with both the audience and our fellow artists to fuel our performances. The ensuing positive feedback loop epitomizes what makes live performance so remarkable.
This energy is not some ephemeral metaphor whipped up by quirky artists. Sound waves themselves are, at a physical level, energy. And musical chords sound in tune because the frequencies of those sound waves line up in mathematically pleasing ways. That is, during a live musical performance, we precisely align the energy we create, and we send it out into the room, knowing that the sound itself resonates differently depending on the room’s unique acoustic properties.
The effect on the audience is not just emotional, but physiological, too; a 2017 study shows that when attending live performances, audience members’ heart rates literally sync up.
As soon as a screen is involved, this magic disappears. Almost every performance we see now is prerecorded, which means that digital retouching almost always results in an artificial sense of perfection. There’s never any doubt that the virtual performance will be flawless because the performer gets unlimited takes, diminishing the excitement of watching something live.
Do I believe that artists should cease performing until we are able to do so again live? Of course not. We couldn’t. Nor do I believe that live performances as we’ve known them should return before it is absolutely safe to do so. Ultimately, the show must go on — it always does — but, unlike Dean Chun proposes, we cannot conjure up via our imaginations those intangible elements that set live performances apart. We have no choice but to wait.
IAN BERLIN is a sophomore in Pierson College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.