Exactly 40 years ago, a band called Village People belted out a song that could have been composed today: “You can’t stop the music, nobody can stop the music!”
For 40,000 years, music has played an integral part in human life. It provides the soundtrack to almost all of our experience and there are few scenarios that a song won’t emotionally enhance, whether it is stirring crowds at football games, rousing armies on the brink of war, or generating generosity through macro concerts such as Live Aid, Live 8 and the recently live-streamed One World: Together at Home.
Closely linked to our nature as social beings, music is defined by Shakespeare as “the food of love” a poetic term which is in fact scientifically accurate. When we sing together, our brains produce a hormone called oxytocin, aka the “cuddle” or “love” hormone, which is also released when people bond physically and socially. Research in the past few years has shown that oxytocin is released not only when singing and playing music together, but also when simply listening to music.
It’s no surprise then that when the coronavirus drove us into our homes, musicians in countries such as Spain and Italy came out onto their balconies to serenade their neighbours, building an immediate sense of kinship and solidarity to counter the social distancing.
There have also been a number of signature tunes to define this moment in history. In Spain, renditions of the popular hit Resistiré, originally by the Dúo Dinámico, has been chorused by frontline workers and covered by some of the country’s most popular musicians. In Panama, local star Rubén Blades composed his own song to raise coronavirus awareness called Para Panamá.
Meanwhile in the UK, 23 artists, working from home and using a range of domestic items as instruments, have produced a cover of Times Like These, originally sung by Foo Fighters. An initiative of BBC Radio 1, it is said by the head of the station’s music, Chris Price, to send “a simple message to the world: that the power of music and human creativity can overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles to build a sense of community, togetherness and determination, even when we are forced apart.”
While macro initiatives are impressive, smaller projects are equally effective in filling the emotional void created by social distancing. As humans, we thrive on this connection, which is why people all over the world are finding ways to overcome the many obstacles thrown up by confinement to continue making music together.
“We have been performing Broadway musicals on an annual basis here at King’s College for many years, and were just two weeks away from performing We Will Rock You when the quarantine was announced,” says Mark Blake, Director of Music at King’s College Madrid who has set up a Virtual Big Band, involving students, King’s alumni, teacher and parents from both Soto de Viñuelas and La Moraleja schools. “Whilst it’s not quite the same, I wanted to provide my students with the opportunity to perform to an audience together, to keep developing their performing ability and confidence.”
A similar initiative is being developed at King’s College Murcia, where Primary Teacher Louise Rumistrzewicz has done a quick turn around to maintain levels of creativity and collaboration. “We have had to adapt our music classes a lot, but I have been learning something new each week that has helped to deliver a curriculum that stays creative,” she says, adding that besides a choir successfully coming together on Google Meet with 250 participants, she has also started a Virtual Big Band for students and staff with their first song already out.
At King’s Infant School Chamartín, both singing and dancing have been core to maintaining a sense of community and collaboration and keeping spirits high, according to Head Teacher, Rachel Davies.
This kindred spirit is also at the heart of the Virtual Big Bands. “Many of my colleagues, former students, and parents within the school community have also joined the Virtual Big Band which is great for developing a real sense of King’s College community,” says Mark Blake. “Each week the students, who are of a wide range of musical ability and experience, are provided with the sheet music and a backing track to prepare. When they are ready they submit a video recording to me so that I can mix and edit the performance, for release on a Friday morning.”
The crisis has been a virtual learning curve for everyone, from telelearning students to teleworking parents, but particularly for teachers who have had to try to replicate the classroom dynamic online, with more collaborative areas of education calling for the most ambitious solutions.
“The teachers in the music department at King’s College Soto have surpassed themselves and we applaud them for all the hard work involved behind the scenes,” says Cara Wilson, a parent who plays the flute in King’s College Madrid’s Virtual Big Band. “From making the musical arrangements, preparing the parts and the no small feat of mixing the individual recordings from each one of us to produce the final concert performance.”
Cara also flags up the tremendous injection of vitality that the venture has brought participants at a time when we might be forgiven for thinking we have woken up on the set of Groundhog Day.
“It has been a wonderful initiative, not only to keep us playing our instruments but, more importantly, for us to feel involved in ensemble music-making when we can’t meet in person,” she says. “There has been nothing better than the feeling of participating in a group project, with the ‘pressure’ of having a deadline and then to click on the ‘play’ of the end result and to see ourselves performing in true big band style as if we were in a theatre or concert hall together; an inspirational project which has truly helped us to keep our spirits up and to feel that important connection of being part of an ensemble at a time when we could feel very isolated!”