At home with Merewyn Bramble

First published in CutCommon. With thanks to CutCommon and Dr Emma Sullivan
For most freelance musicians, there are few things more important than being busy. A full diary translates to peace of mind. There are few guarantees about work in the long term, so we seize every opportunity (often spreading ourselves a little thin in the process).
The Melbourne Chamber Orchestra, of which I have the privilege of being the principal double bass player, is an orchestra of freelance musicians. We love nothing more than coming together for rehearsals, concerts, tours, and education programs. And when we aren’t working together, our members are out in the wider music community teaching, playing chamber music, and working with other fantastic orchestras in Melbourne and beyond.
When the restrictions for large gatherings were introduced due to the COVID-19 pandemic, our busy lives changed in an instant.
For me personally, I was cancelled for four work engagements within 10 minutes of the initial announcement. And the cancellations kept coming.
Soon, we were facing the reality that our lives probably would not be busy for quite some time. And while there is nothing more important than the health and wellbeing of our society at large, it has still been a difficult adjustment to make.
But the best way to overcome adversity is to look for the new opportunities it presents – and that is what everyone at Melbourne Chamber Orchestra is trying to do. For me, it has been an opportunity to explore new technology options so I can continue teaching my wonderful double bass students remotely. I am so inspired by their dedication and passion for music during these challenging times.
I now have unlimited time to practice and learn new repertoire, to read, and to watch the full six episodes of Pride and Prejudice. (Normally, I only have time to skip to episode four where Darcy jumps in the lake.) I am even trying to improve my cooking skills – although an entire year in isolation may not be enough to cure that deficiency!
But I also took this time to catch up with some of my MCO colleagues to ask them how they have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and how they are planning to use their newly imposed downtime. From gardening and learning a language, to the obvious practice opportunity, they are all finding positive ways to embrace this time at home – and they might give you some inspiration to do the same!

At home with Merewyn Bramble, viola

Like a hammer cast on iron, performance work disappeared.
Although not entirely unexpected, the sudden closure of all live concerts and shows was a big and uncomfortable shock. Email after email, text after text; within a day or two, all work in the coming weeks and months had dried, some with a “we’ll see” date in place, others with indefinite measures.
The indefinite statements scared me the most, probably because they were most realistic and my brain couldn’t deal with so much realism and honesty all at once. I needed a parental voice to tell me that everything was going to be okay, but no-one in the world was able to offer that to me. I felt exposed and vulnerable.
Having all my friends and colleagues affected so strongly, all at once, was very odd. Normally, you’d hear of one friend who was suffering with an injury, or of someone having difficult relations in the workplace, or a particular arts organisation that was having financial struggles – but never everybody at once. It felt like we couldn’t help each other.
Every day – every hour, every minute – brought anxiety with a different subheading. I would worry about my own bank account, I would worry about all my non-salaried working musician friends, or this orchestra, or that. I had concern for everyone involved in the industry, on all branches of the tree. The concern was weighty and exhausting. I worried about how I would cope with nothing official to practise, or not being able to play with the people I loved playing with most. Straight away, I pined for even the mundane rehearsals when there are three hours of intonation work, rain pouring outside the window, a tram strike on the street, and no milk in the venue’s refrigerator.
As time goes by, more positives start to surface, possibly because we have more time to think and process where we are at. Possibly because focusing on the positive is the only way we know how to survive.
In a musical sense, there are some wonderful outcomes of being gifted time. For a little while, I grieved over my pile of music and my handwritten practice list. It was hard to pick up the instrument when all I had been planning was no longer relevant. A good break was necessary, is necessary, but then there is always the realisation that music, and the abilities a musician already possesses, will always exist beyond the rehearsals inked into the diary.
Now there is time to play for fun, to explore new styles of music or repertoire I have been putting off learning. There is time to sharpen aspects of technique. Friends or mentors are more generous with their time, so there is more sharing of music through video communication.
Concert appearances have been paused, but now is the time for many musicians to work on their online presence and to use these platforms to show what they are made of, sometimes with a completely different level of creativity to what is the norm for them.
Thinking outside the box is important for artists who are suddenly shoved in the same box together!
Music and the arts seem to be a saviour to all in these times when everything else has been taken away from us. Books, music, art, television, cinema, singing, dancing, creating: this is almost all we have left.
I feel proud to have my music to pass time, to clutch at a sense of normality, and to give to others.

Dr Emma Sullivan is a freelance double bass performer, educator, and writer of all things classical music. Stay tuned for the next entry in her new CutCommon series featuring the MCO.