“At first lockdown was very hard for me, very tricky, I didn’t think I was going to get through it – panic, craziness, four walls, isolation, I didn’t think I was going to cope with it to be honest.” Nine weeks on though and 59-year-old Warner, a bassist with New Note Orchestra, is now composing his own music, something he never dreamed was possible.
Warner has been in recovery from alcohol addiction for about two years and, like several of his fellow musicians in the orchestra who are experiencing lockdown alone, was initially concerned that he would be cut off from everything and everyone that help keep him grounded. “If I didn’t have New Note or music, I don’t think I would have been here because I would have just given up,” he says.
Social isolation is a known trigger for relapse during recovery, and loneliness is something that many have struggled with since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. With 80% of New Note’s musicians living with a mental health condition, the immediate priority was to figure out how to keep everybody feeling connected. The second was how to continue making music together.
Where there’s a will, there’s a way
A grant from Brighton and Hove City Council’s Communities Fund has enabled New Note to equip all the musicians with what they needed to get up and running to be able to meet online on Zoom. For those who needed it, this has included provision of an iPad, broadband access, and one to one technical support and coaching sessions to get everybody up to speed with the tech.
Tricia has been in recovery for about four years and usually plays handbells and the djembe with New Note. She’s the first to admit that she wasn’t that comfortable using a computer before lockdown started but now she’s in a different place altogether. “I wasn’t very computer oriented, I used to send emails and attachments on my phone, now I can do them on my computer and iPad so being with the orchestra has made me feel more confident about using the internet in general, and especially making music,” she says.
The next challenge was how to make music collectively when you’re no longer able to sit in a room together and there’s not yet a way round internet latency and feedback issues. The answer has been GarageBand, an app which effectively gives you your own music creation studio with a complete sound library of instruments. Several group online tutorials later, together with support from the University of Brighton to be able to access its LinkedIn Learning platform, and New Note’s musicians were off and flying.
“I made up a song using rock guitar and drums and keyboards,” says Tricia. “It’s really helped my mental health at the moment. I feel less isolated and more connected with people. I see all my friends at New Note twice a week now and it’s given me a new sense of purpose as well. Music in general helps reduce the stigma about being in recovery.”
Music as therapy
With a dance and performance background, New Note cellist Lauren knows how channelling creativity can be a huge help to people in recovery from substance abuse. “Making music brings people more into their bodies than their heads, it’s a good way of getting more physically engaged,” she says.
Her daughter Pippa, who is back from university during lockdown, has helped her and other members of the orchestra to become more tech savvy and, like Warner, Lauren is also surprised to now find herself composing. “I’ve been using the iPad for GarageBand, Pippa and I made a song actually so that was really great,” she says.
Guitarist and banjo player Matt, who has played with New Note for two years, is another fan of the app: “Garageband is absolutely fantastic. You can just throw an idea down and it sort of grows. Creating art… is enough to stabilise your mental health and to change your mind, to see the world in a completely different way to how you perhaps did.”
He continues: “One of the basic reasons that New Note exists is that what addicts do is they isolate themselves, so gradually you stretch the connections with the outside world so thin that they break without you noticing and before you know it you’re utterly isolated so the idea that people need connections is the cure for addiction.”
An ecosystem of support
Continuing to fostering the spirit of community and sense of family that underpins New Note’s ethos has proved more vital than ever during lockdown.
Conall Gleeson, New Note’s Creative Director, says: “The orchestra has developed its own ecosystem of support, so you now have people sharing files of music that they make and building music up throughout the week which they then come and present to everyone at the weekly Zoom meetings.”
And it’s not just new digital skills that the musicians have picked up during lockdown, they have also been acquiring more formal aspects of composition such as learning to read music. The next phase will focus on how to build up and edit sounds so that they can go back to creating improvised pieces together. “The ambition is to be much more collaborative in the making,” says Conall.
To get to such a point in just two short months is a testament to the resilience and determination of the musicians to not be knocked down by the coronavirus curveball. Hope springs eternal, even amid a terrible global crisis. Warner sums up his experiences of lockdown by saying: “I’ve started to really enjoy it because it’s made me come out of my shell a bit and interact with others more, musically. One hundred percent, I feel more connected with people.”
Strummers strum on
New Note Strummers are also back playing together thanks to the wonders of Zoom. The weekly guitar group has continued to meet online during lockdown with tutor Jon Rattenbury leading the sessions. “People didn’t want to let go because it was an important fixture in their week,” he says.
Jon plays and sings different songs each week, using a backing track to get more of a group feel going, and the guitarists play along at home. “It’s been fun because it’s a bit more like a performance,” he says. “Once you get going it’s fine, the set up works. It’s as good as we can hope for under the circumstances.”
Discussions are currently underway as to how to keep the momentum going, whether that be by socially distanced meeting in a park to play or everyone trying to record their own part at home, so watch this space!