How would you make music if today was the last day of your life?

by Kevin Vuong
Toronto, ON

--- This article is a condensed and organized version of a dozen-page long brain dump of my thoughts over the past five (!) months! Musician or not, I hope that you find a bit of solace in this word vomit, and that you can join me in supporting any of your favourite artists and creators in these uncertain times.
--- How would you make music if today was the last day of your life?

July 2018 – I was sitting in a conducting workshop. The visiting professor was working with a fellow workshop participant on the podium. She didn’t look to be committed to her musical choices and to the music itself. It was “good” and “correct”, but she didn’t seem spark any emotions in anyone (including herself) - she simply just wasn’t “there”.

The visiting professor stopped her at once, paused for a few thoughtful seconds and asked her: “How would you make music if today was the last day of your life?”

I’m a clarinet player and a conductor. I make music with other people for a living, and I’m lucky to call it my hobby too. It’s a career, a vocation, a calling.

I’ve dedicated four years of an undergraduate degree, countless hours, numerous late nights on the subway and many thousands of dollars in tuition fees, equipment and travel to the pursuit of this passion. I feel most comfortable when surrounded by my musician friends and colleagues – hell, I’ll probably die in rehearsal. I can’t imagine my life without music-making.

And yet since March 16th, 2020, that’s been pretty much our reality.

I still remember the last concert I played on clarinet before the shutdown. March 7th. 60 total cases in the entire country. This whole “coronavirus thing” still seemed like it would blow over like a bad storm.

It was a community band concert – I chose to play in this community band because my friends were in it and that I had a place to play “for fun”.

The day of the show, I was exhausted. The week before I had just wrapped up a musical. The night before, I conducted two pieces on a friend’s recital. With work and personal commitments, and future projects looming on the horizon, I was busier than I had ever been and this was the last thing in two weeks of madness that stood between me and a G&T.

I just wanted to get through the show. I essentially sight-read a few pieces on the program on stage during the concert.

I kept telling myself: “Once I get through this, I’m home free.”
Literally a week later – “self-isolation”, “social distancing” and “work from home” became household terms. Day-to-day life as we knew it came to a standstill. Human instinct is to come together in the face of adversity – but to stay safe in this pandemic, we in fact had to stay away.
Music-making is one of the most social things humans can partake in – it is expression of personal identities and emotions. It is human connection in its purest form. It certainly gets harder to do when we can’t even be in the same room as each other – now and in the near future.

Six months have passed and some artists have used this time as a catalyst for innovation and new creation but many have been grappling with the reality that their “normal” might not ever return. Some have left the industry; many have “taken a break”. I still find it tough to find motivation to do music-related stuff – studying a score, practicing my clarinet, opening a book are hard to bring myself to do when there isn’t an end in sight.

I think about that March 7th concert a lot. I would do anything to relive that concert and play with my friends again. Funny enough, I don’t even remember that much of it. I just felt so absent that day - it was just a box I had to tick off; another gig to get through. In retrospect, horribly selfish of me.

Like, what if that concert meant a lot to one of my colleagues? What if someone had family members come from far and away to hear them play? What if this was the last concert someone ever attends?

March 7th felt like “another day, another show” - I had no clue it would be the last time for the foreseeable future. Had I known, what could/would/should I have done differently?

The last live performance I experienced before lockdown occurred was Ryerson Musical Theatre Company’s Big Fish. On Friday, March 13th, I was fortunate enough to catch what ended up being their final performance –– everyone involved had been told just hours before that their run would be cut short due to COVID-19 precautions.

It was there that I saw the meaning of making music like it was your last time. I saw actors and musicians put it all on the line and take risks. Pure, visceral emotion – sheer joy and as in the moment as you could ever be. The entire company came together amidst a time of great darkness and uncertainty to tell their story one last time. There is this beautifully profound moment near the end of the show where the entire company stands at the front of the stage, hand in hand. In that moment, I didn’t see actors, but I saw students and peers and friends – a community - sobbing and smiling together as they knew it would be the last time they would get to do this for a long time. They truly left it all on stage that night.

As artists, what if every single day was like this? What if every single time we stepped on the stage, we were fully committed to what we’re performing – what if the stakes were that high, EVERY time? What if we never took any chance we got to make art for granted? What if we constantly and consistently reminded ourselves of why we do this in the first place? Think about the art we would produce; the lives we would change.

We as musicians hold a certain responsibility to our fellow artists, our audience, and to the art itself to. Someone, somewhere down the road, poured a little bit of their life and soul into the sheet of music on the music stand in front of us – and that calls on us to give it the same amount of respect and dignity.
At the end of the day, I still miss it. Holy shit I miss it. I miss the laughs, the connections, the emotions. The pre-performance adrenaline rush, the post-performance hang. I miss exploring a piece of music with fellow musicians. I miss being on the go. I miss being so in the moment that time seems to stop and you feel that you’re in the past, present and future all at once. Above all, I miss walking in a rehearsal room and shedding my day and my troubles away and sitting down and making music with my closest friends.

Thinking about our future and if when we do reconvene to make music again, I can’t even begin to imagine the sheer and utter joy that moment would bring. I know that in that moment, our sacrifices will have been worth it. As we settle into our new normal, I hope that the joy never leaves us and that we never take it for granted again.

I hope that we realize that everything we do as artists and all the lives we touch are just as important as our own.

I hope that our BIPOC and underrepresented artists get an equal opportunity to express themselves.

I hope that we continually question and critique the structures and spaces in which we make our art to make it an experience we can all relish in equally.

I hope everyone gets a chance to see themselves represented in the art they create and experience.

I hope that we treat every piece of art as the humble creation of an artist, and with the same dignity and respect as that we would treat a real human being.

I hope that we are able to find more moments to completely lose ourselves – either in creation or in experiencing music and art.

I hope we as a society can continue to experience the healing abilities of live music and music-making.

I hope that we all – both as consumers and creators, realize that art is essential to the human experience. We need it now more than ever.

As soon as we can to gather together and make great art, I pledge to do so with the utmost reverence, passion, integrity, joy, pathos, humour and humanity - as if it were the very last time I’d ever get to do so. Then I’d do it again the very next day.


--- Kevin is a Toronto-based freelance clarinetist, music director and conductor-educator with diverse experiences in musical theatre, working with school and community groups and teaching private lessons. Most recently, Kevin video-edited and music directed a virtual production of A Perfect Bowl of Pho for The Toronto Fringe Collective. Outside of music, Kevin recently completed a (chronologically accurate) Marvel Cinematic Universe marathon with his buddies and is known for his ability to sip a large coffee for 6+ hours.In Fall 2020, Kevin begins his Masters of Teaching at the Ontario Institute for Studies of Education.

Follow him on Instagram at @konductor_kevin!

Social Distanziner - Toronto, ON