Musicians Playing Through the Lockdown, to One Listener at a Time

Patrick Kingsley, an international correspondent, and Laetitia Vancon, a photojournalist, are driving more than 3,700 miles to explore the reopening of the European continent after coronavirus lockdowns. Read all their dispatches.

STUTTGART, Germany — Atop a hill beside a vineyard, a woman sat down a few yards from a stranger holding a double bass. She sat in silence for a minute, trying to hold his gaze.

It was hard looking him in the eye. She’d spent weeks staring at screens, largely in isolation. Human contact felt intense, strange. After 30 or 40 seconds, she glanced away.

But then the musician raised his bow. The air began to hum with the deep chords of the instrument. She began to relax.

He had picked a version of an English folk song — an adaptation of “Greensleeves.” She realized what it was, and its origins. In her reverie, it felt like an oblique homage to her time in England, where she had spent part of her life

She suddenly felt overwhelmed.

During two months of lockdown, her amateur choir practices had been canceled. A concert she’d planned to see had been postponed. But here on a hill above Stuttgart, a virtuoso musician was playing a piece — and only Claudia Brusdeylins, a 55-year-old publicist for a renewable energy research group, could hear it.

“I just felt recognized,” Ms. Brusdeylins said later.

To circumvent the restrictions enforced on society by the pandemic, cultural institutions have mostly turned to the internet. Museums have held online panels, theaters have streamed plays on their websites, and orchestras have uploaded their back catalogs.

ImageAfter applying to attend online, concertgoers are then allocated a 10-minute slot in one of 27 sites around the city. The concerts are free.

But two state-funded orchestras in Stuttgart — the Stuttgart State Orchestra and the Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra — are trying to do something more personal. Something that won’t keep people separated by windshields, or sitting in a mostly empty auditorium, or staring at their computer screens. Something that might stir some raw emotion.

The challenge was to achieve this without risking infection.

The solution is an ongoing series of one-on-one concerts — in which one orchestra member plays for one audience member, without ever speaking to them.

After applying to attend online, concertgoers are then allocated a 10-minute slot in one of 27 sites around the city. They include Stuttgart’s deserted airport, an art gallery, the garden of a private villa — and the terrace beside the vineyard, where Ms. Brusdeylins heard the rendition of “Greensleeves.”

The audience of one arrives with no knowledge about the music that awaits him or her, or the performer or instrument that will provide it. The person simply is asked to sit down opposite the musician, and to lock eyes with the player for 60 seconds.

Then the musician plays for 10 minutes — sometimes squeezing in two or three pieces. They tend to arrive having rehearsed a handful of potential pieces, but change the final selection for each performance. Ms. Brusdeylins was subsequently treated to part of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1.

Finally, the concertgoer stands up and leaves without applauding, usually wordlessly. There is no ticket fee, but attendees can donate instead to a fund for freelance musicians left without an income by the crisis.

The idea of a one-on-one concert was previewed last summer, at another German music festival, the Volkenroda Summer Concerts. The organizers of that festival had themselves been inspired by a performance art project by Marina Abramovic, the Serbian-American conceptual artist known for sitting opposite spectators at her exhibitions, and silently holding their gaze.

After the lockdown began, the Volkenroda’s organizers suggested to the Stuttgart orchestras that the format was a perfect way of keeping active during the lockdown, without resorting to the internet.

The result has been an intense series of more than 1,100 encounters — first in Stuttgart, and now in five other German cities. And what began as a clever adaptation to coronavirus rules has since become something more profound — a means of establishing human connection, agency and meaning at a time when such concepts have been harder to foster.

People often emerge nearly punch-drunk from the concerts, dazed after experiencing such a direct interaction with an artist, and with art.

At the vineyard, one woman left her concert feeling as if she knew Manuel Schattel, the double-bassist. Breaking with the rules of the format, she had spontaneously thanked him — and found herself addressing him as “du,” in German an informal version of “you,” rather than the more formal version, “sie.”


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  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated June 2, 2020

    • Will protests set off a second viral wave of coronavirus?

      Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.

    • How do we start exercising again without hurting ourselves after months of lockdown?

      Exercise researchers and physicians have some blunt advice for those of us aiming to return to regular exercise now: Start slowly and then rev up your workouts, also slowly. American adults tended to be about 12 percent less active after the stay-at-home mandates began in March than they were in January. But there are steps you can take to ease your way back into regular exercise safely. First, “start at no more than 50 percent of the exercise you were doing before Covid,” says Dr. Monica Rho, the chief of musculoskeletal medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. Thread in some preparatory squats, too, she advises. “When you haven’t been exercising, you lose muscle mass.” Expect some muscle twinges after these preliminary, post-lockdown sessions, especially a day or two later. But sudden or increasing pain during exercise is a clarion call to stop and return home.

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      More than 40 million people — the equivalent of 1 in 4 U.S. workers — have filed for unemployment benefits since the pandemic took hold. One in five who were working in February reported losing a job or being furloughed in March or the beginning of April, data from a Federal Reserve survey released on May 14 showed, and that pain was highly concentrated among low earners. Fully 39 percent of former workers living in a household earning $40,000 or less lost work, compared with 13 percent in those making more than $100,000, a Fed official said.

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.


It’s common for people to feel deluged by emotion, said Stephanie Winker, a Juilliard-trained flutist who created the format, and who remains one of the performers.

“We are craving contact at this point; we have all been staring at screens for hours and hours,” Ms. Winker said. “You forget that staring into people’s eyes for a long time is incredibly powerful.”

It’s often an overwhelming experience for the musicians, too.

For Mr. Schattel, it has been a revelation to finally play for an audience, after weeks of playing at home only for himself.

“You need an audience to really express what you feel,” he said, after performing for Ms. Brusdeylins. “This made me feel free again — like the world is turning” once more.

And it’s moving to see a stranger for the first time, he said, to make that direct eye contact, and to decide what to play based on those initial impressions of who that person is.

And then to play for them, and them alone.

When Mr. Schattel played for Ms. Brusdeylins, he didn’t actually tailor his set in homage to her life story; he hadn’t known of her time in England. But she was right to feel that he’d consciously chosen “Greensleeves.”

He could immediately tell she was nervous, he remembered later. And “Greensleeves,” he felt, was the perfect melody to put her at her ease.

“I thought this would lift her up and take her by the hand,” Mr. Schattel said. “This would invite her to come with me.”

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