For our second installment of DSO Conversations: Coping with COVID-19, we talked to DSO’s Principal Second Violinist Netanela Mizrahi. Netanela is a woman of many talents; she’s a musician, composer, music therapist, music teacher, and a 2017 Churchill Fellow who has researched the impact of music-based interventions on communities that experience trauma. Given her involvement in a such a broad range of musical endeavours, DSO was interested to learn how COVID-19 has affected her life and work.
As both a music educator and a music therapist, what are the biggest challenges COVID-19 has posed for your work?
Adapting my work to the needs of our community has definitely been a creative process. I’ve seen my clients deal with overwhelming feelings of loneliness, their physical and social needs unmet and their mental health challenges exacerbated. In order to address these issues through music, I’ve found myself working more creatively with tactile and active experiences, finding ways to help people feel their physical strength by engaging with the physical sensations that are receiving less sensory feedback in times of reduced social contact. Drumming and elements of body work, movement, breath and voice work seem to be coming up more than ever. And we’ve found ways to make music together despite physical distancing.
Even before COVID-19, many of my clients felt isolated or disconnected from community because of the barriers our systems create for people with disabilities, mental health challenges, or those facing other access or geographic barriers. In many ways, our response to COVID-19 has increased the accessibility of services and community to people who have been excluded from cultural, social and professional activities for a long time. COVID-19 challenged our exclusion of certain members of our community by prompting us to diversify the way we all work. We used to tell ourselves we had a choice whether to adapt learning environments for students or teachers who were unable to physically attend classes or that we had a choice to create inclusive systems for adults of diverse abilities to engage in the workplace and cultural activities. We framed people with these experiences as consumers rather than creators of services and culture, but COVID-19 is prompting us to seriously critique this. I hope we choose to hold onto these possibilities once the immediate crisis has passed.
I miss playing music with others and I see systemic problems in the ways musicians and educators are valued in our society. But from a creative perspective, I also value these times of increased silence. It focuses my energy towards listening and reflection, and prompts me to question the way I work.
Do you have any recommendations for how parents can keep children engaged in music while they are at home?
A trauma-informed approach to music engagement in isolation reminds us that children’s experience of lockdown, regardless of how much they understand about the global crisis, has changed their everyday world. Music can bring comfort at these times because it can connect us to times of safety, stability and connection. It can engage and integrate our senses, provide tactile experiences and engage our bodies in ways we know promote wellbeing (breath, body, mind, spirit, imagination, creativity). Parents understand the needs of their children and families better than anyone else, and sometimes we also need to grant ourselves permission to just be with our children in the ways we know best. Some families are finding themselves with more time together and less to do, while others are juggling engaging children while also trying to work remotely. Some families are looking for ways to stimulate their children and others are looking for ways to create calm and stillness. In many families, parents are dysregulated and engaging with music might be a way for them to manage their own experience of this trauma. Our parenting needs are as diverse as ever.
Parents looking for guidance might start by moving in little steps. Not everyone needs to master an instrument or livestream a four-part harmony family musical theatre pandemic parody. Younger children mirror the way we engage with music and are most likely to participate if that’s what we’re doing. Engagement can happen through formal activities, like logging into online music playgroups or lessons, learning a song or dance, or the routine of instrument practice. But it can also happen playfully, casually, as part of an everyday routine. In some families, the person cooking dinner chooses the playlist. Some have a special bedtime or bathing song. Perhaps each pet needs a theme song. Many families I’m working with are looking for ways to continue engaging their children without adding to a child’s screen time. Intentional music listening is one focused activity many seem to be enjoying. Turn off the lights or light a candle, some people lie down with feet up the wall or find their most comfortable way to be still, and choose one listening experience to go deep into together.
Libraries offer free access to audiobooks/podcasts with orchestral and other instrumental music, or guided imagery to music recordings. Storytelling also engages children with new music or deepens their engagement with familiar sounds. Children can create improvised soundscapes to favourite stories using found household objects. Family recitals give everyone a chance to share something they’ve been doing with full attention. Many children love the invitation to give their parent a lesson on their instrument. My daughter and I compete to see who can sustain communicating only through operatic recitative (she always wins). “Hypotheticals” is a fun imagination game: “Would you rather master one instrument at the click of your fingers, or be able to play one piece only on 100 different instruments?” “If you were an instrument, which would you be?” “Which one song would you choose to have stuck in your head for the rest of your life?”
How has the pandemic affected your musical practice? Are you able to spend more time at home playing? How do you go about connecting with other musicians?
I’ve been returning to score study and orchestrating DSO’s Miyapunu arrangement. It’s a good time to be writing music quietly on my own! I’m watching some amazing collaborations and new works grow in this time. Artists in our community are generous in receiving works in progress and offering feedback and I’ve loved getting previews of others’ works too.
I should add that the DSO community has provided me with so much support – it’s the meeting point for all my professional networks – musicians, educators, health practitioners. Despite not seeing each other at rehearsals, I’ve felt very connected to other DSO teachers and health practitioners, and the sharing of skills and resources to adapt to the changes caused by COVID-19 has in many ways made me feel more connected to my colleagues than ever.
You are currently in the process of working on an arrangement of ‘Miyapunu’, a collaboration with Galpu Songman, Guwanbal Gurriwiwi. Could you tell us a bit more about this fascinating project – how did it come about and what is the process behind it?
Guwanbal and I started working with this songline in the 2016 Tunnel Number 5 Festival of Underground Music. Miyapunu grew into a chamber/youth choir piece as part of the Arafura Music Collective’s Love and Dreaming commission. This song draws on the traditional knowledge, language and songlines from the Galpu community of Galiwin’ku/Elcho Island, of which Guwanbal is an elder and teacher. We wrote this song based on the Galpu story about Miyapunu, an ancestral turtle/dolphin being. The mother and baby miyapunu become separated in the water, and their crying out to each other forms a call between Guwanbal and the youth choir in this piece.
Although inspired by a Yolngu creation story, this song has contemporary themes. It’s a song about homeland and belonging, about listening to voices from the past and future. It’s about Reconciliation and a call for a Treaty between the Australian government and Indigenous Australians. We hope that collaborations like ours present a model for working together, listening deeply to each other, and creating new stories together. Guwanbal and I are so honoured to be developing this for the DSO and particularly value bringing children into our performances. Involving a youth choir gives more opportunities for Yolngu (Aboriginal) and Balanda (non-Aboriginal) children to work together, to learn from Indigenous elders and engage with Art Music as a vehicle for social change.
What are you listening to at the moment?
I had planned to be in South Africa in July presenting a conference paper on trauma-informed performance practice. Missing out on watching some amazing choirs was the saddest thing about those plans changing. Today I’m listening to Stellenbosch University Choir and imagining myself there.