BY STEPHANIE ESLAKE
Since COVID-19 was first declared a pandemic, the entire nature of our industry has shifted, with artists forced to rethink their projects and reschedule live events. Yet Australia’s musicians are proving they have the power to adapt with ingenuity, determination, and creativity.
In this interview series, we document the COVID-19 impact on the Australian arts industry while facilitating a candid discussion about what it is like to work during this difficult time. We hope this series will bring hope and solidarity to our creative community – things we need now more than ever.
Needing help during COVID-19? Contact your GP, Lifeline on 13 11 14, or the Support Act Wellbeing Helpline on 1800 959 500.
Here, we chat with Melissa Doecke. Melissa is a flautist and co-artistic director of Inventi Ensemble, alongside fellow musician Ben Opie. Their ensemble has confronted lockdowns head-on, first presenting online music sessions for families and kids, and now working towards a goal of more than 100 concerts in aged care centres in the next two years.
Of course, their aged care concerts can’t always be live and in-person. So in this interview, Melissa tells us how she has worked to shift this valuable community project into the digital sphere — still touching the hearts of aged care residents in one of the greatest times of need.
Melissa, how did the pandemic change your life in 2021?
I imagine the impact on me was similar to a lot of other people — a shock, an adjustment, loss of work, other work pivoting online, rethinking things — and then working out a way forward and a way through things.
I’m an optimistic person who likes to work out ways to adapt and change, and keep a positive outlook. And that has kept me going, along with connecting with friends and other musicians throughout lockdowns.
So what’s been your experience with lockdowns, including your need to keep pursuing your practice despite the inability to play in person?
My practice routine hasn’t changed much at all! My Inventi Ensemble had a number of in-person events in 2020 and 2021 — including amazingly recording two new albums between lockdowns in 2020, and also a concert tour to regional Victoria and New South Wales south coast in May 2021 — which was wonderful.
Since lockdowns arrived again, we’ve managed to pivot performances and workshops online, so the music I’m practising has changed — more solo works than chamber pieces — but the need to practise for performances is still there.
With Inventi Ensemble, you’ve certainly made the most of your time in lockdown. You first launched a pop-up online music session for families. What was this all about?
Lockdowns have been so hard on families, both with finding activities to do and also to engage with other people and friends. Inventi has a very successful program of kids’ events when we’re in person, and so it made complete sense to offer these again as an online activity. We first launched these in 2020 lockdowns to great success.
It’s been so wonderful to see the children engage with the music, dancing like crazy around their living rooms, acting out animal actions, and meeting new instruments like the violin and the bassoon.
They have been free events so all are welcome, and have been a wonderful engaging activity for children at home — and a welcome break for parents!
Our musicians have also been awesome at pivoting these online, and have really appreciated the work too, when so much of their work with other arts groups has been cancelled.
As millions of Australians are once again in lockdown, you’re running yet another initiative. This one is called The Music Space.
The Music Space is a project that started well before lockdowns — it’s Inventi’s name for our concerts that we present in aged care homes. This is something we’re super passionate about doing, and have been doing for a number of years now. It’s so rewarding to bring music out of the concert halls to those in the community who have the least access to good quality live music.
We are so grateful that, since 2020, the Australia Council has supported us with a grant to present 104 of these aged care concerts over a two-year period. We’ve done nearly 40 so far in 2021! Many have been in person, but since lockdowns and restrictions have come into play, we have once again pivoted online, Zooming into aged care centres — often with all our musicians each in their own homes, if we can’t gather — and presenting our concerts that way. The residents love the opportunity to connect with people, and our musicians are always ready for a chat and to answer any questions as well.
Zoom has also enabled us to reach centres outside metro Melbourne, with some happening in other states and regional centres as well. These concerts will continue well into 2022, and hopefully beyond.
Our primary aim is to make music accessible to all people, regardless of ability, location or means. The Music Space is simply the name for our aged care program, but Inventi also presents concerts and music programs in hospitals and schools and anywhere that music is desperately needed!
Music is undoubtedly a lifeline for aged care residents in lockdown. What impact do you feel you’re making on these audiences?
This impact is life-changing, there’s no doubt about that. We have comments on the day from the residents and the staff as to how enjoyable the event was, but it’s often the comments that filter back to us long after the event that are the most powerful: how residents’ spirits have been lifted into the future, how people who don’t usually move about much have wanted to get up and dance, and how the spark of life has ignited again, encouraging people to talk about happy times in their past and how music has had a special impact on their own lives.
These mental health and longer-term benefits are what it’s really about, and why we’re so passionate about continuing this work and keeping it a major focus of our yearly program.
And what impact does The Music Space have on your own career with Inventi?
The Music Space has had a wonderful impact on all our Inventi musicians. For myself personally, you spend years studying and practising and perfecting your craft to be able to perform music at the highest level in the best concert halls — but the opportunity to share it with people in need is something so special and rewarding and important.
Music is a gift that should be shared. Our Inventi musicians also love this work, and have commented as to how rewarding it is and that they wish they could do it full time!
To those of us in Australia who might not know how to keep pushing forward with their music career during periods of extended lockdown, what advice would you have to give?
Find inspiration and support! Both are equally important. Find the things you love to play, discover something new, or get into a new skill or project that you’ve been wanting to develop or learn.
Don’t be afraid to continue to share your music! Find an audience to share it with, whether that’s people in your household, or some friends or family online.
Also keep connections with your other musician friends who are most likely going through the same thing. The cancellations of in-person concerts and work is not easy, but it’s important to have people to share the journey with, and keep hope for when we come out the other side of this thing!
Visit the Inventi Ensemble website to learn more about the initiative.
For more Australian stories in our COVID-19 careers series, click here.