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Ms Pettet: Will the arts ever be the same again?

18th May 20

I know that this may seem to be a bold, emotive question. However, having reflected on the effects of the pandemic in recent weeks, it is a question that I feel is important to consider.

To set some context, the arts industry, whilst only one of many industries effected in recent weeks, employs 300,000 people in the UK and contributed £10.8bn to the economy in 20191.

Living in the South East, we are blessed to have one of the world’s most important cultural centres on our doorstep; London is home to the West End, the Royal Opera House and many prestigious concert halls, all of which are currently empty every night. Many of my friends work as performers, composers, producers, and agents. With concerts, shows, weddings, and gigs cancelled for the foreseeable future, does the industry need to adapt to survive?

Moreover, for many of us, music is not just a career, it is a way of life. I became a music teacher because I wanted to share my passion with budding musicians, who are often themselves so driven and enthusiastic. Studying Music or Drama at university is unlike any other course; you live and breathe your subject and your course-mates become your family. When you are so heavily invested in your art, it’s hard to imagine switching to any other career and I think that is one of the many reasons why this is a time of such concern for artists.

A recent article in the Financial Times argued that some good has come out of this crisis; countless excellent productions and concerts are now available to stream online and reaching audiences they never did before. The world-renowned violinist Maxim Vengerov recently gave a concert in his living room, which was viewed over 20,000 times. Much of this comes with the added bonus that the concerts are free to view. In addition, the quarantine period has inspired new compositions and songs (I predict that we will see an outpouring of new music in the charts over the coming months) so audiences and musicians will be able to experience fresh, new material.

However, free concerts are not a sustainable outcome. Performing artists will need to earn a living, and the longer social distancing and quarantine restrictions remain in place, the more likely it is that they will have to consider alternative careers.

Furthermore, online concerts alone are unlikely to keep audiences (particularly the young) engaged in classical music. Indeed, I am always struck by how clearly our musicians and scholars at Dunottar enjoy going to a live performance. Webcasts are no match for visiting a venue, buying a programme, and sitting so close to the orchestra that you can feel the vibrations through the floor. It is analogous to soaking up the atmosphere by watching a sports match in the stadium, rather than on the TV.

On a much more positive note, I am encouraged to see that normality is starting to return elsewhere. Three weeks ago, my sister travelled back to Germany to continue her degree at the Music Conservatoire in Leibzig. Lessons are resuming, there is a sense of returning ‘normality’ and moreover, she was employed to sing in a ‘live-streamed’ concert last weekend in the Merseberg Cathedral, near Halle (don’t worry, she and the seven other singers sang two meters apart!). In the midst of the uncertainty, it is reassuring to hear stories like this and I hope that we will also be able to revive music events in the UK as soon as safely possible.

As part of this, arts organisations such as English National Opera will be trialling methods to generate revenue, bring some normality and respect health & safety guidelines by:

  • Selling fewer tickets so that audience members can be spaced further apart
  • Putting on performances in outdoor spaces so that audiences can watch from their cars (much like the traditional American Hollywood ‘drive-in’ experience)
  • Continuing to screen online concerts and market on social media in an attempt to reach wider audiences.

It will be interesting to observe whether these methods are successful, and ultimately, whether it helps to keep paying audiences engaged. There is a well-known saying that periods of great change, bring great opportunity. We may therefore, see an emergence of new and exciting initiatives led by small businesses and organisations as a result of this.

To conclude, my response to the title of this article is of disagreement; we will always want and need music and the arts in our lives. The vast number of performances streamed online (each viewed countless times), and uptake of new musical instruments by people across the country, have served to remind us of how integral music is to our society, and how enduring it is in times of exceptional circumstances.

We might not be able to enjoy live performances for the time being, but there will come a point that it will be safe for musicians to tour and perform, and for audiences to once again enjoy music in beautiful venues.

At Dunottar, it is paramount that we continue to offer pupils enriching performing opportunities and keep music thriving in spite of social distancing restrictions. I am once again reminded of our warrior learner characteristics, which encourage pupils to be tenacious, creative and collaborative. We will be employing these characteristics ourselves to do some creative problem-solving in future months.

We are already leveraging our fantastic technology to enable virtual lessons to take place and our choirs to record remote vocal parts for a virtual Summer Concert, which we will be putting on after half term.

However, beyond this, I cannot wait for the opening of our new Assembly Hall and performing arts facilities later this year. I am confident that this new space, together with our fast-paced, forward-thinking and supportive community will mean that musicians at Dunottar will continue to thrive, no matter what the future has in store this year.

Follow the Music Department on Twitter @DunottarMusic for announcements and updates.

1Report for Arts Council England: Contribution of the arts and culture industry to the UK economy, April 2019.

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