Finding Purpose in Covid Times

by Erica Peel

As musicians, many of us have found ourselves seriously questioning our life’s work, our employment, our purpose, and our place in the world during this extraordinary time in history. The last 8 months have been significant and life-changing, with far reaching consequences. At the start of it all, I found myself scrambling to create projects and set goals, thinking ambition was the antidote to idleness and resignation. During that time, I accomplished some really wonderful things, but I was frazzled and disoriented, not to mention exhausted by the unrealistic expectations I set for myself. The productivity pendulum was swinging in full force. Pre-Covid, I had a running list of other “careers” that I might pursue at some point in my life. Quarantine granted the time, and perhaps more reason than ever, to begin studying these other areas. Yet, I couldn’t seem to cut the rope that kept pulling me towards what I now consider my life’s work. When I finally gave into the stillness and quieted the pressure to produce, I found meaning in the cracks and under the surface of my day to day life. It was then that I was able to dig into music-making, and into my own growth as a musician, more thoughtfully, purposefully and voraciously than I had in a long time. I hope that by revealing the overlooked spaces in my life, you will find some undiscovered silver linings lurking in yours.

I cannot underestimate the value of teaching, no matter your proficiency. My relationship to, and respect for, this art form has evolved over time. For many years, it was a necessity – a way to pay the bills and make ends meet. I did not understand the magnitude and significance the act of teaching held, for student or teacher. In 2017, I took a much needed break from teaching to focus on my new job with the Philadelphia Orchestra. During this hiatus, I was able to carefully consider whether teaching was a “should-do” or a “choose-to-do” extension of performing. What I discovered was that the “should-do” mindset was depleting my energy and draining my inspiration. Once I set boundaries around my “choose-to-do” framework and taught from a place of generosity and authenticity, the benefits showed themselves like a breath of fresh air. During this bizarre time, my students were integral, though perhaps unknowingly, in lifting me up and giving me purpose. The responsibility I feel, that I’m honored to feel, towards them – to be a rock in their education and lives – lit a fire in me. I pushed myself so that I could authentically push them. I can see the immense benefits of teaching revealing itself in anyone’s life, whether you guide beginners or advanced musicians. Listening, sharing your experiences, and being on a student’s team makes a profound impact on their life, as well as yours.

In the same vein, I also cannot underestimate the value of curiosity and experimentation. I require this of my students – that they humbly consider all ideas, show a willingness to investigate, show patience in the process, and approach both the technical and musical aspects of their instrument with thoughtful intention. I require this of my students because I require it of myself. I eventually showed myself a great deal of grace during quarantine, acknowledging and accepting the stillness, pause, and rest I was craving; but when the motivation to work struck me, I met those moments with curiosity and discovery leading the way. Sessions with my instrument became encouraging moments of growth… moments of exploration for which I yearned.

I cannot underestimate the value of connection. During this period of isolation, I deeply felt the absence of connection as I had known it in pre-Covid life. It is what we do as musicians; we connect with our colleagues and with our audience, communicating with both in unspoken terms. It is what we do as people; we hug our friends, we lean in to better listen, we offer gestures of empathy. Having these known ways to connect taken from me, I suddenly recognized just how paramount they were. Connection is essential. It is what makes us human. So I looked to the spaces in between my natural instincts. I found connection through virtual recordings with colleagues. It took a bit of adjustment, but ultimately allowed me to understand and experience people in a slightly different light. When making recordings, I learned my colleagues’ tendencies, where they pushed forward or held back, how they vibrated or phrased, where their pitch lay. This intense focus on and analysis of their playing and style, and how I would adjust my own to fit, provided a connection that only this specific kind of recording prompts. I began to cherish this form of communication and heavily relied on the musical partnerships it yielded.

Lastly, I cannot underestimate the value of perspective. This pandemic has been devastating to so many, on so many levels. I have much for which to be grateful, and recognize that I have it far easier than most. The virus has not fatally struck my family, and I can stay home and sacrifice my “normal” in exchange for safety. Beyond the pandemic, there is still a great deal of pain, suffering and injustice in our world. It often feels like it’s just too much – too much to accomplish, too many expectations, too much hardship. But if we can all show ourselves some grace, find a sense of stillness, relish this opportunity to take a deep breath and lean into the spaces in our lives, then this period of isolation, which began with the hopes of mere survival, can turn into an awakened spirit toward both your career and life.

“Piccoloist of The Philadelphia Orchestra since 2017, Erica Peel enjoys an exciting career as an orchestral and chamber musician, soloist, and teacher. She joined the faculty of the Peabody Conservatory in 2019, where she succeeds Laurie Sokoloff in leading what is the only program in the country to offer a Master of Music degree or Graduate Performance Diploma in Piccolo. 

At the age of 21, Erica began her orchestral career as principal flutist of the Debut Orchestra in Los Angeles. She went on to hold positions with the Honolulu Symphony (Associate Principal/Piccolo), the Omaha Symphony (Piccolo), and the San Diego Symphony (Piccolo) and has most notably performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, and the Houston Symphony.

Erica has been a soloist with the Omaha Symphony, the Independence Sinfonia, the Amerita Chamber Players, and the Poconos Youth Orchestra. An active chamber musician, she has performed with the Omaha Chamber Music Society, the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, and Art of Elan.

A sought-after teacher and clinician, Erica has a been guest artist for the Flute Society of Greater Philadelphia, the National Youth Orchestra, the San Diego Flute Guild, the Los Angeles Flute Guild, the Luzerne Music Center, and the Philadelphia International Music Festival, among others. 

Erica’s primary studies were with Jill Felber (UCSB, ZAWA!), Christine Nield-Capote at the University of Miami, and MaryAnn Archer, formerly of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. She performs on a Muramastu flute with McKenna headjoint and a Hammig piccolo with a Mancke headjoint. Erica lives in Haddonfield, NJ, with her husband, oboist Jason Sudduth, and their daughter, Avery.”