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An Almost-Pleasant Purgatory

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Käthe Wright Kaufman is the Organ Scholar at Peterborough Cathedral for the 2019-2020 year. She recently completed her master's degree as a student of David Higgs at the Eastman School of Music.

What does an organist do when the church closes its doors?  Eastman graduate Käthe Wright Kaufman shares her perspective from the U.K.

March 28, 2020

I am lucky to have loving friends and family members who have been checking in on me during this period of isolation and uncertainty, and I am very grateful for them. Just as every day is becoming repetitive, so too are the conversations starting to be a bit predictable: “How are you holding up?” “Who else have you spoken to recently?” “Are you eating enough?” etc.  Even though I find my answers to be similarly boring day after day, I appreciate the chance to talk to someone, especially now that I am no longer seeing my friends in the flesh.  I do feel a bit of guilt, though, that I am finding this routine of nothingness fairly straightforward and easy to live with (although it is only day 5 of our 21+ day lockdown here in the UK). As a very-rarely-extraverted introvert, I am used to spending most of my evenings and days off alone, and so I find I am well-equipped to kill lots of time by browsing the Internet, reading, doing crossword puzzles, and watching Netflix. Perhaps I should be worried that I find it so bearable… not sure.

However, I do lament the lack of collaborative music-making that ought to be filling up the majority of my days - it’s why I am here in Peterborough, after all. I was looking forward to offering up a recital of various Passiontide chorale settings on Palm Sunday (we were going to livestream it, then we decided to record it ahead of time on Tuesday evening, but then the PM’s announcement on Monday the 23rd prevented even this third revision of the plan from going forward). Strictly speaking, I am no longer allowed in the cathedral, even to practice by myself in the organ loft. Thankfully I have a piano in my house, and begrudgingly I have been playing through scales every morning while I wait for my bread to toast. I’m happy to see many of my colleagues making a valiant effort of offering up so much music through livestreams and recordings, and I do hope these posts are bringing other people joy and comfort, as well. I regret not being quite as motivated or creatively inspired in my own isolation. I’ve played around with the Acapella app a bit (which lets the user self-harmonize by layering different recorded takes), but unfortunately both my stinginess (I’m not going to pay $3 for the pro version, are you kidding?) and insecurity have prevented me from posting any of the final products thus far.

Obviously, we are all facing a huge amount of uncertainty now as to how long this will last and what our world and societies will look like if and when we get back to “normal.” As an American living abroad, I am very conscious of my visa’s expiration date, as well as the day after which I will be officially unemployed. Unsurprisingly, all search processes for various vacant organist jobs for September are on hold at the moment.  It would be logistically challenging to stay in this country (with which I’m so enamoured), due to the severe regulations concerning immigration and long-term work visas. The new Brexity version of the points-based scheme actually works in my favour with its lower salary threshold, but the huge challenge remains of convincing a cathedral or school that my talent is valuable enough to warrant all of the extra paperwork and fees to enable such an appointment.

And so, for me at least, this period is a time of phlegmatic helplessness. Perhaps it’s like purgatory: I haven’t found myself descending into total insanity (yet), but I’m fairly unenthused about every aspect of my life. I am still emotional; I feel worried and anxious about my loved ones and about everyone who is suffering from this pandemic; I feel self-pity for the various projects and relationships that didn’t work out the way I wanted; I feel anger at some governments for not taking scientists seriously soon enough; I feel some ~light~ despair at my lack of an immediate professional future; but overall, I am fine. I am healthy, I have enough food and loo roll, and I have people checking on me.

I hope everyone referencing the famous quote “This too shall pass” is correct. I am waiting on a lot to pass and am eager to see what’s next…

Käthe Wright Kaufman is the Organ Scholar at Peterborough Cathedral for the 2019-2020 year. She recently completed her master’s degree as a student of David Higgs at the Eastman School of Music. She has pursued her organ studies since 2007, studying with James R. Brown, William Porter, and Edoardo Bellotti. Following the completion of her Bachelor of Music degree from Eastman in 2016, Käthe spent a gap year in Truro, England, where she served as organ scholar at Truro Cathedral. She has performed for the radio program Pipedreams Live!, and she has performed in venues around the United States and the United Kingdom. She has received numerous awards, including the Gerald Barnes Award for Excellence in Pipe Organ (2013), the inaugural VanDelinder Prize in Liturgical Organ Skills (2014), first place in the West Chester University International Organ Competition (2015), and second prize in the Fox Valley AGO Competition (2018).