This week I was reminded that it’s a year since the Royal Opera House, English National Opera, the Wigmore Hall and countless other music, opera and theatre venues shut their doors in the wake of the growing coronavirus pandemic.
At the time, it felt shocking, because for those of us who frequent these venues (and despite living in Dorset, I was travelling up to London at least twice a month to attend concerts and opera performances) it was a stark reminder that this virus, which until that point had felt rather unreal, was something we should now be taking seriously. That week, I had tickets to hear Chick Corea and Yuja Wang in concert at the Barbican; both events were of course cancelled, and now the virus had encroached directly upon my world, and my cultural and working life. The directors of a music festival, with whom I was working, hung on until the absolute last minute to announce the postponement of the festival, and then all my publicity/PR work dried up. The next weekend, the UK went into its first lockdown.
Looking back, I recall feeling anxious; I wasn’t worried about catching the virus (in fact, I think I almost certainly had it in January 2020 when I had what I can only describe as “a weird ‘flu”), but I was very concerned about my family, in particular my chef son who was out of work, and my mother-in-law, who lives on her own. When previously I might have taken refuge in music to alleviate or distract myself from the stress, I found I could not play the piano nor listen to classical music on the radio, or on disc. It just served to remind me what we had lost, and I found the prospect of no live music for goodness knows how long a depressing one.
In those early, anxious months of the first lockdown, the only classical music I listened to was the complete Beethoven piano sonatas performed by Jonathan Biss. This was special music – and I don’t need to elaborate here why Beethoven’s music is so meaningful to many of us – not only because I thought it was one of the most interesting interpretations of the piano sonatas I had encountered in recent years but also because the last concert I attended at Wigmore Hall was given by Jonathan Biss, playing a selection of Beethoven piano sonatas, just a few weeks before the Hall was forced to close. So this music felt significant for a number of reasons.
Meanwhile, amateur pianist friends were filling Facebook and YouTube with videos of them playing all manner of repertoire. For many of my pianist friends, this period of enforced isolation was a wonderful opportunity to do more practising, and, confined to their homes, they found they had the luxury of time. I wished I had their motivation – there was plenty of music I wanted to learn and play – but instead I felt a growing sense of estrangement from the instrument and music which I loved. My piano was out of tune as well (the tuner was due to come in the last week of March) and that quickly became another excuse not to practice.
So BBC Radio 3 and my classical playlists on Spotify were exchanged for my son’s playlists of hip hop and rap, reggae and (curiously) mixes of 80s pop music which took me back to my teens and student years. We listened to this music when we were cooking and it quickly became the soundtrack of most of 2020 (my son left London to live with us during lockdown). Occasionally, I would dip back into the music I thought I loved, but it just served to remind me, yet again, of what we missing.
By the early summer of 2020, things began to feel a little more positive and the Wigmore Hall launched a series of livestream concerts which were at once brilliant and incredibly poignant (I cried while watching Stephen Hough’s opening concert – it was wonderful to see beloved Wigmore Hall again but rather tragic to see it devoid of its audience).
As society began to unlock in early summer 2020, my piano tuner was able to work again and came to give my 1913 Bechstein some much-needed TLC. I played a little after that – the piano sounded wonderful and I had some new repertoire to learn and old favourites to revisit, but still I felt a strong sense of estrangement from the instrument and its literature.
I know I’m not alone in feeling this. Several professional musician friends expressed similar feelings of detachment from their music and instrument – perhaps understandably since the covid restrictions had decimated their concert diaries, and without the prospect of performances, and the focus and motivation which these bring, there seemed little point in practising.
The issue I have now is that I have spent too long away from the piano. It sits in its room in the basement of my house, and where previously I found its presence benign, I now find it rather hostile. It seems to be challenging me, and I feel guilty for neglecting it.
Of course I have nothing to feel guilty about. I don’t earn a living from playing or teaching the piano and it is entirely my choice whether or not I play it. But I am mindful of the fact that without regular practice, or simply playing for pleasure, it becomes harder to get back into the routine of playing. And routine is what I need.
I hope that when the concert halls reopen and I can enjoy live music again, with other people, the sense of estrangement will pass and the stimulation to play the piano once again will return.