Estrangement

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.

7 Comments

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  1. David’s heartfelt description of the impact of the pandemic is common to tens of 1000s (millions) of other musicians and professional artist in all walks of life. The evidence is mounting that ‘we the people’ could have coped with the virus itself via common sense measures (and some shielding legal protections) but *not* the extreme (unjustified and unsustainable) non-medical interventions of governments, e.g. lockdowns, business closures, etc. Some of us suspected these failures of statistics and approach. I recommend, at the minimum, reading the excellent HART report. https://www.hartgroup.org/covid-19-evidence/ https://www.hartgroup.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/HART-REVIEW.pdf

  2. Hello Fran, I was also at that Jonathan Biss concert at the Wigmore Hall, we talked briefly just after. Since then I have been made redundant after working for a company for 24 years, had to move house for financial reasons, and spent many hours on my own wondering where the hell my life went. The only continuity was my piano (and my wife)… I have played everyday through this whole traumatic period and I simply went back to the beginning. Bach.
    I opened book 2 of the 48 (I always seemed to play from book 1 in the past) and selected 2 preludes and fugues to start with and have slowly added another as I gained some sort of mastery over each one. The concentration, attention to detail, constant twists and turns in the part writing, compelled me to focus on this, and this alone for 60- 90 minutes a day. It was time away from the outside world and the pressure that surrounded me… without it I would have collapsed.
    Since then I have added to the repertoire with Mozart and Beethoven, and we bought a dog with some of my redundancy. Now, at least the empty hours of my day are filled with love: that of the music, and the fragile creature that depends on me, and for the rest, my hard working wife keeps me sane. But it started with music, and there is no saying what might have happened without my piano….
    Andrew

    • Dear Andrew

      Thank you very much for getting in touch. I remember meeting you at Jonathan Biss’ concert last year. I’m so sorry to hear about your redundancy and other financial travails. A very difficult time. But it’s so heartening to hear how the piano, and especially the music of Bach (and several people have cited Bach as their musical saviour during this past year), has helped you through this.

      All best wishes,

      Fran

  3. That’s a very honest and insightful post , I can identify with this detachment from music at emotionally charged times.
    I can only suggest you allow the hiatus to happen without self reproach and guilt . I’m positive that as better times unfold , so will your total commitment to piano and ability to immerse yourself in practice.
    I’m distressed by the impact on the world from the pandemic, totally in sympathy for the devastation on mental health, but as I no longer work it hasn’t brought hardship or anxiety.
    However in the past life crises such as bereavement or illness have produced an identical aversion to playing, practising and listening .
    It really does pass , as the subconscious releases anxiety , so that musical curiosity returns.

    At the moment: out of tune piano , no lessons for a year , and awareness neighbours may be trying to work from home, I’ve focused on revisiting studies and on learning new Bach . However I suspect the quality of practice is becoming suspect with no ‘deadline’ to work towards!

    • Dear Suzanne – thank you very much for your comment on my post. I have been very touched, and at times moved, by some of the messages and comments I’ve received in response to this article and I think the common thread is that we are not alone in feeling like this. And I must say that playing Bach can be very comforting and steadying – as well as enjoyable. All best wishes, Frances

  4. My goodness, how I feel your pain.

    In March last year, I’d just come back from one of the best nights out with a good friend watching the slightly odd but massively enjoyable production of Carmen at ENO.

    On the 21st of March, my semi-pro Chamber choir was due to be celebrating their 20th year performing Bach’s B Minor Mass with a Baroque ensemble at St. Pancras New Church; my pin-board at home had the usual average number of concert tickets (one-a-week) and I’d just taken on some ad-hoc accompanying work with a very sociable local bunch of singers. Off-peak, London is £10 return for me; an evening out Cadogan or Wigmore can be cheaper than a ticket for the local flea-pit cinema.

    My son had moved to UEA and all-of-a-sudden, the juggling that I’d been doing for 18 years gave way to music – either making or attending just about every night of the week. I’d also just got to the last module of the second year of my music degree and was on-track to submit in April with a plan to graduate within 18 months.

    Everything Fell Apart. The 2-3 hours of time I could grab in the mornings every day had to stop as work went on-line 24/7 – I’d been time-shifting my days as I work for a US company. My PhD that I’m doing in Engineering was halted because the lab was now off-limits (I had 12 months to go – a year on, I still have 12 months to go…) and everything, piano, singing lessons, accompanying, choirs, went on-line. The house was full of people asking other people to alternately mute and unmute, and that wasn’t just on Zoom.

    Mentally, I went off-line. I fell apart. Referred by my GP for some help, off I went to talk about it.

    “Find something small that makes you feel positive” he said.

    “Easy,” I said. “Sing in a choir or go to a concert.”
    “Go for a walk – where would you go?” he said.

    “Easy,” I said. “Walk to the station to catch a train to go a concert or gallery.”

    “What do you like about nature?” he said.

    “Easy,” I said. “Watching and listening to people singing/playing together.” (I’m not the “outdoors” type – hate it).

    Music was my release, my passion, my individuality and this was all taken away from me. Overnight.

    For the first three months of Lockdown 1 I didn’t listen to any music. I played, when I could with others trying to work in the house, but I couldn’t carry on with the singing or piano lessons. My music degree ground to a halt – I didn’t submit my final module until December 2020.
    Then the worse happened. The Proms, the mainstay of my concert-going year, was cancelled. I tried to listen to one of the repeats, a piano concerto (I don’t remember which one).

    As the piano was manhandled onto the stage and the Prommers shouted “Heave-Ho!” I burst out in tears – I realised that I had been one of the voices in that pack and I should be there now. It was raw and painful – I didn’t listen to any of the other concerts. Frankly, the acoustics of the RAH and the quality of some of the playing are not the best at the Proms but it is all about the atmosphere – that does not translate.

    In November, my semi-pro choir was able to spend an entire day recording a selection of works – 8 hours in the studio, no-where to sit down and the usual crap green-room. Bliss.

    That night I was on Cloud 9 – I couldn’t sleep with the rush. The next day I sobbed my heart out.

    I haven’t posted any playing, attended any on-line workshops – I am sure they are fine but the suspension of disbelief that one needs plus the fact that the sound quality is almost always sub-par (and even if it is good, it’s never as good as the multi-dimensional effect of being in a venue) and that I’m sick to the back teeth of staring at a pane of glass puts me off. Good luck to those who find their balance – mine lies in the real, not the virtual.

    Over the past few weeks as I’ve seen “cultural” (I HATE that word – they mean “life”) events re-appear in Israel, some hope has surfaced. I’ve had my first jab – I’m a scientist and I know this is the answer – as have all my friends. WOMAD is on; The Really Big Chorus are selling tickets for July and the choirs should start again in May. I’ve started working on my LTCL repertoire with a little more vigour – singing Dip will need to wait a few more months.

    But every day still brings a new cancellation or postponement and until that stops I’ll remain on-edge.

    I’m no Luddite – my PhD is in things technical to do with mobile networks – and I regularly sit on 3, 4, 5 hour Zoom sessions. I’ve been a “remote worker” for nearly three decades.

    I cannot be a remote musician.

    • Dear David – thank you very much for responding to my post with such honesty, at times painfully so. I really think politicians and others have really no idea how these restrictions have impacted on the pleasures of life, like music or going to an exhibition, which make us feel complete, fulfilled and happy, emotionally-balanced individuals. It’s this “collateral damage” which will have a far greater, more long lasting effect on people’s lives and health. To deny people these things that make our lives whole is, to me, a gross act of inhumanity on the part of government, bordering on cruelty. I sincerely hope we can meet at a concert again before too long

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