Cast your mind back to the end of March. It seems like another time now, doesn’t it – a period of great uncertainty and anxiety for all of us. For many musicians, whose busy lives up to that point were dominated by full diaries of rehearsing, performing, teaching, recording, initially it felt like an opportunity – to pause, reflect, rest and reset. And with the venues shut and performances cancelled, it was a chance to spend valuable time with the music.
At first it felt like a great gift – to have so much time, free of punishing rehearsal and teaching schedules, tiring travel and late nights, post-concert. Here was an opportunity to learn new repertoire, music one had had on one’s “to do” list for years (a pianist friend of mine enthused about learning Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’ sonata for the first time, in a professional career of over a quarter of a century); or to revisit previously-learnt works – an experience akin to reacquainting oneself with an old friend – and discover new details.
But soon the time became a curse – because the more time one had, the more it confirmed that there would be no swift return to “normal life”. The venues remained shuttered; there were no performances, beyond livestreams from living rooms, and an enervating weariness set in. Why practice when there was nothing to practice for? My pianist friend admitted that the ‘Hammerklavier’ had mostly lain unopened on his music desk….
The situation has been rather different for amateur musicians, who have revelled in this gift of time. Working from home or furloughed, these months have provided hours of pleasure. Practising is no longer shoe-horned into one’s busy daily schedule, no need for precious moments to be snatched amongst the responsbilities of work or family life. Oh the joy of guilt-free practising and playing for the sheer pleasure of it (something which professional musicians often envy in amateurs).
Focus, and having something to work for, is so important for the professional musician. It provides motivation and fuels intent. Without it, one can feel stranded and unsettled, dislocated and depressed. Routine is also crucial, and the self-discipline of a daily routine not only gives structure to one’s time, but also feeds creativity. In addition to solitary practice, musicians find stimulation and structure in rehearsal with colleagues and ensemble work – all of which has been, until very recently, put on hold.
Perhaps the worst part, the most draining aspect of this situation, was the not knowing: not knowing when it would end, or how the industry would look as we emerge from this grand fermata. Not knowing if one would still be able to sustain a career in music (the subject of a future article). The government sent out confusing messages, or retreated on previous announcements, offering crumbs of hope and then retracting at the eleventh hour, only adding to the uncertainty and frustration. We looked at our European counterparts, many of whom had endured even more severe restrictions than us, with a degree of envy as it appeared most were getting back to normal life far more quickly than us, with venues opening up, albeit with smaller, socially-distanced audiences, and some festivals running, scaled down but, importantly, with real, live audiences.
Now UK concert life is beginning to re-emerge from the great hibernation as venues prepare to reopen and admit audiences once again, with restrictions. There’s a renewed energy as musicians shake off the debilitating ennui of the past five, yes, five months, and return with renewed focus to their practice schedules and rehearsals. Diaries are open again. It’s a time of relief, tinged with trepidation: musicians are pleased to be getting back to doing what they do best, but there’s caution too, about what the future holds….