I have been very touched and moved by the many responses I received via this site and also on Twitter and Facebook in response to my article about my own estrangement from the piano during the past year, and I’m very grateful to people for writing with so much honesty – like David, a friend from my piano group, who has felt the loss of live music and singing with his choir really acutely:

Music was my release, my passion, my individuality and this was all taken away from me. Overnight. – David, amateur pianist & singer

Like me, David has found it difficult to engage with music via livestream, and regards making music, either solo as a pianist or with other people through his choir, as a more than just notes, but rather a “lifestyle” – something which brings not only pleasure, stimulation and self-fulfilment but also a sense of living a full life.

Others told me how the piano has been a lifesaver for them during a very challenging year. For Andrew, who was made redundant and had to move house, the piano has provided important continuity in his life:

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.

(It is interesting to note that several other people cited the music of Bach in providing much-needed stability and focus on their life, and I do think there is something about the structure of Bach’s music, coupled with its depth and beauty, that perhaps makes it a good choice for the long days of lockdown.)

It was my friend Rhonda who articulated so well what I had been feeling

In my experience, the loss of the music industry as I knew it feels as if the world has been upended. What had great meaning the day before the first lockdown felt drained of all relevance a month later. 

***

Few people would dispute that the last year has been difficult. Many of us have lived under extraordinary restrictions for months, unable to see family and friends and enjoy social and cultural activities. Largely confined to our homes, we have had to adapt to new ways of working, socialising and interacting with colleagues and friends.

For professional musicians, the last 12 months have been very challenging indeed. The almost complete shut down of concert venues and opera houses has led to loss of work and has highlighted the precariousness of the working life of musicians in an already insecure profession. The disruption from such a big external event as a global pandemic, and the loss of the music industry as they knew it, feels as if the whole world has been upended, and this has caused many to question whether live music will ever recover, and if so, what will it be like in the future? Some musicians are even considering leaving, or have left, the profession altogether.

In addition, many musicians – and I include amateur players in this too – have felt estranged from their instrument and the music they love. At times of stress, many of us turn to music for comfort and refreshment, as a listener and/or player. Yet the pandemic has, for some of us, put a huge gulf between us and the music we used to love to play and/or hear in concert. It no longer speaks to us or is meaningful in the way it was previously.

Rekindling that love will take time and patience. I felt a huge sense of loss when the London concert halls were forced to close in March 2020 and for many months I simply did not want to listen to or engage with classical music. It was akin to a sense of grief. Finding a way back to enjoying and playing music has been slow for some of us, and at times frustrating, but it is possible to rekindle the love.

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I am grateful to the people who have contacted me in response to my earlier article, who’ve shared their experiences, and who have offered practical advice, some of which I am sharing here:

  • Don’t feel guilty about not wanting to practice or listen to music. Be kind to yourself and accept that these feelings of dismotivation/disengagement will pass.
  • Seek out music that speaks to where your mind is now, even if it’s not what you would usually play or listen to. In recent months, as I’ve re-engaged with classical music, I have found myself drawn to more gentle, meditative or ambient “post-classical” repertoire.
  • If practicing feels like a huge chore, revisit previously-learnt repertoire which you like and know you can play well. Give yourself permission to just play, not make progress.
  • Try to gradually re-establish a routine, even if you’re only playing for 30 minutes a day. Routine fosters creativity and can also be very steadying in times of stress.
  • Talk to others. Many people are feeling the same and knowing you are not alone can be very supportive.
  • Listen to music – and listen randomly. Some of the music streaming services create random playlists based on your listening; this is a great way to discover new repertoire and may even encourage you to learn new pieces.
  • Be patient. The passion will return, don’t force it.

Amateur pianists – how has lockdown been for you?

What have you been playing?

Have you practised more or less during lockdown?

How has your motivation been?

Have you been able to continue with piano lessons? (If you have regular lessons.) How have you found Zoom lessons?

What has lockdown “taught” you?

Please share your thoughts in the comments section or contact me if you’d prefer to talk in confidence

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.

Most of us have had to live in lockdown or under various restrictions on our daily lives due to the coronavirus pandemic for over a year now. It has been a particularly difficult time for musicians, in an already precarious profession, and the knock-on effect of restrictions leading to the shut down for months on end of concert venues and opera houses, rehearsal spaces and other workplaces, has really highlighted the fragility of the musician’s life and how woefully unprepared the industry was to adapt to the challenges created by a global pandemic and governmental responses to it.

The lockdown has offered plenty of time – perhaps too much time – to reflect, and for many of us it has led to a reappraisal of how we work and what our priorities might be. I spoke to a number of musician friends and colleagues in the process of researching this article: it was heartening to learn that many have been able to find positives amidst the difficulties, but equally nearly everyone has faced challenges, often financial, over the past year.

As freelancers and self-employed people, musicians have felt undervalued and excluded by the UK government, which seems not to care about the arts nor really understands how the profession works. And to add insult to injury in a profession already feeling the bruising effects of lockdown restrictions, a further body blow was inflicted when a number of government ministers suggested that those who work in the arts were not “viable” and that they should seek employment elsewhere or retrain. This, understandably, was met with derision; what my conversations with musicians have revealed is that far from “unviable”, most have demonstrated that they are resilient, adaptable and resourceful, utilising skills developed through their training, a strong work ethic and a willingness to support one another. Some have had to take work outside the industry in order to survive financially; it cannot be easy trying to retain a sense of oneself as musician when one is working as a delivery driver or in a supermarket.

One of the hardest aspects of lockdown has been the lack of face-to-face contact with colleagues. Music is a collaborative, ensemble activity and in addition to rehearsing and playing, discussions and conversations with others are an important and stimulating part of the process of creating music. Something is lost when such conversations take place via a computer screen. Alongside this, regular interactions with musician colleagues allow ideas to flow and offer an important support network. Amateur musicians feel this strongly too, with the suspension of orchestras, choirs, piano clubs, meet-ups and music courses.

both my musical activities (choral singing, very socially-oriented) and piano playing (not so much) lose much of their meaning if I can’t physically do them with others

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To try to counter this, ‘Zoom choirs’ and ensembles have been formed to allow people to sing and play together, albeit virtually. It’s an imperfect way to make music, when the activity is about working and playing collectively, in the same space, but it has at least offered an important sense of connection, and of course the opportunity to actually make music; some of these Zoom performances are really quite impressive. Their success relies on people who are fully conversant with the technology to create performances which are both glitch-free, and, as this example below by composer Thomas Hewitt Jones proves, communicate powerfully – which is what any musician seeks to do in a live performance.

Many musicians have had to get to grips with new technology to facilitate remote teaching and rehearsing. Venues too have had to learn how to present livestream performances; again, some of these have been really impressive with high-quality audio-visual effects which help to create atmosphere as well as convey the music to the audience in the best possible way.

although it is suspiciously easy to deliver orchestral recordings without any live players from my studio in the short term, it completely misses the point of what music-making really is, and there is no substitute for the real thing

Thomas Hewitt Jones, composer

For those for whom performing is their life-blood, their identity and a source of income, the loss of public performances has been particularly difficult. While many musicians have been quick to adapt to livestream and video concerts, almost everyone I spoke to profoundly misses the experience of live performance with an audience. Livestream offers a different way of giving concerts, and it has led to an increase in people engaging with classical music, but what all the musicians I spoke to agreed on is that no technology can ever replace the experience of live music – as a performer and listener. And an ongoing issue with livestream is how to monetise performances. Again, progress is being made here as musicians and venues explore ways to offer ticketed livestream performances, and for many, musicians and venues alike, livestream will continue to be an important part of the concert experience after the venues have reopened to live audiences.

When face-to-face working/rehearsing/performing was (and will be) permitted again musicians have, like the rest of us, had to adapt to measures such as social distancing – which means players are much further apart in an orchestral or ensemble setting, presenting its own challenges for players and conductor (and no page-turners for pianists) – wearing masks, taking regular Covid tests (and dealing with the consequences of a positive test result and loss of work/income), playing to much smaller, socially-distanced audiences, travel restrictions and myriad other issues which can add to the stress of an already stressful profession. In these scenarios, musicians have proved their willingness to be adaptable and, in their desire to be making music once again, have accepted the changes or restrictions to their working practices.

In terms of managing the day-to-day “sameness” of lockdown, many musicians cited the importance of having a daily routine. The loss of concert bookings has meant not only the loss of income but also the motivation to practice regularly, but equally this has offered more time to explore new repertoire or refresh previously-learnt music. And with all this extra time on their hands, many musicians have allowed themselves a much-needed break from the rigours of daily practicing, rehearsing, travelling and performing. This has also led some to reappraise their career in a profession with often unsociable hours and unattractive working conditions.

having personal projects and focusing on what is important for ME is still possible and that’s where where my growth as a musician is

Eleonor Bindman, pianist

Those musicians who also teach have perhaps fared better, as teaching at least offers regular income, but many have had to adapt very quickly to online teaching and learning new technology in order to continue to work. This has added to their skill set and allows them to be more flexible in their approach to teaching: when face-to-face teaching is not possible, they can at least continue to offer online teaching. Many have also reported that students seem more motivated and relaxed when playing at home on their own instruments.

online courses bring together musicians from all over the world, which is particularly important during the pandemic and post-Brexit

Penelope Roskell, pianist & professor of piano at Trinity-Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance

The overriding comment in response to my question What have musicians learnt from lockdown? is that there is no substitute for live music, before a live audience, and that we should never take for granted the importance of music and music-making (and the arts in general) is in our cultural, social and economic life.

Soon after the first UK lockdown began in March 2020, videos began appearing online of people playing their pianos in their homes. Often these home performances – more playing for oneself than for others – were prefaced by an apology for the poor quality of the piano sound. “I’m sorry, my piano is out of tune and I don’t know when the tuner will be able to come to fix it” was a common thread. But somehow it didn’t matter – because many people had to be content with an out of tune piano during lockdown, when tuners, like the rest of us, were ordered to stay at home.

Some of these at home performances were given by professional pianists; many more were by amateurs who, by complying with the government stay at home orders, found themselves with – oh joy! – extra hours with which to indulge their passion, instead of trying to shoe-horn practice time into the daily routine of work and family life.

There was a remarkable outpouring of music in those strange early days and weeks of lockdown. The piano is the perfect instrument for isolation: pianists tend to be, by nature, solitary, and many relished and actively embraced the weeks of confinement. This was an opportunity to learn new repertoire, revisit previously-learnt music, or simply enjoy quality time with the instrument and its literature. It confirmed what most of us, especially amateurs, know – that we play primarily for ourselves, in private, just us and the instrument.

And people forgave a less-than-perfect piano sound and instead embraced and shared this celebration of the instrument and its music. Many of these performances, recorded in people’s living rooms, dining rooms, music rooms, were the result of hours of careful practice; others were spontaneous, spur-of-the-moment occasions. Some people collaborated, using an app, to play duets, remotely yet together. Shared on platforms like Facebook and Instagram, these mini house concerts reminded us of why we love music, and what we were missing with the concert halls shuttered. Commenting on people’s performances, praising their efforts and marvelling at their abilities, was a way of recalling the special shared experience of live music – as performer and audience – and this created a sense of togetherness, even though we were separated.

“I’m so busy!” my piano technician said when he finally came to tune my piano in early July (some three months later than its scheduled half-year tune). All the out of tune pianos of lockdown were finally being treated to some much-needed TLC, and as soon as the tuner had done his/her work, the piano’s owner played to recall what an in tune piano should sound like, and then there was an even greater pleasure in the act of playing.

The videos will continue to be shared online because people find pleasure in sharing their music with others and for amateur pianists in particular, practicing with the intention of recording one’s playing provides focus. But let us hope in 2021 we can also return to live music in concert halls, large and small.

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This article on the LitHub website caught my eye We Need To Treat Artists as Workers, not Decorations. In summary, the author challenges the entrenched notion that because artists (and by extension musicians) do what they do for “love”, they are not workers, in the sense of being gainfully employed and receiving a salary or payment, and that discussing art and money in the same breath somehow compromises or trivialises the art. 

We really must get over the romantic idea of the starving artist – or musician – living a bohemian existence in a shabby-chic garret in Hoxton. 2020, the year of the global coronavirus pandemic, has revealed some hard truths about the day to day lives of artists, musicians, and indeed other freelancers, as well as some unpleasant, prejudiced attitudes, particularly from politicians who have inferred that such people, because they love what they do they do, are “not viable” (i.e. they do not contribute sufficiently to society and the economy), should look for employment elsewhere, and do not need proper financial support.

Musicians need to eat. They have bills to pay and families to support. Let’s stop being coy about talking about money in relation to music. This seems to apply particularly in the classical music world (when we talk about “the music business” we are nearly always referring to the world of popular music), where discussions about entrepreneurialism, marketing and business plans are regarded as unbecoming, almost taboo, in a profession which is devoted to sharing some of the highest, most wondrous and sublime creative achievements of mankind with others.

The trouble starts early on. Having observed from the outside, and, briefly, the inside of the conservatoire system in the UK, and having talked to many musicians – students and professionals – and others in the industry, it is quite evident to me that trainee professional musicians are not being equipped to cope with the realities of the working life of a musician. The focus is largely on performance, in a rarefied atmosphere which discourages talk of “career” or “job prospects”, and instead encourages student musicians to believe that they can sustain a life as a performer when they leave college. Few music colleges offer courses on the business side of being a freelance musician; thus, musicians are often naïve about money because they’ve been told it cheapens their “art” to talk about it. It’s a high ideal, and one which is quickly shattered when students enter the real world. 

Add to this a prevailing attitude that because you do something you love you don’t need to be paid for it – nor should you ask for money. For goodness sake, let’s stop telling musicians that unpaid work is “an opportunity” and that they should be grateful for “the exposure”. Exposure doesn’t pay the bills!

When artists assert that they ought to get paid, and paid fairly, it’s because they want to make a living, not a killing. They want enough to keep doing it. Artists are like other professionals who work from a sense of commitment—teachers, social workers—and who opt for satisfaction over wealth. They still have bills to pay. You don’t have to be doing something for the money to want to get money for doing it. You just have to be alive.

William Deresiewicz (author of The Death of the Artist)


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