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

M-N

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.

This site is free to access and ad-free, and takes many hours to research, write, and maintain. If you find joy and value in what I do, please consider making a donation to support the continuance of this site

Make A Donation

 

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)


This site is free to access and ad-free, and takes many hours to research, write, and maintain. If you find joy and value in what I do, please consider making a donation to support the continuance of this site

 

Make A Donation

 

To coincide with the release of ‘Regards sur l’Infini’, with soprano Katharine Dain, pianist Sam Armstrong shares insights into his influences and inspirations, significant teachers and the music he’d like to perform in concert in the future.


Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

My parents are not musicians but my strong will to play the piano emerged quite clearly early on (at the age of 4 or 5). My first serious introduction to classical music was through the Great Composers LP series (I remember Beethoven Sonata recordings of Wilhelm Kempff and a Grieg Concerto by Stephen Kovacevich). I was also quite bowled over at a young age by the passionate music-making of Jacqueline du Pré in a TV documentary about her life.

The most important influences have been my two main piano teachers, Helen Krizos and Richard Goode. Helen was my teacher from the age of 12 and I stayed with her for a decade. I owe her everything in terms of learning to play the piano. She really ‘rescued’ me and helped me rebuild my technique with a much less tension and more ease and was wonderfully thorough and present every step of the way for the entire time I studied with her. She was demanding and exacting yet at the same time extremely supportive and warm. The very important things she instilled in me were the importance of beauty of sound, a deep sense of musical integrity and the necessity to adjust to whichever instrument I am playing on.

Studying with Richard Goode at Mannes College of Music in New York for four years blew open the ceiling for me in terms of sounds I thought it was possible to make on a piano, in terms of learning how to decipher a score with a combination of intelligence and instinct, the importance of getting to the emotional heart of a work and the necessity of specificity in communicating that. Also, very luckily the year I began studying with him he was featured artist in Carnegie Hall’s Perspectives series. I was able to hear him across 12 (I think!) concerts performing a huge range of repertoire from Mozart and Beethoven Concerti to Schoenberg’s Book of the Hanging Gardens, Janacek’s the Diary of One Who Vanished, Brahms Piano Quartets, Bartok’s Third Concerto and Schubert Lieder amongst other things. Hearing those outstanding concerts and witnessing his artistic range was an education in itself.

More indirectly I have been influenced by many others: masterclasses I had with Leon Fleisher and Pierre-Laurent Aimard were particularly illuminating.

As a listener, I have been hugely inspired by the conducting of Antonio Pappano being an avid fan and regular attendee Royal Opera House performances. Also the artistry and boundary-less repertoire of soprano Sonya Yoncheva is very special indeed. I will never forget solo recitals I heard from pianists Earl Wild and Aldo Ciccolini as well as a truly heartbreaking rendition of Schumann’s Dichterliebe with Christoph Eschenbach at the piano at the Ravinia Festival in Chicago.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

I think the one of the greatest challenges has been to maintain internal self-belief through the inevitable peaks and troughs of a career in music. In particular, to avoid feeling that how busy one is or not at a given moment is not necessarily reflective of how your career is going overall. It is important to acknowledge the role of circumstance and timing as well as work you have put in to constructing projects and laying the groundwork for things to happen. Also, it has been a challenge to learn not to expect a particular external result from a performance that you feel very happy with or hoped might take you forward in terms of career.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

This is NOT because it has just been released, but my album ‘Regards sur l’Infini’ with soprano Katharine Dain is something I am proud of as we had a very unusual situation in terms of preparation because of the pandemic. We chose to quarantine together starting in March and we ended up having months to fully prepare the rather complicated programme with no limits on how much we rehearsed. Normally rehearsal time is very short in professional life, so this felt like a real luxury to be able to explore the songs and poems so deeply, change our minds and give the music space to settle and breathe. Also, to prepare Messiaen’s Poèmes pour Mi (the main work on the album) with Pierre-Laurent Aimard was a huge privilege and totally game-changing in terms of understanding the codes to this complex music.

In terms of a performance I am proud of, my second Wigmore solo recital in 2012 is a performance I felt quite close to happy with – particularly in Schubert’s B flat sonata – a piece that is so vulnerable and hard to grasp and so much already in another world.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I’m not sure that musicians are very objective at judging themselves, but I am told by others that I have a strong connection with Schubert and Brahms (composers whose music I love deeply).

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

Listening to inspiring performances, long discussions with friends and colleagues and reading (I just finished a wonderful biography of Debussy by Stephen Walsh). Also, time in nature.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

I found the Kleine Zaal (small hall) of the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam to be particularly magical. Perfect piano, perfect acoustic, presented with flowers by the hall as a matter of course. It doesn’t get better than that.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?

I think that a growing conversation between performers and public about composers as the vivid, colourful flawed humans they were/are rather than dusty abstract figures is going to be necessary to engage and grow audiences. Also that classical music is a beautiful mirror of all of the emotions and experiences of life.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

My most memorable concert experience was my solo debut recital in New York at Weill Hall in Carnegie Hall. It was one of the very few concerts where circumstances meant that a large number of friends and supportive colleagues were able to turn out in force.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I think my definition of success as a musician is to maintain the will to get better, to improve and to get closer to get to the heart of this extraordinary music we are all lucky to play. On the other side, I think another type of success is to avoid becoming jaded by certain non-musical aspects of the music industry. Above all though is to keep searching for truth and equally to stay open to changing your mind and to other points of view.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

That you never arrive. That we are always chasing something elusive. Also to learn to enjoy the process, as music will present new (and sometimes the same!) challenges every time you begin a new piece.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

I hope still to be playing the piano for a living. I would like to have more autonomy over certain programming choices and to have the ability to convince promoters to get larger numbers of people together for certain repertoire (Janacek The Diary of One Who Vanished, Schoenberg Pierrot Lunaire, Ravel Trois Poemes de Stephane Mallarmé or the Chausson Concert for example). Also budgets that would to make it possible to bring people from different countries for fantasy football style chamber collaborations (which feels even more decadent and luxurious in these pandemic times) would be wonderful.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

A small house on the Greek island of Hydra with a good piano and a excellent espresso machine.

What is your most treasured possession?

My hearing.

 

‘Regards sur l’Infini’ was released on 27 November 2020 on the 7 Mountain Records label. With this album of French songs centred around Olivier Messiaen’s Poèmes pour Mi, American-Dutch soprano Katharine Dain and British pianist Sam Armstrong have constructed a meditative programme that also includes Claude Debussy’s complete Proses lyriques as well as individual songs by Henri Dutilleux, Kaija Saariaho, and the little-known Claire Delbos, a violinist and composer and the first wife of Messiaen. More information


Hailed as ‘a major new talent’ International Piano and a ‘pianist of splendid individuality’ Arts Desk English pianist Sam Armstrong has made solo recital debuts at the Concertgebouw Amsterdam, Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall in New York as well as at the Wigmore Hall in London, and as concerto soloist with the National Symphony of Ecuador.

Read more