The coronavirus is forcing us to practice social distancing and self-isolation. As I joked on Twitter the other day, musicians, and especially pianists, have been self-isolating for years!

The pianist’s life is, by necessity, lonely. One of the main reasons pianists spend so much time alone is that we must practise more than other musicians because we have many more notes and symbols to decode, learn and upkeep. This prolonged solitary process may eventually result in a public performance, at which we exchange the loneliness of the practise room for the solitude of the concert platform.

However, despite the need for frequent sequestration to get the work done, regular interaction with colleagues and students alleviates the loneliness and reminds us of the life beyond the keyboard and the importance of forging musical partnerships, professionally and socially. And in concert-giving, there is also the important connection and interaction with audiences.

With coronavirus sweeping the world, the concert halls and conservatoires are closed and we are being told to exercise social distancing and self-isolation to protect ourselves and our families and friends from this virus. Around my social networks in the days since the UK government ordered that we “stay at home”, many of my musician friends and colleagues have been posting details of how they intended to cope with this new way of making and sharing music. Some are excited about the prospect of weeks, maybe months, of enforced isolation as an opportunity to learn new repertoire, ready for when the concert halls and venues reopen and the music can be shared with live audiences once more. Others are exploring ways to give concerts online via platforms like YouTube. Unfortunately, neither of these activities make money and the sad truth of the musician’s working life is that it is very fragile. Most musicians are self-employed and many live almost hand-to-mouth, meagre concert fees (only the most internally-renowned musicians can command large fees) often supplemented by teaching which offers regular income.

Without concert bookings, many musicians feel marooned as the main focus of their daily lives is removed in one fell swoop. It’s all very well saying you’re going to learn the Saint-Saens Piano Concerto or the complete Liszt Transcendental Etudes, but without concert bookings it’s very hard to feel motivated.

“You’ve got more time to practice now!” people outside the profession might declare, and while this may be true, it’s not very helpful as musicians face the prospect of months without work, no fees, and the attendant anxiety which this brings.

For the amateur musician, by contrast, this is a time for extra, guilt-free practising; but for the professional musician it is rather more problematic. “I’ve really only dabbled at the keyboard” wrote one of my clients, a concert pianist, in an email a couple of days ago. The week before all this kicked off, he and I were discussing the next round of promotion for his concerts, which will, in all probability, be cancelled. And without concerts, the professional musician loses a significant motivation to keep working.

I think it’s important to exercise some self-care and not feel guilty about not working (by which I mean practising) as much during these strange, surreal and uncertain days, and especially not to compare oneself to others who may be busy with livesteam concerts, videocasting and daily broadcasts of Bach…. This time may serve to remind musicians how their lives are often lived at full tilt, and so perhaps this is an opportunity to slow down, pause and reflect?

In the meantime, stay safe and well.

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Thoughts on Artistic Identity

I bet you could easily name a handful of classical musicians who have distinct identities. From vertiginous heels to extravagant physical gestures, hair tossing or audible muttering or humming, these individuals’ public artistic identities are evident whenever and wherever they perform.

Most performers have a personal style, or identity, and in our visually-driven age how you look on stage is as important as how you sound. Thus one’s outward musical identity becomes almost a USP or “brand” so that one is easily recognisable wherever one is. Working in such a competitive profession, many musicians seek to develop a musical/artistic identity which is distinct and, in some case, attention-grabbing: thus, while one may be praised for producing a beautiful sound or insightful performances of Bach, how one deports oneself on stage, in both gesture and attire, also influences the way one is regarded by others.

In fact, for most professional musicians their personal artistic identity is developed and defined by their music and music-making rather than their physical appearance. Musical identity can develop from a young age, influenced by family, teachers and mentors; observing one’s peers in college and one’s colleagues in the profession; cultural and societal expectations; and one’s personal values, self-definition (“I am a pianist”, for example), self-efficacy, and intent.

While the title “musician” implies a performer, most musicians have what is fashionably called a “portfolio career”; in reality this is a number of different working roles within and sometimes also outside of the musical profession, and a certain fluidity in one’s identity is necessary to suit these different roles. For example, a concert pianist needs a particular identity and mindset when performing as a soloist, including a degree of extroversion and ego, while the same pianist must temper his/her artistic personality when playing in ensemble where the piano is not the main instrument and one is required to collaborate with others. Equally, when teaching one may need to adapt one’s identity to effectively connect and communicate with students. Over time, one’s musical identity becomes deeply ingrained as one grows more experienced. Adaptability, resilience, and career flexibility allow one to both survive and thrive, and one becomes adept at balancing other artistic aspects of one’s identity, which may remain private, with one’s outward professional artistic identity.

On a more esoteric level, musicians place their music at the very heart of what they do and for most it is their raison d’être (in the way that perhaps other professionals, such as accountants, do not). Music, and music making, is what drives them and the exigencies and uncertainties of the profession can have a detrimental effect on one’s ideals and aspirations as a musician. Thus it is important that young musicians in conservatoire and those embarking on a professional career receive support and mentorship to enable them to balance their expectations with the realities of the profession today.

There are reserves of power in Mr Hough’s touch, and an ingrained refinement; his self-composed encores usually dissipate with sly comedy the high seriousness of his art. Elegantly at ease with himself, he is a performer with whom audiences also feel easy.

(from He’s the Piano Man, article about British concert pianist Stephen Hough in The Economist, August 4th 2016)

 

 

The comment below appeared on a local network site in response to a concert which I’m promoting. Sadly, I have to say I was not surprised to read it. There is a prevailing attitude that musicians, especially young or emerging musicians,  don’t need to be paid because they should simply be grateful for the “exposure”. In addition a lot of people also feel musicians don’t need payment because they love what they do, or they regard what musicians do as a “hobby” or “not a proper job”.

Now I expect there are dentists out there who love what they do, or plumbers…..by the same token should they also not be paid?

No, of course not. Because these people are professionals who have undergone rigorous training and who need to make a living to pay the bills and support their families.

Musicians are no different. Contrary to what some ignorant folk may think, musicians are real people with bills to pay, families to support….etc.

Consider for a moment what a concert fee (and we’re not talking a four- or five-figure fee here) covers: not just the time spent performing (c90-120 minutes for a solo concert) but all the preparation (learning and finessing the music – often many days and weeks, depending on the repertoire). In addition, the musician may have to pay travel expenses, the cost of a night or more in a hotel, food and living…. After all those costs are covered, it’s unlikely the musician will have actually “made” any money at all from the concert.

Most musicians are freelance, and I know many who live almost hand to mouth, supplementing fairly meagre concert fees by teaching or through other music-related work, or work outside the sphere of music in order to pay the bills.

Internationally-renowned musicians like Martha Argerich or Daniel Trifonov may command large concert fees, but the majority of musicians do not. All work very hard to bring to life the wonderful music which we are privileged to share with them in concert.

Don’t ever tell a musician they don’t need a fee because they’re “getting good exposure” or because they love what they do. The notion that musicians should be expected to perform for nothing is demeaning and insulting, and devalues the huge amount of highly concentrated work/effort musicians put in to prepare for a performance.