The arts don’t exist in isolation.

David Byrne, musician

Musicians, like writers and artists, need quiet time and solitude to pursue their work. The desire to withdraw, often for hours on end, is not necessarily a sign of unsociability nor introvertedness but rather a signifier of deliberate intent and purpose. We choose to withdraw into our work spaces – whether it is a purpose-built music room or studio, or simply a corner of the home which is designated as one’s “creative space” – in order to get on with our work. For those who live with musicians, artists and writers, appreciating and respecting this need, and the creative space, is both important and supportive.

The lockdown in response to coronavirus is seen by many as an opportunity to “get creative” and in the first days of the UK lockdown, my Twitter feed was full of tweets by well-meaning people urging us to “learn a new language”, “finish that novel you always wanted to write”, “take up art” and make use of all this new-found “spare time”. Musicians were told they should think themselves “very lucky” to have all this “extra time to practice”, but while amateur musicians are relishing this time, professional musicians are more ambivalent, and some are quite hostile to the idea that they should welcome this grand fermata in their busy lives.

The trouble is, we didn’t choose this period of isolation; it was imposed upon us. And that affects inspiration, because in normal circumstances when we take ourselves off to our creative space, we control that intent, we have autonomy over our own time and how much of it we choose to spend alone.

It may be true that inspiration is about 80% solitary graft, day in day out, and that most inspiration comes from a regular routine rather than “lightbulb moments”, but the lockdown has, for many of us, caused a massive rupture in our routine. Musicians, for example, are not able to attend rehearsals, where regular interactions with colleagues fuel creativity – and if there’s one truism about creativity, it is that one must “feed the muse”. Interactions and experiences are the staple diet of the Muse, and the richer our experience, the better fed and healthy the Muse will be. For the musician, experiences are not only musical ones (listening to music, going to concerts, collaborating with other musicians), but life experiences in general – relationships, travel, sights and smells, interactions with others, events large and small. Unfortunately, almost all of these experiences are impossible at present, and this physical confinement can seriously limit the imagination.

Another important factor is motivation. Several musician friends have commented to me that without the focus of concerts to prepare for, they see little point in practising. And without regular practising or rehearsals, one slips out of a daily routine, leaving one feeling disoriented, out of sorts, and in some instances, depressed.

In addition, music, art, words need an audience – and this is what I think David Byrne means in his quote at the head of this article. The arts and creativity cannot really thrive in isolation: the musician needs the performance to work towards, the artist the exhibition, the writer the deadline. This is not attention-seeking but rather a significant motivator, and more fuel for the muse.

Of course many creative people are finding inspiration in isolation (and it remains to be seen how many Requiems for the Victims of Coronavirus are premiered when the concert halls reopen, or Lockdown Diaries published!), and for some of my musician colleagues, this pause has been a reminder of just how hard they work in normal times – rehearsing, teaching, performing, travelling, plus all the other admin and minutiae of daily life. If nothing else, the lockdown is an opportunity for a much-needed rest.


(Photo by Dayne Topkin on Unsplash)

Advice from pianist Beth Levin

1. brew coffee

2. consider learning new repertoire

3. visualize a recital you would have given before the venues closed – imagine 4, 5, 6 encores! well with a little luck it might have gone that way!

4. imagine the dress you would have worn – consider it with different earrings

5. go to your music stacks, pick anything and start sight-reading (hopefully it won’t be Islamey!)

6. listen to a recording of yourself in recital to remind yourself that yes, you know how to play

7. brew more coffee

8. consider learning new repertoire

9. daydream about a tour of China when this is all over

10. brew more coffee

 


Brooklyn-based pianist Beth Levin is celebrated as a bold interpreter of challenging works, from the Romantic canon to leading modernist composers. The New York Times praised her “fire and originality,” while The New Yorker called her playing “revelatory.” Fanfare described Levin’s artistry as “fierce in its power,” with “a huge range of colors.”

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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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