It’s been eight weeks in lockdown now. (Photo: Edinburgh Castle with no visitors.)
On the whole, I have been coping fine. Long experience of working at home had prepared me for #stayhome. However, it turns out that my peace of mind during solitary periods of preparation was dependent on having complementary times when I knew I’d go out and deliver the fruits of whatever I had been preparing. Performances are the ‘equal and opposite reaction’ which makes it all feel meaningful.
Deprived of performances, it has gradually become more difficult to keep the faith. All my work has been cancelled. At first, it looked as if that would just be for a few months. Then, as various versions of the future were put forward, we all realised that there could be a ‘long tail’ of consequences. Diaries looked empty not just for weeks but for months … or more. Concert promoters realised that there is no easy way to introduce social distancing into the traditional concert hall.
You may have seen the latest plans for train companies to ‘stagger’ their seating so that each passenger is the only person in a row of four seats (this assumes a train carriage where all the rows are facing the same direction). Passenger 1 takes a window seat in Row 1 on the left. Passenger 2 takes a window seat in Row 2 on the right. Passenger 3 takes a window seat in Row 3 on the left. And so on. The same principle could be applied in concert halls – more easily in some than in others – but clearly, only a fraction of the usual audience could be present. So, would ticket prices have to double or treble to make up for the missing patrons? If not, how long would it be before the system collapsed?
I read in the New York Times the other day that there are two ends to any pandemic: the medical end, when the disease dies out in the general population, and the social end, when people cease to be fearful about catching the disease. The social end always comes later. This is the problem facing the arts world. I ask friends when they think they’ll feel confident to attend, say, a concert or a play. Their replies tend to indicate dates further and further away. They used to say, ‘In the summer, I hope’, and now they mostly say, ‘Probably not this year.’ I have caught myself wondering if I’ll ever step out onto a concert platform again without wondering whether virus particles are circulating in the hall.
These are big worries for any musician. The one I’m thinking about today is identity, that mysterious sense of ‘What is my role in the world? What particular thing do I have to contribute?’ There’s only so long we can go on telling ourselves that we ‘are performers’ if we’re not actually performing and have no idea of when we might next perform. If we cannot actually interact with audiences, and if audiences are starting to express anxiety at the idea of going to concerts, the feeling of ‘being a performer’ starts to become latent rather than active. Our sense of ‘having a role in the world’ becomes a bit hazy.
Work-wise, I have two identities – pianist and writer. In lockdown, I’ve noticed that my sense of identity as a writer hasn’t been damaged at all – if anything, it’s been enhanced, because I’ve been able to communicate with quite a few readers and correspondents who have more time than usual to discuss things. But my identity as a performer has been rattled (just temporarily, I hope). On some days I feel I’m just that woman down the road who plays the piano day after day in her living-room. My sense of having ‘something particular to contribute’ is shaken by having no opportunities to contribute it. (Don’t say the word ‘Zoom’.)
Of course, we all hope that the next chapter won’t be as bad as we sometimes fear. But this mini-loss of identity is another example of the effects of lockdown. It’s hard to feel that we must keep practising our instruments because someone somewhere is looking forward to hearing us next week, next month – and because we are looking forward to playing to them, hearing their silences and murmurs as they listen.