Identity

18th May 2020 | Daily Life, Musings | 9 comments

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.

9 Comments

  1. Monica Wilkinson

    Thank you for your blog, Susan. You have written with eloquence about what people who lose their jobs so often feel. The loss of sense of identity is corrosive and often leads to problems with mental health. My heart is heavy, but natural optimism wins through most to the time. We will pass through this period and a new norm will be found. Humans need contact with others, and we need the shared experience that concerts give. A way will be found. Music is a thread through humanity that cannot be broken.

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  2. Susan Tomes

    Thank you, Monica – your positive outlook is a tonic!

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  3. Mary Cohen

    I agree with Monica that music is an essential thread in our lives and feel that there is going to be a real thirst for sharing live music experiences,(together in venues) when things settle down.

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  4. Debbie Wilson

    I’m sure that as things gradually return to something more like normal, people will begin to take ‘calculated risks’. All the more so from being starved of live music experiences for so long. It may even add a frisson to the atmosphere of the performance? Please look after your sense of identity – we’re going to be in severe need of real performers!

    Reply
  5. Susan Tomes

    Debbie, you may well be right about those ‘calculated risks’. I have heard a huge range of views about how people are going to feel about going to live concerts – ranging from ‘I’m desperate to go’ to ‘I’m not going until I’ve had a vaccine’. And some interim views, like ‘I’m only going if everyone is wearing a face mask’ or even ‘I’m not going if I have to wear a face mask though!’ Hopefully, as we all learn more about this virus and how it transmits, we will gain some certainty about the types of situations when we can feel more secure.

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  6. Anne Mcdonald

    Is identity defined by what you can do, or who you are?
    Thank you for your blog, it’s very helpful.

    Reply
    • Susan Tomes

      Well, that’s a good question, Anne! I think for most vocational types, like musicians or artists, there’s a big overlap between what they are and what they do. Take away what they do, and they don’t feel complete. That’s one of the problems with the present lockdown.

      Reply
  7. James

    Susan, your post made me think of all of those performers and audience members in years gone by for whom the threat of plague and untimely death was been ever-present. Now, I’m not trying to compare our times to theirs, but I wonder whether we’re getting a little insight into their world. Most of the composers who we love most lived before the time of antibiotics. I wonder whether performances of some pieces (Beethoven’s opus 57, for example) may become more immediate and vivd as a result of all this!

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  8. Susan Tomes

    Very good point, James! Yes,I have thought about that too. As you say, many of our favourite composers lived in times when life and health were more fragile and unpredictable. I’ve often wished that modern antibiotics could have been available for them – Mozart in particular.

    Reply

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