Today’s Guardian article about former concert pianist Anne Naysmith, who lives in a little shelter made of trees and bushes at the foot of a railway embankment in west London, got me thinking about pianists. As the article points out, her case has echoes of the famous Miss Shepherd, also a former concert pianist, who lived in her van in Alan Bennett’s London driveway for some years, and was the subject of his play about her eccentric lifestyle.
Homelessness can happen to anyone, but if we’re talking about homeless musicians, it seems to me no coincidence that both these ladies are pianists. The life of the pianist, particularly the solo pianist, can be such a solitary one. At its most positive, it can be a life of splendid celebrity. The successful solo pianist is perhaps the most admired of instrumentalists, a lone hero or heroine travelling the world to tame grand pianos everywhere. Piano music is so self-sufficient, often needing no other musician’s input, and seems made for the independent musician. But at the other end of the scale, it’s all too easy to see how a lone pianist can fall through the net. No colleagues, no orchestra, no ensemble, no partner, no employer. And in the cases of Miss Shepherd and Miss Naysmith, there were hardships linked to being working women on their own in a highly specialised field, in a generation which wasn’t particularly sympathetic to such women when they fell on hard times. Being a concert pianist is hardly a transferable skill. Yes, as a pianist myself, and in the pensive mood brought on by reading today’s article, I can easily envisage how one might run out of luck and have to live in an improvised shelter. Without a piano, presumably.