How has the Covid-19 crisis affected your working life?
Six months of recital and concerto work disappeared overnight. I rang musician friends immediately to see how they were doing; we were all shocked, but thought this might be temporary. A freelance concert leader was so relaxed he was playing ping pong in the garden and watching movies late into the night. By May it’d sunk in this wasn’t a temporary situation: this was reality, and it wasn’t going away. And music wasn’t at the top of the government’s agenda.
I’d just taken over a symphony orchestra as Music Director, and our exciting new season was going to be announced in late March to a full concert hall, with a big party afterwards. Well, none of that! (Not for nothing does Zadie Smith call this ‘The Great Humbling.’) By May the trustees had postponed the season; I started creating online events for them, planning chamber music instead.
By pure chance I’d just upgraded my iPhone and MacBook – I usually wait until they blow up - and started living online. There were supportive messages to send to piano students and professors, online meetings, and a lot of online teaching. Unluckier students were trapped in London, unable to get home, so we Zoomed regularly to chat about music, books, opera, film – anything that would inspire them while they were locked down.
Have you managed to remain productive and creative during this time, and if so, what are you working on?
I’ve immersed myself in Beethoven sonatas. I had three complete cycles planned for the autumn: only one has survived, this October. Beethoven’s been a comforting companion – whip-smart, optimistic, loving, tough, innovative, spiritual. I read a lot. I was a Booker Prize judge last year and vowed a year off from novels… but it seemed a good time to tackle 900 pages of Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light. My husband and I watched an episode of Heimat every night; utterly haunting, brilliant, and strange. I encouraged my students to banish caution and think big. Why learn two movements of Vingt Regards by Messiaen, when you had time to learn twenty? The same with Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes. I know at least four students who learnt the Goldberg Variations, and three who learnt the whole Well-Tempered Clavier. Inevitably we were all drawn into worlds that could be our refuge, our North Star.
I thought a lot about what was necessary, and what wasn’t. Covid-19 exposes everything. Musicians were already questioning what was sustainable and equitable; it was a chance to re-set and recalibrate. I bought recording and video equipment, and actually learnt how to use it. I updated my website, and my assumptions. I threw stuff out. We tended the garden and swam in the sea – but set in motion moving somewhere with a barn for a recording/performing, rather than just dreaming about it.
There was real tragedy too; a close friend who was unable to have ‘normal’ care died last week. Some of my students were scared and needed reassurance and kindness. I felt pretty raw, a lot of the time.
What have been the challenges in delivering your teaching online?
It’s twice as tiring as being in the room – for all the usual, maddening reasons – but I got to see students in a new light. We saw each other’s environments, with pets and postmen interrupting our lessons. They were completely dedicated. I’m full of admiration for them!
Our virtual open days are taking place in September. What are the challenges and opportunities for anyone thinking of applying to a conservatoire at this time?
I’m expecting pianists to arrive from as far away as New Zealand, Indonesia and Bolivia in a couple of weeks; everybody’s having visa/quarantine problems, but they get solved. I’m giving a webinar about studying in the Piano Department on 18 September, and I’ll be able to answer questions about the courses, and what to expect at the Academy. There’ll be video auditions as well as ‘live’ auditions later this year; we’ll make it as accessible as we can. Even under these extraordinary circumstances, we’ll have a very full programme of teaching and performing opportunities. We’re not going online…
What is your advice for this year’s graduating students?
Keep calm, and know that concerts, festivals, competitions and awards have been postponed rather than cancelled; there are still audiences waiting to hear you play. I concentrate on nurturing the whole musician, and developing the resilience, creativity, knowledge and activism that are vital to being an artist. Now is the time to flex those muscles.
Do you think there will be lasting change in the music world? If so, what kind of change do you foresee?
I gave two livestreamed recitals recently, from empty halls – an alarming blend of a Radio 3 broadcast and Channel 4 news – but I really enjoyed them. Old formulas will have to be rethought; frankly, it’s time. Smaller venues will be agile and imaginative, and they’ll be asking performers to play live, to play online, and – above all – to communicate. Some audiences will stay at home and some won’t. Some venues will go bankrupt, but many will survive. Artists will take even more responsibility to run festivals and venues, create ensembles and commission music, and support each other’s careers. It’s scary, but exciting.