When the lockdown first started, I was especially worried about staying in touch with the students in the Strings Department, maintaining morale, and keeping them connected in such a bizarre and confusing situation. My solution to this was to keep a blog, with posts initially providing advice on managing Academy-related issues and things like caring for their instruments, and generally making encouraging noises about practising and how to make the most of remote lessons.
Gradually, I added some more interactive content, such as quizzes related to music. One fun post was when I challenged our violinists to think of up to 10 pieces that they liked, which didn’t feature the violin, in one minute. As the weeks passed, I gradually swerved away from just the area connected with my job into a series of random topics that happened to float into my conscience or appear on the news, such as the NASA SpaceX rocket launch and landing.
We delved into subjects as diverse as decluttering, obsession with loo roll, what masks do to a face, and sundries like food allergies, candles, thatched roofing, map reading, harvest, memory exercises, doorways, paper, Greek mythology, shoes, musical notation, apothecaries and poems. We even celebrated traditions and festivals as we went through May Day, Passover, Easter, solstices, full moons and endless bin days.
Here are a few excerpts from the strings blog with connected pieces of music that I thought you might enjoy:
‘One day last week, Radio 3 was on when I got in the car to pop to the shops (a concept which already now seems like an old way of life), with a lovely performance already underway of Clara Schumann’s Three Romances for violin and piano Op 22. It was particularly arresting and appealing as I could hear the violinist’s natural breathing and tell that it was a female – and so it proved: Jennifer Pike with pianist Tom Poster. Thanks both – a welcome brow-soother. It made me reflect on how the human elements in recorded sound are so important and connect with absolute immediacy. Same reason I am quite partial to little hiccups and slips (even though there weren’t any here) – and rather wearied by sheeny perfection…’
This excerpt was in a blog about what happens when you change an art form – in this case, poem into song:
‘Here’s a seasonal example where I think the later version is an improvement on the old. ‘Loveliest of Trees’, which started life in 1896 as a poem by A E Housman (Alfred Edward BTW), which gives a bit of context for you about where you are in your life when you are 20ish, even in 2020.
Here is the original, read by Cecil Day Lewis, and here, for me, the utterly perfect 1911 setting by George Butterworth sung by Roderick Williams with Susie Allen:
The cherry blossoms are out now – if you can see some, it is guaranteed to lift your spirits.
And this was one about the music that I listened to every single day:
‘Although this is a time of lockdown, restricted movement and isolation, there is a live collective performance that anyone can attend and enjoy every day of the week. It happens everywhere and is it particularly audible if there are trees and open green spaces nearby. While ground and air traffic are light owing to the lack of human movement, this timeless natural sound has more of a chance of reaching us. It is free and it has infinite variety and beauty, but it does involve crawling out of bed and opening the window from about 4.30am until the sun is up.
‘If you are awake and anxious in the small hours, the dawn chorus is one of the most glorious ways to revive your spirits. No need to buy a ticket, log in, switch on or reach for the headphones, just listen, and connect to the birds and their music.’
I have loved everything I have watched on the Academy YouTube channel, not just because it is so great to see such an array of talented students from so many disciplines performing, but because I know I am one of hundreds – even thousands – of people who are watching them. Our Duke’s Hall and theatre are beautiful, but reaching these huge audiences beyond our walls must be a positive connection that will bring us all together after such a long wait. The livestreamed concerts that I find myself going back and revisiting again and again are these:
- The Academy String Orchestra performance from 30 April 2021 for its sheer vitality and energy, and the fact that these are FIRST-YEAR undergraduate string players guided by the Doric Quartet
- Clio Gould directing the Elgar Introduction and Allegro. Just lovely – especially with the quartet soloists being a second-year group of immense talent.