How has the Covid-19 crisis affected your working life?
From the beginning of the year, the coronavirus was gradually taking up more and more bandwidth on the news: the word epidemic somehow morphed seamlessly into pandemic. Musicians’ work in China was cancelled first, but nothing quite prepared any of us for the sudden shift that transformed all our lives in March. I was due to fly to Russia for two weeks in mid-March, but just before, I reluctantly wrote to the festival organisers to tell them I had decided not to travel (which seemed cautious at the time, but wise). Then the situation really escalated. First the UK Government advised against all travel to Russia, and by the end of the month the UK was in total lockdown. Everything happened so fast and changed so quickly.
I travel a lot for work and, like many of us, my travel schedule for 2020 evaporated in a matter of days – and with it, a sizeable portion of my income. After the initial panic subsided, I began to see the huge potential of many months at home with whole swathes of uncommitted time. Like many musicians, I am guilty of over-committing to projects. It’s as if many of us have an inbuilt inability to manage our workloads in a sensible way. Maybe it comes from our early days as freelancers, when any offer of work was not only money and possibly pleasure, but also an affirmation that our contribution was needed and appreciated.
As world events have unfolded during lockdown and stories of suffering and loss have dominated the headlines, the full extent of my luck and privilege have come into sharp relief. Lockdown paradox #1 – being in lockdown has broadened my horizons.
Are there challenges in delivering your teaching online? Have there been any pleasant or unpleasant surprises?
Moving lessons online has been a vital connection to my guitar students at the Academy and my PhD composition students at the University of Surrey and elsewhere. Online teaching has been surprisingly productive for almost everything (chamber music notwithstanding). It seems students are prepared to take more risks in the safety of their own homes than they might do away from that safe space. On the whole, I have found that my students have made more progress during lockdown than during normal times. This is in part due to a lack of distractions, but much to my surprise, the format of online lessons does have some advantages over face-to-face teaching.
Are you managing to remain productive and creative during this time, and if so, what are you working on?
My guilty confession is that I have really enjoyed lockdown so far: lots of family time, time to talk with friends on Zoom and social media, catching up with former students, doing a lot more exercise (although failing to lose weight) and having some space for blue-sky thinking. I’m sure many people reading this will share the pattern of my ‘normal’ working life – rushing headlong from project to project, barely pausing for breath, riding the wave: trying to make inroads into an impossibly long ‘to do’ list between deadlines and trips. This has led to me leaving a backlog in my wake; concerto piano reductions never completed, scores never fully edited ready for publication, pet projects being shelved and so on. If, by the end of lockdown, I have cleared this backlog, it will feel as significant as that moment when I finally paid off my student overdraft. Tabula rasa.
Creativity, for me, is much more about having ideas than notating them. Being productive creatively is not the same as finishing work and meeting deadlines. In many ways, as soon as you start committing ideas to paper, those ideas get calcified and made to conform to an order you have imposed on them. Making art traps your thinking in a frame. Writing music down is like writing up a scientific experiment – much of the magic disappears in a puff of smoke. During lockdown I have time to experiment and be creative without the usual pressure of an imminent deadline. Consequently, I can sense that my music is growing and developing. Lockdown paradox #2 – not having to meet deadlines makes me more creative.
Can you take any positives from this enforced period of isolation and cessation? If so, what are they?
An eternal optimist, I think this pandemic will change many things for the better in the medium to long term. Battling racism has joined fighting gender inequality and slowing climate change at the top of the new agendas. Perhaps we’ll even be able to separate ‘value’ from ‘price’ as wellbeing begins to compete with wealth as a measure of personal fulfilment. New Zealand has taken the lead prioritising wellbeing over GDP with the introduction of a wellbeing target. As Bob Marley once said, ‘some people are so poor, all they have is money.’
Do you think there will be lasting change in the music world? If so, what kind of change do you foresee?
Music is at the centre of wellbeing, not as an elixir, a curer of ills, but as a source of cultural enrichment – even a raison d'être. I am confident the music profession will thrive and grow in the new post-Covid world ahead of us. I have been deeply moved by the musical activity that is continuing during lockdown – #RAMplaysON, the Benedetti Foundation’s virtual sessions, opera and ballet streamed from the Royal Opera House, Wigmore Hall livestreams, and the countless home concerts from musicians around the world. But these activities have reminded us all of how special it is to share a live performance, either as part of the audience or on stage communicating directly with people. Live music is a precious commodity that we had all come to take for granted. Its temporary absence has left a void in our lives.
If quality of life starts to matter more than quantity of cash, working patterns will evolve as many confront the workaholism of the modern way of life. If people then have more time and space for music, we’ll have to be ready to provide it.
We do live in interesting times, but it’s only a curse if we fail to grasp the opportunities for positive change that have been presented to us.