As COVID-19 fluctuations toss amateur musicians back and forth between hope and fear, and even from euphoria to dysphoria, it’s impossible to arrive at a consistent musical modus operandi. While the Government of Ontario may be moving us forward on its Roadmap to Reopening, we live our lives as individuals, adapting to our personal situation, including our social circle, which can include a spectrum of people in varying states of mental and physical health.
For me, that means shuttling back and forth between virtual and physical reality, judging what feels fulfilling and safe, while being aware that whatever works now, may soon cease to exist. This is more complicated than it may seem because each condition — embodied or a virtual — requires an adjustment. Cumulatively, this has an impact.
In a period of two weeks, I attended a virtual piano retreat with participants from as far away as New Zealand, hosted four local pianists in my home to play for each other, and took my first in-person piano lesson in 15 months. This medley of virtual and physical activities ranged from delightful to fraught, leaving me with less clarity, not more, about what to do going forward.
Of course, it’s a pleasure to be with friends and acquaintances in person again, especially in my home. A house without guests is like a library without books — more like a movie set than a genuine home. Friendships deepen when people meet in each other’s personal environments, and the memories that are made when people visit enriches the experience of living there when they depart. At the time of the piano gathering, the public health regulations decreed a maximum of five people indoors, which was a comfortable number for me to accommodate. Even so, while it wasn’t a great effort to facilitate, it didn’t feel exactly like it did when the piano group came here prior to COVID. Before inviting the participants, we had to ascertain each person’s COVID practices, vaccination status, and general COVID comfort zone to assemble a copacetic group. Providing spacious seating and replacing the communal cheese platter with individualized portions to reduce clustering around the refreshments required reviewing my furniture, my provisions, and my tableware. It was all trivial compared with the deep satisfaction of being reunited with friends and hearing Haydn, Chopin, Schubert, and Mendelssohn coming from an instrument a few feet away. And, in some ways, the COVID constraints resulted in a better experience because the smaller group allowed people to speak more audibly and openly, and at least for me, was a less intimidating number of people to play for. But as the numbers open up, I don’t know if I would be able to manage this again, especially if vaccine status doesn’t have to be disclosed.
For better or worse, society functions by being grounded in widely accepted procedures, that are nearly universally shared. When I approach a red light, I don’t have to wonder if the other vehicles and pedestrians will stop at it. But where COVID is concerned, there’s no consensus on behaviour even if there are public health regulations. I have yet to go into any public place where everyone is observing the posted guidelines. And, without prior vetting, I can’t be sure how anybody will behave in my personal space. It’s hardly gracious to interrogate guests about their conduct prior to arrival. Even when people are in the same general camp so far as precautions are concerned, there are still idiosyncratic variations. This person arrives wearing a mask, that person has returned to the peck on the cheek greeting, and the next gives an unexpected hug on departure. There’s no new normal.
I knew going in that my piano teacher and I were not in sync vaccination-wise, as I am fully vaccinated, and he is unvaccinated. After 15 months of virtual lessons, I felt that a summer lesson while the cases are low, with the patio doors open, was feasible. We agreed that I would remain on the bench, and he would station himself on his couch on the other side of the room instead of beside me. But, soon enough, he wanted to demonstrate something at the keyboard, and he was by my side. I found myself trying to pay attention while wondering whether I should tell him to move back to his couch, and what that would do to the mood of the lesson. I decided that I would be the one to move away from the piano when he approached, so I bobbed up and down and shuffled backward and forward, wearing my mask. The deep focus that makes piano lessons so rewarding, which doesn’t happen in a virtual lesson, wasn’t possible with all this manoeuvring.
Even so, I felt how long overdue this lesson was in terms of addressing some technique shortcomings that couldn’t be corrected over Zoom. At one point, working on some rhythmic challenges in Mozart’s Sonata No. 12 in F major (K332), my teacher held the metronome right to my ear, and played a note on the keyboard on the beat, so it was robustly audible and facilitated my ability to really hear and play at the same time. There’s no question that this was more effective than virtual instruction. In truth, it makes the prospect of going back to Zoom lessons dispiriting. But so does the prospect of safely managing transit to my lesson and back, wearing a mask for several hours, monitoring physical distance and ventilation. The truth is, I want it both ways. When I’m considering a Zoom lesson, I want the vibrancy and immediacy of an in-person lesson. And when I’m considering an in-person lesson, I want the peace of mind offered by a safely distant Zoom lesson.
Most of all, I’d rather not toggle back and forth between virtual and physical reality. It’s like eating a healthy diet one week and junk food the next. But, hoping for clarity and stable conditions is probably unrealistic. Flexibility and versatility are called for now and may remain necessary for the long haul (pun intended). To put this in musical terms, it’s time to learn to improvise.
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