REPORT | Variants & Variations: Returning To Music In A Post-Mandate World

By Robin Roger on July 25, 2022

Image by Christoph Mschrd (CC0C/Pixabay)
Image by Christoph Mschrd (CC0C/Pixabay)

Ask any two amateur musicians what their risk/benefit analysis of returning to musical activities versus the risk of getting COVID, and you will get two different answers. It’s not only that each person differs in terms of age, health status, vaccination history, or medical sophistication. It’s that there’s no coherent public policy, just a variety of options, which means there’s no shared reality. In musical terms, it’s as if we’re all improvising off different scores. Dissonance is bound to result.

But, dissonance also enhances music, and it’s clear that amateur musicians have resolved to accept it. As I’ve eased myself back into the musical landscape, I’ve found plenty of company wherever I went. Thwarted musical amateurs were poised to resume their activities as soon as the protocols were relaxed. The Toronto Summer Music Festival Community Academy, for example, had the largest number of applicants for the chamber music section ever this year, and after a pause of two years, the advanced pianists and vocalists are plentiful enough to run both those programs as well.

The question isn’t whether people are ready and willing for musical activities, but how they are feeling while pursuing them. It’s not as if the former world has resumed after a long pause. We’re living in a different world, conditioned by COVID’s fluctuating variants, and we’ve all been changed by the last two years. Whatever musical activity we select, we do with the awareness that the risk of COVID comes with it. And, each musical space we enter is modified by COVID precautions, or the reminders of them, such as hand sanitizer dispensers, or obsolete social distancing markers and traffic flow arrows or out of date signs stating that masks are obligatory. Internally, we each have memories of the musical experiences we had before the pandemic, which are activated when we return to the venues we frequented before COVID.

In May, when I attended an all-Beethoven concert that had been delayed since his sestercentennial in 2020, it was delightful to hear live chamber music. But, a lot of my attention went to looking at masked faces of audience members who I had seen unmasked two years before. At intermission, I was mildly inhibited about greeting an old acquaintance because I wasn’t certain she could hear me clearly enough through my mask, and worried I might make her uncomfortable by coming closer to her to make myself heard. A memory came to mind that I had not had throughout the lockdown, of the last event I attended at the Four Seasons just before the pandemic was declared. The auditorium had been completely packed, nobody was masked, but people had begun inhibiting the impulse to shake hands in greeting, and the nuts and nibbles had been removed from the lounge.

This slightly disorienting trace of pre-pandemic life has been present in every musical activity I’ve tried since the mandates have been relaxed.

For example, prior to the pandemic, I usually went to my piano teacher’s studio for a lesson in person. We sat side by side at the keyboard, where he occasionally adjusted my hands or posture. That wasn’t possible in May when I took a real life lesson because we have different COVID comfort zones. He is unvaccinated and doesn’t wear a mask. I am vaccinated, boosted, and willing to mask in close contact or in crowded areas. My teacher agreed to sit at a distance from the piano, but that changes his view of my hands, and eliminates such things as spontaneous keyboard demonstrations. Physically close collaboration at the keyboard is part of the pleasure of a lesson, and I missed the shoulder-to-shoulder camaraderie. Make no mistake, this is a permanent loss, because COVID is not going to be eradicated any time soon.

The human brain is a prediction machine, using our past experiences to create expectations of our forthcoming events. When our predictions are contradicted by reality, we must adjust. It may happen rapidly, but it is still an adjustment. All of us are still adjusting, and it takes psychic energy.

Variations: New Beginnings

Happily, there are new opportunities that contain no echo of the pre-pandemic world. Activities that started online during the pandemic are now becoming robustly real and embodied. One of these was the Midsummer Adult Piano Retreat, which I attended in real life this month. I wrote about the MAPR virtual retreat in July 2020, and I returned for the second online retreat in 2021. There’s also been a weekly Zoom meeting for participants to stay in touch, play for each other, and discuss pianistic challenges.

This month, when I arrived at the campus of Endicott College, I came face to face with people I’d been relating to in Zoom squares for two years. As we hadn’t been wearing masks on screen, we easily recognized each other, and didn’t have to go through a process of adjustment. We had all pre-tested before arrival, so didn’t need to remain socially distanced or wear masks (though the option was chosen by some). For the most part, it was as if COVID had never happened to any of us. Within minutes of arrival, we fell into an easy social and musical rhythm that lasted the entire retreat.

Living with a group of enthusiastic fellow-amateurs for a week reminded me that music making can rapidly create a community. Our program ranged from listening to staggering performances by elite professional musicians to playing for each other in a variety of settings, including a studio class, a duet and ensemble playing workshop, and a work-in-progress presentation evening, as well as on a digital piano in the dormitory. We also had a score-swap, putting scores we no longer used on a table and helping ourselves to ones we might tackle in the future. Several of us discovered that we had learned the same pieces from the same score back in the day. I left behind a Henle edition of Dvorak Slavonic Dances and came back with a Henle edition of Beethoven Opus 49 1 and 2.

The compositions we played for each other ranged from the conventional classical canon of Bach, Chopin, and Mozart to Dana Suesse’s jazzy American Nocturne and “Dusk”, from African Sketches by Nkeiru Okoye. There were études and tangos, and compositions for four hands, two hands and for the left hand alone. The skill level ranged from adult beginner to virtuosic. We spanned from early middle age to frail elderly, and we came from a variety of educational, ethnic, and linguistic backgrounds.

We each had three lessons with the piano faculty and were coached by a visiting guest artist. Comparing what we learned each day made the normally solitary challenge of practising a sociable one. The common enterprise of trying to master the keyboard, and our sincere support of each other’s progress, is what transformed us into a cohesive unit. In today’s increasingly polarized world, we should not lose sight of the potential of shared music to create feelings of connection.

Some of the solidarity felt at these programs comes from the participants braving the adversity of stage fright. No matter how friendly and uncompetitive the environment is, nearly everybody gets performance anxiety, which forges a bond, as if we survived being in combat together. It also promotes sincere gratitude towards those who demonstrate their work in progress for the group, so everybody can learn.

Gratitude was also my feeling for the students who played in the master class I audited at the newly launched Avenue Road Music and Performance Academy in June and July. Each week, I listened to a group of advanced pianists perform for elite concert pianist and pedagogue Michael Berkovsky, and then gleaned the gems of advice he offered each player.

I took away important ideas about memorization, practice, interpretation, technique and more. Helpful and stimulating as that was, it was even more pleasing to watch these dedicated players refine their performance as they applied Berkovsky’s suggestions. At the celebratory recital that concluded the course, each student played with greater mastery. And even though all I did was pay attention during those classes, I still felt a vicarious sense of accomplishment, as if my heartfelt moral support contributed to their success.

Because the Avenue Road Music and Performance Academy opened its doors in May, I have no pre-COVID memories of it. Being in a freshly renovated environment, housing pianos donated by generous patrons, including Gordon Lightfoot, feels like a new beginning.

Even though we do not live in a post-COVID world yet, we need to re-enter the post-lockdown world. Enjoying new musical activities, (while observing precautions that feel safe) is a healthy way of doing that.

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Robin Roger
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