Jocelyn Freeman on musical life under lockdown

The Isolated Pianist

Or, facing my worst enemy….

16th March 2020 – my 34th birthday. I remember anticipating the coming weeks as I prepared for my first Die Schöne Müllerin, and started a choir on Carmina Burana – ‘Sors immunise et inanis, rota tu volubilis…’ – combined with a gentle ostinato voice in the back of my mind, asking, ‘is this about to blow up?’

The relatively recent redefinition of Lied pianists and chamber musicians as ‘collaborative pianists’ was refreshing. As a piano soloist in my undergraduate years at the Royal Academy of Music, I shied away from a future career as an ‘accompanist’, yet was constantly drawn to song and chamber music. The musical and verbal discourse provided endless stimulation and I am the first to admit impatience with practising alone for six hours a day. Whilst I perform major concertos by Mozart, Beethoven, Grieg, Liszt and Rachmaninov, I view these as collaborations. I am a ‘mostly-collaborative pianist’.

With this in mind, the biggest blow of Covid-19 has been that I haven’t reacted to another musician in real time for 100 days, and counting. Now I value, more than ever, the wonder of those split-second calculations, the subconscious force of a creative partnership and the subtlety which with colours and nuances grace our ears. How have we collaborators survived? My inner dramatist would like to add that it is miracle we are still here, but, in all seriousness, where has all that creative energy gone?

My story is not unique, but I have the privilege to tell it. Artists are grieving. Yet, at the same time, many of us are fighting. We have to fight. We are fighting for our futures. Fighting for the survival of our Art, our music industry, for the bread on the tables of our colleagues and in the mouths of their children. We are searching for a way forward that is hidden and yet we have to believe is there – hidden in the rubble of a viral disaster. This is the story of my journey into the ‘coronaruins’.

Like many musicians, I didn’t want to play my instrument when the first cancellations came in, so I turned to people. On speaking to several high-flying friends, I realised that we are were in the same boat, and that we needed each other more than ever. With that in mind, I invited several of my dear musical contacts to meet weekly in a supportive hub where we could explore the impact of the epidemic and imagine a better future together: The Hope Collective. This has become my lifeline, and I look forward to seeing them every week as we meet on Zoom from across the globe. With these creative thinkers I have been able to explore so many interesting topics collaboratively, from business models for concerts with reduced-capacity audiences, to audience cultivation (I am an avid gardener, and this topic is important now more than ever), the social implications of musical outreach during the pandemic, the philosophy of our Art and the creative cultures of our respective nations. Hearteningly, a member from Greece has already gone back to work full-time, Συγχαρητήρια!

Secondly, I realised how important it was to have a personal sense of musical direction throughout this chaos. Being struck by the initial wave of free content online in the first weeks of lockdown – and also by questions being raised around the industry, eloquently put into words by my dear friend, Paul Carey Jones – I decided to create a Patreon account and present Liszt’s Müllerlieder: paraphrases of six songs from Die Schöne Müllerin. This was also a way to honour my most recent postponed performance. My musical output has had to inhabit a form of minimalism with my little boy home full time, but this project is providing real enjoyment, with memorisation goals and a more stable routine than I have had since studenthood taking the form of an adrenaline detox! Amusingly, my first few attempts at ‘producing’ these short pieces had me nearly climbing the walls, as I was faced head-on by my worst enemy: my inner critic, but perseverance has now lead me to appreciate the ground covered. I feel I am making good progress through these characterful pieces, being lead by the artistic image (to reference Heinrich Neuhaus in his book, The Art of Piano Playing), and ‘investing’ in my Art.

Inevitably, I have tried music-making over the internet. I was hugely grateful for the enthusiasm of my choir at BNP Paribas Real Estate to hold a Zoom choir, and I have also released three lockdown Lieder performances in an E-song-series called, ‘Musical Greetings’, with Fleur Barron, Stephan Loges and Nazan Fikret. It has been a steep technological learning curve, including crash-landing into the realm of basic video-editing skills (thanks to Google), and I still feel that my talents are better transmitted live or with a qualified sound engineer at the helm! However, this has, at least, been a way to connect musically with others. In order to make the ‘lockdown Lieder’ as musically beneficial as possible, I decided to commit them to memory. I have always wanted to perform duos without the score, but never had the time to ensure they were safely memorised.

Perhaps my proudest moment of this lockdown to date has been taking a leap of faith and launching the next recital in my song series, The Wanderlust Series, online, instead of the live performance with audience I had planned pre-coronavirus. I hope this small step might encourage some resumption of our industry, with the stunning performance of Beethoven and Schumann from Mark Padmore and Julius Drake, recorded live from lockdown at Blackheath Halls. There have also been small, humbling and hugely appreciated inroads into the Arts ‘happening’ again, with small commissions from friends and colleagues who are taking initiatives to create opportunities. I feel privileged to have been able to plan some recording projects too, which I hope to complete in the coming year.

On a personal level, this period of isolation has been a fruitful and valued time to press reset, to spend time with my young family and have a gentle, home-focussed routine again. The resumption of live art is going to be a challenge, but I have always believed that where there’s a will, there’s a way. We can build a better future, together.