Reflections from isolation
Updated: Sep 4
The folk at the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM) recently invited me to write a piece for their students, reflecting on my time in lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic. It was a fun thing to write, and a cathartic experience to say the least!
Lockdown. It’s an extrovert’s nightmare! Especially as a musician, and one who thrives on the sharing of musical ideas, the delight of audience interaction, and the uniqueness of the concert environment. There’s really nothing like that shared live-concert high! But without all of those motivating joys, for me, making music has become, well, dull.
It was confronting to realise that I’ve become so helplessly dependent on others to enjoy making music. When you start studying and learning an instrument, a lot of the joy comes from making music yourself, and discovering the scope of your own creative potential when left to your own devices. So it’s possible that I can enjoy making music by myself – my own personal memory tells me so! But I’ve evolved to be guided by making music with others. This is going to be a tricky thing to shake. I wish it could be as simple as transporting back to my 12 year old self, fumbling around the clarinet and finding great joy not squeaking my way through Good King Wenceslas.
The thought of having a vast expanse of time available to conquer any musical mountain I so desire, has presented itself as a doubled-edged sword. In times of stress, specifically when I find myself being time poor, I’m often comforted by this idea from Leonard Bernstein:
“To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time.”
These words could never be so true. And it’s strangely proven, at least in my life, ironically. With an abundance of time on my hands, I’d hoped for great things. The smell of productivity was in the air; I could practice 8 hours a day, learn all that music that I so longed to play. I finally had the chance to do this! However, in reality I’ve found myself with no plan, more time than I could possibly imagine, and I’ve achieved absolutely nothing great. Lenny’s words, so reassuring during the stress of “normal” life, have come back to bite me during the stress of lockdown.
It’s not to say I haven’t been productive, I’m actually really proud of the things I have achieved in this time. My technique has improved leaps and bounds on Mariokart, especially after all the time I’ve been investing lately – clocked up 5 hours straight just the other day! I’ve finally had the chance to master my gluten free pasta recipe. My product now resembles that silky, oft-desired texture, as opposed to my previous quasi-excremental attempts. And I’ve been conquering many mountains, literally, ticking off many that I’ve wanted to climb for so long up here in Queensland. So there’s a slight silver lining. But finding the desire to willingly launch into playing the clarinet? That feels like pushing my dung-textured pasta attempts up a hill.
I have found great inspiration lately in others’ imaginative endeavors to create art. My old teacher, now very successful composer (and previous Dean of ANAM!) Paul Dean – that’s right, he was Dean Paul Dean, or better yet, Dean Dean - has been pushing himself to compose more. In his monumental efforts, he’s been writing a clarinet etude each evening and a duet for his closest musical partners, to which I’ve been the daily beneficiary on several occasions. It’s fascinating to see brand new music arrive fresh in your inbox. Often I’ll find myself dragging my morning coffee and half-eaten raisin toast in to my practice studio, slapping whatever poor excuse for I reed I can find onto the instrument, and hacking away fastidiously at his newly birthed gift. By the time I feel I’m getting somewhere on each new piece, the next one arrives. And I’m off again… like a red rag to a bull.
I’m only a recent convert to the wondrous world of podcasts. One I’ve found particularly stimulating is The Bulletproof Musician, a series providing eye-opening insights into performance psychology for musicians, hosted by prominent Don Greene protégé, Noa Kageyama. There was one episode that broke down the process of memorising music, and how the brain digests, stores and recites new information. The workings of the human brain are truly astounding, and I found myself wanting to implement my newfound knowledge in my practice room. I set myself the challenge of memorising a different etude every fortnight. For someone who practices so inefficiently, forcing myself to practice in a different way has resulted in many epiphanies. And each new considered thought results in a spark to try something different, and more time playing the instrument that I love.
I’ve found some mojo again, and I’ve been lucky in that, for whatever reason, the motivation has been able find me. But that’s not to say it’s been an easy process, and it only happened once I gave myself permission to be content with the situation we’ve found ourselves in. It was only by pure luck I discovered that by setting goals - like trying to learn these new etudes from my teacher, and challenging myself to memorise more music - really helped me leverage that newly found motivation. If I reflect on my time as a 12 year old learning the clarinet, setting goals and seeing progress in my achievements was one of the significant factors propelling my own enjoyment in playing the instrument. Seeing myself master those one-line nursery rhymes before moving onto, wait for it, two-line nursery rhymes(!) was totally kick-ass for me back then. Just as mastering a new etude each week has been valuable for me now.
I’m sure that by now it’s clear to you that I have no actual idea how to best negotiate the current situation that we find ourselves in. I don’t think anyone really does. We are all winging it to a certain degree. There will be ups and downs, but for me it has been really helpful to strive for balance within my life. The Japanese have a term in their culture called Ikigai, which as I understand, translates roughly to reason for being. Now on the surface, that sounds like a pretty deep concept. But it’s mainly about finding joy, fulfilment and balance in the daily routine of life, and understanding that not one part of your life is more important than the other; everything is connected. Gift yourself that time to be a vegetable on the couch, have a video call catch up with the friends and family you haven’t spoken to in ages, invest time in learning to cook that new dish you’ve always wanted to cook. I’ve found that if you allow yourself to be comfortable with all those other parts of your life, the music will come, and it will manifest itself even more joyously than before.
- Lloyd Van't Hoff