Life as a musician during lockdown


As Melbourne joins us Sydneysiders in lockdown, my sense of déjà vu is strong. In a way, it feels like the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March of last year, where each state locked down in a devastating domino chain. And yet, in another way, it feels very different this time. In a testament to mankind’s ability to adapt, this is beginning to feel like normal.

This time around, we are prepared. We musicians have our Zoom teaching protocols in place, we can brace ourselves for performance cancellations, and we know the importance of connecting and supporting each other as best we can.

My frustration is also stronger this time: it feels like this lockdown and all the devastation it has caused the performing arts community could have been avoided with measures like a more rigorous vaccination program. 

I am lucky enough to have kept all my paid employment, but the same cannot be said for everyone. Once again, I am watching my friends and colleagues lose work with no indication of when it will return. I breathe a palpable sigh of relief with each one as they are approved for government disaster payments. 

What has affected me the most is the cancellation of gigs and passion projects. This year felt as though the arts community was bouncing back stronger than ever. Apart from just playing paid gigs for work, people were creating again: new music was being written, EPs were being released, and it seemed that our art would survive this challenge. I am still optimistic for the future. But also, with a particularly exciting July and August in my diary now slowly being whittled away, I have lost some of the driving force that inspired me to practice each day.

I braced myself for the mental health challenges that would come with the next few weeks

As Sydney first began to lock down, I braced myself for the mental health challenges that would come with the next few weeks. I made sure I had a reason to get up in the morning, fun hobbies to work on, as well as plenty of time to simply exist through this period. Something that has really kept me afloat is talking about my goals with friends. Rather than lofty aspirations for 10 or 20 years’ time, however, the goals I make are set to a maximum timeframe of one day. Right now, we really can’t see any further ahead than 24 hours.

I usually make between three and five goals, and they aren’t momentous. One recent day consisted of three tasks: meal preparation for the upcoming week, finishing hemming my curtains, and practising some bow distribution studies. Another day had me sweeping the courtyard, doing a yoga session, and practising the double stops in some Mozart cadenzas. I use my friends as accountability buddies, and I genuinely look forward to reporting back on my progress and hearing about theirs. There is not punishment or retribution if the goals had to be adapted or neglected – simply acknowledging what worked that day and what didn’t is also a really helpful exercise. I hope to carry some of this practice into post-lockdown life, as I’ve found it extremely satisfying.

We are learning to reach out, connect, and care for ourselves

If something good can come from this, it may be that as both a performing arts community and as a nation, we are learning that preventative measures are often the best cure for mental ill-health. Just as we exercise and eat well to prevent physical health problems, we are learning to reach out, connect, and care for ourselves to prevent mental health problems.

Another thing I try to do is pick up my violin every day. And it’s literally just that – picking it up. Very often this results in playing, which then results in practising. But not always: I try to acknowledge that these are difficult times we are living in, and to burden yourself with the expectation of intense productivity can actually be extremely counterproductive.

After one particularly long workday, I simply played a scale and an Irish jig for six minutes and then packed my fiddle back up. I know that the orchestra performances, the gigs, and the auditions will be back, and I want to be ready when they do. But some days, I just need a little reminder as to why I keep playing this expensive wooden box.

(And the answer is always the same, no matter how many minutes or hours I play that day: I love it.)

There have been some unexpected benefits, too. As a writer, I naturally love reading but these days I do so little of it (at least compared to the vast quantities of books I used to plough through when I was younger). This lockdown, I have read and enjoyed three books (Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton, Volume 2 of Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust, and I also re-read Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray). Finding unexpected benefits to be grateful for can be helpful (although gratitude only goes so far: I also highly recommend lying on the floor and screaming into the void).

Whatever it is that helps you get you through the next little while, do it.

If goal setting or accountability buddies help, go for it. If the burden of expectation stresses you out, avoid it. If keeping up to date with all things COVID via the 11am conference helps you feel informed and in control, then do it. If it causes you pre-11am anxiety, then don’t watch it, and instead ask a friend for any crucial updates.

I think the best we can do in a trying time like this is to be gentle with ourselves, and patiently wait for the tide to turn.

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