Losing your instrument, finding your voice: Discovering the lessons of lockdown adversity.
‘If I cannot fly, let me sing’ — Stephen Sondheim, Sweeney Todd.
Recently, it has been easy to feel like the character of Johanna from Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd who wonders how and why caged birds sing. At a time when the familiar world around us seems to have fallen away due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is worth asking ourselves a similar question. What can music bring to us at a time when public music making is off the cards? This question had been on my mind recently as I have not been able to perform or practise vocally for the past five months.
In recent weeks I have taken the first steps back into an active musical life after what seems like a long hiatus; a move I am celebrating by creating online content, starting this blog, and launching jordanhardingpointon.co.uk. At the beginning of the year, awaiting a medical operation (not on my vocal mechanics themselves I am thankful to say), I realised that I would have to postpone most aspects of my musical life until I had recovered. The change of pace was alarming. Towards the end of 2019 I had been rehearsing for a stage role, learning a contemporary piece to be performed with other RNCM soloists at the Wigmore Hall, auditioning, teaching and attending college classes on everything from Schumann to swordplay. Come January, everything stopped. The rehearsals, the obscure vocal exercises, the translations and transliterations, the ‘toi tois’, the musical debates, the frustrations and successes, all dwindled into the distance. The repeating pattern of my life was gone and the days stretched out into monotony. It was an experience that, at the time, felt like a very unorthodox isolation. I could not have imagined that just a couple of months later I would share it with every musician and artist I know.
Music is something we experience socially. The way we make music is collaborative. We play and sing together and share our work with audiences. Music is experienced in rehearsals, gigs, concerts, and recitals in which we find motivation and inspiration as a community. Music can also form a huge part of a person’s identity. It can be a paradigm to understand the world around us as well as ourselves. As much as it is social, music is deeply personal. This is especially true for professional musicians, for whom all these things are tied up with the humbler concerns of subsistence. Even more personal, then, when that instrument is your own body.
Having to cut the ritual of music out of my life, therefore, felt like a big deal. So much of myself is wrapped up in the world of music and in the voice that I strive to communicate with. In an attempt to learn from experience, I have begun to wonder what this challenge, which affects us all in some way at present, can teach us about the value of music.
Losing singing, for a while, reminded me that neither voices nor careers are indestructible. Taking the time to figure out how to keep both healthy is paramount. Perhaps even more import, though, is this. How much of your identity are you putting into your instrument? What does that identity look like? Is that really all you are? Sometimes, like now, life intercedes between us and our goals. Sometimes, like now, we can’t be on stage or in the rehearsal room. If we live or die by our performances alone we set ourselves up for an extremely stressful mode of life. A remarkably bad thing in the current situation if, like me, your performance practices involve singing at volumes that would compete with a revving boy-racer at a traffic light. It may sound pleasant in the recital hall but, as I have discovered, was not designed for bedroom recording (the voice that is not the engine, I’d hate to give contemporary composers ideas).
This could lead us to a problem though. Music is central to a musician’s life, it is bread for the body and bread for the soul. It would be wrong to reject it because of adverse circumstances. In fact, I see it in quite another way. Music is so much more than your instrument, and your instrument can be so much more than the narrow templates we sometimes set for ourselves. Not all music works from a bedroom studio, but some really does!
As a musician you are built to be adaptable. You’re a problem solver, and your passion lets you open doors into creative possibilities. You learn to develop skills, some of which you may not even realise you have. Figure out what they are and explore them. Time’s sands may shift beneath you, transmuting the landscape into a bewildering unknown, but you were a born explorer. So, explore! Don’t be hemmed in by perimeters that you impose upon yourself, especially when they can’t be fulfilled. Sometimes, you may lose your instrument or events may interpose, but you needn’t lose your voice (and I should know). So, create. Perhaps in ways you didn’t know you could. Explore new music. Find sounds that speak to the situation. Find creative skills that you can share with your community. Find the things that comfort your creative instinct. For me, without my voice that is writing, cooking, and even drawing (I love visual art but have very little skill). With my voice, it is returning to music that I love, that speaks with directness and does not necessitate an orchestra or a recital hall. It isn’t losing focus to do this, to curb the obsession with instrument and the prescribed template of our careers. In fact, it lets us focus on the creative parts of music making that really matter and can help to release us from the bondage of perfectionism. In short, it is a mindset that makes us freer.
In these unprecedented times, we need to find means of expression more than ever. When our communities operate at a distance, it is all the more necessary that we feel their presence. Now is also a great time to think about what your creative voice means to you and why sharing art and song is valuable. Now is a great time to ask all these questions. To ask why caged birds sing. For community and communication. For expression. For freedom. Probably not in the hope of a role in the next big contemporary premiere at Covent Garden, even if it does boast a suped-up Ford Fiesta in the pIt.