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An audience of (n)one: Recitals during a pandemic

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Her hands glide over the familiar black and white keys; she now subconsciously knows which ones to apply more pressure to and which to lightly tap, which ones to speed through and which ones to slowly pull back from. Her ears have heard this classic multiple times before, both played with flawless melody and with unbearably numerous mistakes. Her body gently rocks to the rhythm, falling forward as the intensity increases and elegantly pulling back as the melody slows and quiets, as though the song were being pulled from her own body. She finishes with a small smile on her face, letting the last note ring a little over its full value before inconspicuously removing her right foot from the shining golden pedal. She turns to her right, where an iPad sits on a music stand, providing a full view of her piano to her audience, packed into little individual squares across the screen. And while she is delighted to receive the cheers of her fellow performers and her teacher, she can’t help but wonder…That was it? That was the recital?

My online piano lessons started in April, not even a week into California’s statewide lockdown due to COVID-19. My teacher was surprisingly comfortable with online teaching already: in fact, she would ask me to Skype her once a week for a lesson while I was on vacation in the past to make sure I wouldn’t fall behind. However, I never followed through, because while a guitarist carrying a guitar to a terminal at the airport is completely normal, a pianist carrying a piano through security seems preposterous. 

My Zoom lessons began quite shakily. It took me a few lessons to figure out how certain features such as setting up meetings worked, I experienced Zoom fatigue and of course, my internet connection was unstable for the majority of my lessons.  

There’s also no better place for random sounds than an occupied household, creating the largest problem with online lessons: focusing solely on piano has been extremely challenging. I was used to the sounds at my teacher’s house: the light murmur from the television that was always playing in her living room, or the opening and closing of the garage door as her husband returned home from walking their dog. I wasn’t used to my parents’ voices or footfalls as they walked past me during my lessons, nor was I expecting my dog to stick his nose into my iPad to see who I was talking to. 

Taking lessons virtually has required me to develop a different set of skills. It demands more independence, as I must now teach myself most of the music theory, as well as an awareness of my own areas for improvement in my performances. For example, my teacher can typically demonstrate a hand technique on the piano as she is sitting next to me. Through Zoom, however, it is difficult to understand exactly what she is trying to show me, leaving it up to me to notice what I need to improve on and how to go about practicing it. She has also granted me additional control over my own pacing, leaving even more of the progress of music theory and my songs in my own hands. 

The way in which I practice has also been affected. Summers tend to be the time of the year where I progress the most in my music because of the additional time and energy I can invest into it. This has been further amplified now that I stay home all day. Yet, I am not the only one who is home. It was  difficult to find a time to practice that didn’t disturb others’ meetings and work, so I found a solution: I now practice upstairs on our keyboard with a pair of headphones. It is quite different from the actual piano, but it allows me to make the most of my extra time. 

While both my lessons and practicing have been significantly modified in adjustment to the lockdown, my recitals have faced the most drastic of alterations. Last Sunday, I played in my first virtual recital. There was almost nothing about this recital that resembled any other recital I had performed at before. For starters, I didn’t have to practice proper performance etiquette, so much so that I was allowed to perform in jeans. Upon entering the Zoom meeting, we had a casual conversation about how we were doing while my teacher humorously commented on what she could see in the backgrounds of our homes. As if this wasn’t weird enough, my teacher then told us to mute ourselves and practice until everybody arrived. 

While I was sitting there practicing, I wondered how many embarrassing performances this kind of opportunity could have saved me from in the past. Once we were all situated, my teacher then gave us the absurd option to decide what order we wanted to go in, with people raising their hands when they were willing to perform. This contrasted the rigid, orderly system of normal recitals, where the order of performances is set long beforehand and is only tampered with in the case of an emergency. 

I was alarmed by how much less nervous I was feeling. I still did have some performance butterflies, but the flutter was significantly less intense than when performing on a stage with people physically in the audience. I didn’t have to deal with performing on an unfamiliar piano, or the anxious drive to the unknown, intimidating setting, or the blinding lights and the nose-tickling smell of an immaculate stage, or the blank stares of the crowd as they methodically clapped their hands together. In fact, I couldn’t even see my audience, all packed into little squares on Zoom. The nerves were similar to that of someone who is recording themselves playing a piece. This made it much easier to relax into the performance and to forget that there was an audience altogether. 

However, amidst this unusual tranquility, a novel form of stress arose. As my fingers glided across the alternating black and white keys, there was a little voice in the back of my head asking me,  “What if the call cuts out?” and “What if my teacher is waving at me to tell me I have been muted this whole time and I have to replay my whole piece?” Yes, I was more worried about the functioning of the call than my making a mistake. This made it difficult, almost painful, to keep playing without turning back to check the status of the call. 

But I forced myself to ignore it and just continue to the end of my piece. I was relieved to turn to the audience clapping and my teacher smiling. Within the next hour, we all politely thanked my teacher for hosting and signed off of our devices. I neatly stacked my papers and carried my iPad up the stairs. The strangest recital of my life was over.

Contact Sania Choudhary at choudharysania123 ‘at’ gmail.com.

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Sania Choudhary is a high schooler writing as part of The Daily's Summer Journalism Workshop.