Joseph Cavalli-Price: A Musicians' Life in Pandemic
Tuesday 8th December 2020
2020 was looking like an immensely exciting and bustling year filled with wonderful trips and performances. Concerts in Hampton Court Palace, a week long tour to Japan, a trip to Ireland with the Cardiff Arms Park Male Choir and the culmination of my four year undergraduate degree at the Royal Welsh College of Music not to mention the commencement of my Masters degree at the Royal Academy of Music in London.
Slowly, one by one, engagements started to be cancelled - first the Japan tour, then the tour to Ireland...
I remember feeling like Coronavirus was a distant feature of 2020 even before we ventured into our first lockdown. Each morning would start by checking BBC News and being met with increasingly worrying headlines. It wasn’t until the first weekend of March, when I was travelling back from London after watching the musical “Come From Away” in the West End (who knew then that was to be my first and last live performance for 6 months) when the news grew closer to home. Slowly, one by one, engagements started to be cancelled - first the Japan tour, then the tour to Ireland, rehearsals slowly became fewer and friends ventured home uncertain if they’d return before the end of term. By the end of March, all of my engagements right up until Summer had been cancelled but optimistically we reassured ourselves that it would “all be over within a month!”
Shortly after these cancellations, I returned home ahead of the first national lockdown with anxieties and questions like every other freelance musician - what will I do now? Uncertain of whether I’d be able to complete the final few weeks of my undergraduate degree, whether I’d be able to return to Cardiff to celebrate with friends or whether I’d be able to move to London in September to take-up my Masters place. Whilst the start of Lockdown and the overnight change it brought for many was a sudden shock, I was actually grateful for the timing of it.
Anyone who has experienced the loss of a loved one, especially a parent, understands the devastating and scattering feelings of loss.
A few months earlier, I sadly lost both my Mother and my Godmother within a month of each other to cancer at the age of 59. They were close friends since their school days; they grew up together, laughed together, travelled together and most importantly, drank wine together! My mother’s passing was not unexpected - she had been diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2010 and a few years later her diagnosis became terminal. After deteriorating during 2019 she spent her last month a half in the wonderful care of Ty Olwen Hospice, Swansea. My Godmother however, found out only two weeks before she passed that she had cancer, after working as a Macmillan nurse all her life, supporting families with a terminal illness.
Anyone who has experienced the loss of a loved one, especially a parent, understands the devastating and scattering feelings of loss. Grief affects people in a huge number of ways. For me, I felt it in the pit of my stomach - I felt emotionally and physically exhausted, the type of exhaustion not nourished by sleep. For the first time I felt like I was navigating through life blindly, unsure of when I’d reach the end of the tunnel.
It was because of this that when I did return home for lockdown, I felt grateful for the headspace. The life of a musician is often incredibly hectic, we’re used to dashing from performance to performance, long rehearsal days and filling every inch of spare time with practice or work. Looking back on the first lockdown makes me laugh at just how drastically my days changed. I went from accompanying singers to back on the family farm with my Dad; looking after our herd of cattle, driving tractors, mucking-out and even delivering new born calves! This one is called Alys!
Working on the farm everyday in the fresh air felt a welcome change from the confines of a rehearsal room, and for the first time I felt able to take a step back and breathe...
It’s an unpopular opinion and whilst writing, I’m thinking of the devastating impact covid has had on many close friends but I was actually enjoying lockdown life more than real life. What the lockdown brought me was time - after the losses 2019 brought, I was so grateful to be able to spend so much time with my own family, the most in actual fact in four years. Working on the farm everyday in the fresh air felt a welcome change from the confines of a rehearsal room, and for the first time I felt able to take a step back and breathe: to find new hobbies, reconnect with family with the only stresses of the day being my next Netflix series or the location of my next walk!
I found losing every single piece of work in my diary and the structure of my university commitments incredibly disheartening.
With that being said, I found losing every single piece of work in my diary and the structure of my university commitments incredibly disheartening. As an Accompanist we thrive off collaborating with other musicians - whether that’s delving into the poetry of a song cycle, enjoying the camaraderie of accompanying a male voice choir or the rewarding outcomes of a days’ teaching. The absence of any work left me feeling unmotivated to play. In fact, aside from a few hours of teaching, I didn’t play very much at all for a good few weeks. For me, playing the piano accompaniments alone at home just didn’t feel the same. It wasn’t until an email pinged into my inbox from Live Music Now that I finally found the motivation to play again. The email asked for our availability to record virtual concerts for care homes and those that were shielding - suddenly I had a purpose to play again.
It wasn’t until an email pinged into my inbox from Live Music Now that I finally found the motivation to play again.
The Live Music Now virtual concerts felt incredible rewarding and even during difficult times I found it heartening to see music continuing to offer shared experiences and connections with those who needed it most. I was grateful to perform in many virtual performances with Live Music Now and also work with two families, teaching two boys with autism. With each lesson and each virtual performance, I was inundated with comments. There was this incredible warmth and feeling of gratitude to us as musicians. Many people were so grateful for the brief periods of respite these performances afforded them - they were grateful for the happier times music transported them to, they were grateful that they could connect with shielding loved ones through the performances - they were grateful for the arts. Lockdown gave us something magical - this wartime community spirit. People were clapping for healthcare workers, checking in on neighbours, singing Calon Lan on the streets every Thursday. I felt like the arts were being appreciated more than ever. Music creates this sense of escapism - it has the power to transport us outside the four walls we live in and It was heartening to witness firsthand the profound affect the arts can have on so many different lives.
Flash-forward to a few months later and lockdown was beginning to be lifted and suddenly it was a time for new beginnings. I had recently discovered that I had graduated from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama with a first class honours degree and had met the requirements to commence my Masters in Piano Accompaniment at the Royal Academy of Music in London. It felt strange that after such a long period of lockdown surrounded by friends and family that I was soon to be moving to London to start a completely new chapter of my life.
My first few months living in London and studying at the Royal Academy of Music have been incredibly exciting. After so many months of isolated playing the first time I accompanied a singer live (albeit socially distanced and masked) was a moment I’ll always remember. There was also this newfound determination to play, collaborate and make music - a new fire within me had been lit.
The move to London has also opened several exciting doors. In November, I was the successful recipient of The Royal Academy of Music’s Jacob Barnes Award for Collaborative Pianists. The aim of the award is to provide live music to people who would ordinarily struggle to access it, and with the Academy’s support I established Music in Hospices (www.musicinhospices.org.uk). Music in Hospices is a charity founded in memory of my mother Susan and Godmother Maria, with the aim of bringing the joy of live music to hospice and palliative care settings - allowing families to make memories through music.
Music in Hospices is a charity founded in memory of my mother Susan and Godmother Maria, with the aim of bringing the joy of live music to hospice and palliative care settings.
When Mum was admitted for end of life care at Ty Olwen Hospice, Swansea - I experienced firsthand the incredible people and care Hospices provide. From the canteen staff who ensured patients and families were fed and watered, to the cafe staff providing a warm and supportive smile, the incredible counselling team who supported me throughout and of course, the incredible doctors and nurses. Over the course of our stay there, I felt increasingly helpless and with my mum being non-verbal I felt unable to effectively communicate with her. One day I discovered that Ty Olwen just happened to have a small honky-tonk style piano - it was completely out of tune and didn’t even have the full number of keys but it gave me a new form of communication with Mum. The gift my Mum had inspired and encouraged in me was something I was now using to communicate with and express my feelings to her at the end of her life.
Whilst this was a deeply personal tribute to her, it also had a wider impact. Neath, my home town in South Wales is a relatively small place and the music actually had such a profound impact that I was hearing much later through the grapevine, stories of how a young man played piano for his mother, of how families felt that the only time their loved ones truly relaxed was when the music started to play, how it gave them special moments with their own families, how it relieved stress and improved the general mood on the ward and how much patients, families and staff alike would love to hear more music at the Hospice.
Sadly for some reason music in hospices and palliative care settings is often overlooked and I’ve never fully discovered why. Maybe it’s because of the connotations of a hospice: many people have never experienced life in a Hospice, feel uncomfortable working with palliative care patients or simply aren’t sure how to approach making music in this environment. However, music in hospice has actually been the subject of many studies. In one case, researchers found that people who listened to music reported less pain, anxiety, nausea, shortness of breath, and feelings of depression, as well as an increase in feelings of well-being after listening to the music. There is clear evidence that music in hospice settings isn’t simply a token gesture but one that can have a profound effect on patients' mental and physical wellbeing - and from my own experience, it’s clear to me how true this is.
There is clear evidence that music in hospice settings isn’t simply a token gesture but one that can have a profound effect on patients mental and physical wellbeing.
Through Music in Hospices, I hope to demystify Hospices and shine a light on the wonderful care they provide and make Music in palliative care settings the norm. The hospice care sector supports more than 225,000 people a year with over 150 hospices in England alone. Simply put, Hospice and Palliative Care settings deserve as much access to live music as other care settings. Palliative Care patients are patients first and foremost. Like us all they have their own hobbies, their own likes and dislikes and their own, eclectic tastes in music. It’s only right that they are supported by a dedicated charity who can provide access to this for them.
To find out more about the work of Music in Hospices please visit our website: www.musicinhospices.org.uk. If you or someone you know would like to be involved in the charity as a volunteer, trustee or sponsor or know of a hospice who would enjoy a virtual live music performance then we would love to hear from you.
Whilst 2020 has been a terrible year for so many people, I have come out the other side with a newfound gratitude for the world we live in, for the moments we share with family and friends and for the ability to make live music with so many talented individuals.