The importance of music during Christmas time in the middle of the pandemic

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This year has been one like no other, with many people feeling tired: lockdowns, face masks and social distancing. The global coronavirus pandemic has affected most people’s mental health due to increasing loneliness and lack of real-life social interactions.

However, Christmas time has traditionally been a time for joy for everyone.

People started decorating their homes, buying Christmas trees, putting up festive lighting, way earlier this year compared to other years, because everyone needed something special to make us feel better. 

This Christmas has been different for everyone, but music, as always, has such an important role, because Christmas simply is not the same without orchestras, songs, carols and choirs.

Preparing events that involve a great number of people, who meet to rehearse for a long time in the uncertainty of concert cancellations, following strict COVID guidance, has been a great challenge. I am delighted to have spoken to Will Prideaux, director of Peterborough Sings, who even amidst the pandemic has been able to offer the choral show “Christmas Magic”. I also had a lovely conversation with the pianist and composer Alessandro Viale whose experience with Peterborough Sings gives us a great insight into what it meant for a musician to work during the COVID pandemic.

Hello Will! This year, many organisations had to cancel their usual Christmas event. Peterborough Sings did not. How did you manage to create Christmas Magic despite so many difficulties? It has been heartbreaking to see so many events cancelled this year. Peterborough Sings! considered the situation, both for performers and audience members, and worked closely with our venue to devise solutions to the problems presented. Many hours of meetings took place and workarounds were found. Repertoire was prepared online, apart from a few short rehearsals in the week prior to the event, and many aspects of what would usually be quite a lavish presentation were  stripped back. There were also no paper programmes and the concert was  reduced in length to just 80 minutes with no interval. On the day itself, all singers, instrumentalists and audience members were at least two meters apart at all times, and a variety of other risk-reducing measures were implemented, including symptom screening and temperature testing. Social-distancing meant that three performances were required to accommodate a financially viable audience size. We are very pleased that there were no exposure alerts generated due to the event – it went without a hitch.

How have the various lock-down measures affected rehearsal of the choirs? The restrictions of the pandemic have forced us to be creative in our approach to rehearsal. The normal approach to choral preparation is not feasible in an online setting, so we have focused on equipping our members with the skills and tools to prepare music individually. Now nine months in, it is exciting to see how the ethos of the groups have shifted. Fundamentally, the singers know the music better and are more confident as a result. There are many aspects of this new way of working that we will keep when things return to normal.

Alessandro, you don’t live in the Uk anymore, having moved to Germany. During your time in London you used to work for prestigious schools, as accompanist at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire, also as assistant conductor and pianist of the Peterborough Sings’ choirs.  What would you say about your experience with Peterborough Sings to prepare this challenging Christmas Magic? This has been a brilliant experience because it gave me the opportunity to travel around Europe and also collaborate with the BBC Concert Orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, the Band of the RAF Regiment and many other ensembles. For my contributions and totally by surprise I have been nominated Honorary Life President of such an important charity. During the lockdown, thanks to Will Prideaux’s brilliant ideas, I could in fact actively work from Germany. I found this another striking example of how music can bring people together! And in the end, the choir managed to transform all this virtual work into a real Christmas concert! It has been an amazing journey!!!

Did this period of pandemic and social distancing change the value or how important music is for you? Music itself was born as a social activity, perhaps around a campfire. Therefore, it is deeply connected with socialisation. This is for me the main importance of music: to connect and unite people. This may happen physically, for example singing in a choir, playing and rehearsing together, attending a concert and so on, but it also happens mentally and over distances. In these months of lockdown, I have found myself listening to music much more than usual and it definitely helped me feel connected with the world, even when I was forced to stay at home alone. Of course, there were moments in which I was feeling low, but music was always there helping me: never underestimate the healing power of music. So more than changing my perception of music’s value, this period, reinforced very strongly my belief in its universal value.

Music has the power to connect people even across cultural boundaries and distances. Something so important these times when less physical interaction is possible, tell us about it. Making music has always given me some great opportunities of socialisation and growth. So far, one of the best experiences was traveling to India with my friends of the Avant Piano Trio. In India I have founded the Indo-European Chamber Orchestra, together with the Indian conductor Michael Makhal, and shared music with dozens of young musicians and with the public. Western Classical Music is not so widespread in India and for some people of the audience this was their very first concert in their life! It was a real dialogue of cultures and a brilliant opportunity of personal development.

We have left 2020 behind. This was a strange year for everyone. How was this year for you? Unfortunately, in the last months almost all concerts were cancelled but I managed to perform in Italy and some of the planned concerts were turned from physical, in venue to streaming concerts. I really have to thank the organisers for such a bold choice. In the end, in these past few months I had so much more free time due to the lack of travel and in person commitments. As musician free time can be very fruitful to compose new music. Although it has been very painful to see all these cancellations, the free time I gained was useful to study and explore new repertoire, researching in libraries. I focused on the classical and early romantic era, roughly from 1770 to 1840, which I have performed on my beautiful fortepianos. I have managed to find some very interesting pieces from composers that were completely neglected.

After such a year, what are your plans for the future? Recently I have moved to Basel, in a very exciting area for making music. Being near the borders to France and Switzerland makes me feel very European. At the moment I am writing the music for a new project, a video book for children published by PLEBU on youtube. It is a new adventure which lead me to a collaboration with prestigious artists and with an amazing Italian violinist, I will keep the surprise for now!

The pandemic hasn’t stopped you as well as many musicians. Do you have any suggestion to the other musicians and artists in general? This period has been very hard. We are used to perform for an audience, to meet people, to travel. Everything has stopped very suddenly and, on top of that, the narrative, in many nations, has been that we, as artists, were not a necessary anymore for society. Notwithstanding, I have understood that to go on, you should actually plan more and be open to the new alternatives using all the new technology available. As the Peterborough choirs demonstrated, carefully planning can lead to great results and can actually give motivation. And being flexible I have found solutions and I managed to continue sharing music. So never give up! But let’s hope that this 2021 will be kinder to all of us.

*Barbara Panetta, scrittrice

Barbara Panetta