Pandemic, Politics, and Piano

And “piano?” Is this seemingly misfit word pertinent? Indulge me to share a few personal stories of pandemic, politics, and piano—and then consider this trio of dynamics philosophically.

Just a short year ago in Ann Arbor, I was dining out with pianist Emanuel Ax and a key Director of Pfizer. Together with the local symphony manager, we discussed Pfizer’s invention of Lipitor and the process of clinical trial testing. We didn’t yet know that within a year Pfizer would be producing the vaccine for a worldwide pandemic. “Manny” had his concerto score in his backpack, and I could sense his eagerness to get to the hall for practice. His dedication and personal process to maintain artistic excellence was an interesting parallel to the dedication and organizational process of scientific achievement. Just a few months later, concert halls around the world closed and tours were cancelled. We awaited Pfizer’s vaccine, thankful for well-practiced organizational excellence.

Rewinding a year prior, I was privileged to dine with Korean and Chinese ambassadors, the United Nations Secretary-General’s wife, and a few prominent business leaders in Beijing. Why was a pianist from America attending, even giving a toast and greeting the Premier of the Peoples Republic of China? A seeming misfit to politics, perhaps. But the Korean Chamber Orchestra brought together art and politics. It bridged a peninsula, bridged a vast ocean, and bridged political cultures. Minds and Hearts were being connected through music.

Fast forward to late January of this year 2020, I was privileged to adjudicate for the Macau International Piano Competition. As my fellow jurors arrived from Germany, Italy, Spain and Australia, we were hearing mere rumors of a novel bird flu. Upon departure from China, the joyous experience of musical celebration among the thousand participants now refracted through the mind-bending lens of global contagion. I roamed airports in Asia under watchful eyes and temperature checks, returning from China only days before the travel ban. Art bridges cultures, ideas disseminate, and the material physicality of viral transmission upends human connection.

My voluntary two-week quarantine gave opportunity to reflect on the pandemic, politics and… piano. On the first day of the governor’s stay-at-home order, we began a five-part webinar series, Beethoven in Isolation. With the world in isolation during the 250th anniversary year of Beethoven’s birth, his deafness became oddly palpable, the Pathétique Sonata took on deeper pathos, and analogies of musical form and phases of pandemic began to emerge. Normalcy is disrupted by episodic sections, but the A theme reemerges, eventually triumphant (see faberpiano.com).

A pandemic virus—microscopic yet brutally demeaning—represents physicality at its most base. Politics arise in humanity’s quest for survival and power. And then art, the soaring aspiration of human spirit. So where is the piano in this continuum? It’s manifestly physical, yet a vehicle for transcendence. The instrument is both grounding and uplifting. Deluged in work-at-home or learn-at-home screen time, we’re restored by the tactile, tangible, and sonorous. This is more than a welcome relief. For many, piano is an actual rescue from the shrinking visual field of two-dimensional screens and the indignities of digital disruption. It grounds us, and then carries us beyond the ordinary.

The worlds of pandemic and politics loom large, beyond personal zones of control. The piano, in contrast, can settle us into a zone of self-agency. The instrument tames under our control as we reach toward art. Our ability to control life and social change may be limited, but we can command our instrument. Indeed, our musical instrument exists to be mastered.

On days when piano takes a front seat over pandemics and politics, control of our attention returns. We become masters of our own volition. We see our humanity in new light, aspire to artistry, and help our students look upward. As the musical arts lift our gaze beyond self toward transcendent beauty, we may even catch a glimpse beyond.

50 Responses to “Pandemic, Politics, and Piano”

  1. Rhonda Stutzman January 18, 2021 at 12:09 pm #

    Such good thoughts. Thank you!

  2. Lisa Voisen January 18, 2021 at 12:14 pm #

    Yes indeed, music has been our saving grace during this very challenging time of the worldwide pandemic of Covid 19. When I found myself immersed in depression, I would go to my piano and play until it lifted. Then I would go play one of my other instruments. I have been so grateful to have the ability through music to help me and my students to give ourselves something else to focus on. Also I am grateful for the technology to teach virtually, thus saving most of my teaching income!

  3. Mary Barnum January 18, 2021 at 12:17 pm #

    What a beautiful insight and so beautifully written to open our minds and hearts, and yet “re-ground” us, to a bigger picture of what is true and right. Thank you for this inspiring post and your willingness to share your love of teaching and humanity to make us all better.

  4. Deon January 18, 2021 at 12:18 pm #

    The feelings of so many –beautifully and articulately expressed. Thank you!

  5. Amy H. January 18, 2021 at 12:27 pm #

    Rings true….I sense more playing/practicing/enjoyment of the piano from my students than ever before…even from two sibs that rarely ever practice (due to being busy high school students and viewing their piano lesson as a music class, as they can’t fit music into their full academic schedule). The pandemic has certainly been a mixed blessing.
    Thanks for your encouraging words Randy. Rich blessings in the coming year.

  6. Dorothy Weeks January 18, 2021 at 12:29 pm #

    interesting to hear of your China travels

  7. Kelli Keller January 18, 2021 at 12:32 pm #

    Thank you for these encouraging words and a wider perspective. I will be sharing some of this with my piano students’ parents.

  8. Gretchen Nealon January 18, 2021 at 12:35 pm #

    As I was reading this I keep remembering that mankind has the word…..kind in it. I had students ru. Out of food, sanatizer, wipes, paper towels, toilet paper, and other things. I did deliveries of anything any of them needed for weeks. Iwe have gone beyond the student/teacher to friends and family. I had one family thats family business was destroyed during the DC riots. I have had 6 friends die from this virus. 6 funerals I didn’t attent to say one last goodbye. A fellow teacher and classmate from college was terribly alone I could not visit. He’s alone teaching behind a screen. I sent him a necklace that says …….your not alone. I feel so alone yet sometimes I feel so fullfilled by just being a light in some students lives.

    • Randall Faber January 26, 2021 at 2:48 pm #

      Hello Gretchen. That is a moving response.
      Please give my greetings and best wishes to your fellow teacher whom you mention.

  9. Leslie Struble January 18, 2021 at 12:38 pm #

    This is a wonderful commentary, thank you for doing it. Albeit at a much lower level (as an adult piano student), I too am finding that piano grounds me and then carries me ahead. Not just playing the piano, but also the structure imposed by my piano lessons, for which I also thank you.

  10. Tracey Baetzel January 18, 2021 at 12:42 pm #

    This uplifting essay captures the silver lining of the pandemic and the importance of the arts in bringing us together – adults as well as children. The families that I teach especially appreciated having lessons in the early days of the pandemic before the schools were online; it gave students at least some structure in their days and weeks. The students who continued lessons progressed considerably more than in the past year because other activities were restricted.

    The interesting lesson for me in online teaching was that I had to learn to let students do their own thinking – beginning students had to learn to find notes and count measures, figure out where to play on the keyboard, listen and compare their playing to mine more attentively. Older students learned to practice with Zoom recordings on and listen to themselves in order to analyze tempo, articulation, dynamics and phrasing. They seem to have a greater appreciation of lessons as a source of enjoyment and progress during an otherwise difficult year – that’s the best lesson of all!

    It’s quite remarkable that almost overnight, we’re no longer restricted to the immediate geographic area for teaching or learning. While I’m looking forward to resuming lessons in person, a blend of both is probably the “new normal.” I’m looking forward to it!

  11. Anna Maria Manalo January 18, 2021 at 12:46 pm #

    Thank you, and Bravos, Dr. Faber, for this timely and inspiring ‘vitamin’ to sustain us pianists during these cloudy times. Your words capture the contrapuntal dynamics of the current climate in a truly poetic and touching perspective – uniting us (and without Zoom, etc.)

  12. Natalie Roos January 18, 2021 at 12:58 pm #

    Beautifully stated! My heart is so grateful that despite the storms around us in the world, music transcends, uplifts, and gives voice to our emotions.

  13. Shelley O'Brien January 18, 2021 at 1:18 pm #

    As a PhD student who is researching childhood during precarious times like pandemic and climate change, i find this post to be so pertinent and important. Despite the screens between us, meeting my music students virtually, week after week, has been important for both the depth of relationship between teacher and student, and for the opportunities to be present and have “aspirations to artistry” when we all sit down to play.

    Thank you!

    • Randall Faber January 26, 2021 at 2:52 pm #

      Wishing you success in your research, Shelley! One might presume the pandemic to be an adverse childhood experience with lingering effects. However, for most, I believe resilience will prevail. As you note, the depth of relationship may be key to sustaining hope, aspirations and the will to work.

  14. Lesli Malle January 18, 2021 at 1:44 pm #

    Beautifully written. The ability to sit down and practice piano every day during this pandemic has saved me from going into some kind of strange pandemic depression. My relationships with my online students have also helped carry me through this strange time. I worked on several pieces these past few months, but Claire de Lune was the one I spent months on and was a wonderful escape

  15. Sylvia January 18, 2021 at 1:49 pm #

    Excellent! Thank You. Dona Nobis Pacem. Sylvia

  16. Rosa McCroskey January 18, 2021 at 1:53 pm #

    Yes, Randall, at this time of the pandemic, piano teaching continues occupy our minds, wanting to propel our students forward while learning new technical skills ourselves. As we are preparing for competitions which will be totally virtual, worries continue to creep in. What if Covid should come back to my home and I have to teach online again – will their pieces be ready? What if that should happen right at competition time. Will I not get to video their performances in my home, but have to accept videos they have made on out-of-tune pianos, feet chopped out of the picture, background noise? With so many uncertainties, we have to maintain hope, and know that someday, this, too, shall pass.

    Yes, Randall, during these times of pandemic, piano teaching completely occupies our minds and our time as we try to propel our students forward while learning many new technical skills ourselves. Particularly as virtual competition time approaches, worries creep in: If Covid strikes our home again and I have to go back to teaching online, can we have their pieces ready on time? If that happens right at competition time, instead of making proper videos of their pieces here in my home, will I have to accept videos they have made with out-of-tune pianos, feet chopped out of the picture, background noise, etc.?
    With so many uncertainties, we have to maintain hope and know that someday, we will be through this.

  17. Sylvia Streufert January 18, 2021 at 2:05 pm #

    Thank you. Well said!
    We are at a critical point with regard to the pandemic and the beginning of a new political administration. We must all make deliberate and concentrated efforts to create dialogue with our neighbors, listening carefully & speaking truth respectfully. Music is a very concrete tool to use as we move forward together in a positive way.

  18. Janelda Barnett January 18, 2021 at 2:14 pm #

    During this pandemic, I’ve been teaching most of my students via Zoom. The real downside to this is that I can no longer do the duets with them. Can you develop resources that I can use virtually, especially for those students (and myself) who don’t use Apple/Iphone products?

  19. Martha Amstutz January 18, 2021 at 2:17 pm #

    Hi Randy,

    A very insightful commentary. Thank you for sharing.

    As I was reading, I couldn’t help but think that this would make a wonderful TED Talk, especially since they are all about Technology, Design, and Entertainment. My daughter is Director of the Speaker Community at TED Conferences. Would it be OK if I submit “Pandemic, Politics and Piano” as an “idea worth sharing” to TED? This does not entail any commitment on your part, it is something for them to consider.

    • Randall Faber January 26, 2021 at 2:54 pm #

      We are working hard on this. Hoping to have a solution ready in April.

      • randall faber February 3, 2021 at 10:49 am #

        The above was a reply to Janelda regarding duet playing and online latency.

        Martha, thank you for this. I’m honored and appreciate the efforts of you and your daughter. You may certainly submit. All the best.

  20. Noreen Wenjen January 18, 2021 at 2:20 pm #

    Thank you, Randall, for this reflective and hopeful reminder of the importance of our work in teaching music, keeping up with the demands created by the pandemic, and letting music help us and others move forward and create.

  21. Barbara Konrad January 18, 2021 at 2:55 pm #

    Great reflection but not where I thought you were going. The overuse of technology has made zoom piano lessons possible and exhausting. Yes we all crave the tactile especially our students. How to address this exhaustion as teachers would be of great value to us all. Thank you.

    • Randall Faber January 26, 2021 at 3:05 pm #

      Thanks for pinpointing the exhaustion phenomenon. Indeed, in-person teaching can be invigorating as the hours pass. We’ll have to explore this depletion of energy when online. One cause is being physically static. Less range of motion while looking at a fixed screen. I’m noting that while the student is looking at their score we are free to look away…even sip a cup of coffee! Try lessons twice a week, with the second lesson shorter and conversational, perhaps from the easy chair, perhaps discussing the student’s video submission.

      I’ll try to set up more follow-up on this. Appreciate you bringing it up.

  22. Robyn Mclaughlin January 18, 2021 at 3:23 pm #

    Well said! May I share this?

  23. Tommie Preniczky January 18, 2021 at 3:45 pm #

    So well said Randy. The piano has been my refuge during the pandemic. I can sit down and practice and all the ugliness in the world goes away.

  24. Ann Louise Christensen January 18, 2021 at 4:00 pm #

    Beautifully said. I have found refuge in my piano these months and connection with my students on our unending quest to master our instrument.

  25. Geraldine McClain January 18, 2021 at 5:06 pm #

    You continue to inspire me . I have been to many of your work shops as a piano teacher and have always come away renewed, refreshed and inspired to delve into new music and approaches to help my students progress.thank you for your enlightening article and please continue the amazing work that Faber&Faber has always provided. There is hope in 2021 where people like you and music will be heard!

  26. Pamela Buckardt January 18, 2021 at 5:09 pm #

    Thank you. This reply is not profound. I just want you to know that your message proves to me once again how connected we all are. No person is an island and the arts are so important in creating connections, even through time and space. I’ve played my piano since I was 6 years old and have now just turned 75. I don’t know how I could’ve gotten through this past year without my music. My piano students are a joy and a blessing to me. So looking forward to the time when I can teach them in person.
    Sincerely – Pam Buckardt

  27. Joanne Past January 18, 2021 at 5:38 pm #

    Dear Randall,

    Yes, I lift my students beyond their studies (11th grade is tough.) He ‘warms-up’ with the runs in The Revolutionary Etude. I used your suggestions at the beginning of the pandemic: three virtual mini-sessions per week. From videos, I could see another student’s eyes going back and forth to her hands: now she is on a better adventure, with sight-reading, a priority.

    The other day, I played while awaiting a virtual doctor’s visit. He was sorry he let me know he was on. He was soooo soothed by the old favorite, Beethoven’s Fur Elise — so overused, if not played with expression. (I pre-planned that one, for physicians are under so much stress. That was my gift to him.)

    The transcendent beauty of piano, has brought the response of a parent, “I sincerely appreciate all of the care and kindness you give to all of us through music….”

    My husband and I never missed your demos at our local music stores. I hope your write-up is the answer a question I am asking: is this my directive, disciplining my practice of my instrument? Joanne Past

  28. Bonnie Jean Johnson January 18, 2021 at 6:01 pm #

    Thank you for this thoughtful analysis. I have just given my students a challenge to write a paragraph or two stating how music enters our lives at many levels. I have asked them to think about why music is so important in our world. I think your thoughts address this question.

  29. Miguel A. Vázquez January 18, 2021 at 6:03 pm #

    Studying music and playing the piano during these several months of significant isolation and uncertainties is like an oasis in the desert. It is a great way to seek internal peace, calm anxiety and help us deal with our mental health. It is also an escape from the political challenges that we have faced across the globe. Thank you for your blogs and efforts for excellence in teaching/learning piano!

  30. Elizabeth mcGonagle January 18, 2021 at 6:37 pm #

    This is so beautifully stated. Art does keep us grounded as well as uplifted. I am very blessed and lucky to have been able to keep my studio going virtually since last March. At first it was hard, but I now think we have all adapted. There are some ways teaching on line is better than in person. It is like having a two piano studio (I only have one piano.) with an adjustable webcam and tripod I can aim the camera right at the keys for demonstration, then in the next moment make “eye contact” for maintaining that special teacher/student relationship. Thank you for Piano Adventures! With theory, technique and artistry, the lesson book, it makes pedagogy seamless. May we all look for the good in this new time, and build bridges from one person to the next through music.

  31. Suzie Steenbergen January 18, 2021 at 6:44 pm #

    Randall,
    Beautifully written, thank you. Being able to play the piano has literally lifted me out of all the craziness from both pandemic and politics. My mind and body become transformed, through all aspects of learning new pieces. And given me time, I did not previously think I had! I have seen my piano as my rescue agent. And I have enjoyed every single cord and key…..the sounds are so beautiful after zoom seminars and news of the latest uncertainty! Music is truly, as Mendelssohn has said, better than words!

  32. Connie Dailey January 18, 2021 at 6:51 pm #

    Thank you Randy for writing this! I totally agree with you. We were traveling and staying in LA last January— we are from Indiana— many Chinese people were staying at the hotel we were staying at we came home very sick —flu like symptoms no Covid we were very lucky! It has been a surreal year of teaching. But I am continually amazed at the resilience of my students. For the nine weeks I was shut down they drew chalk drawings on my driveway just to cheer me up! The left little notes and fancy colored rocks too. I feel so blessed to love music and love the kids!

  33. Joanne Kehr January 18, 2021 at 6:58 pm #

    A psychologist once told me that when life seems out of control, turn to something you can control. She noted that playing the piano is something that I can control: if I practice more, I will play better, and no one and nothing can take that control away. I have continued to use piano practice and playing as a way to control some small part of my life through all of this craziness.

    A year ago I read the book The Inextinguishable Symphony, by Martin Goldsmith. It is the true story of how his parents met, fell in love, and survived as Jewish musicians during the Holocaust by being forced to attend the only music school Jews were permitted to attend in Nazi Germany and then playing in the only Orchestra where Jews were allowed to play, The Jewish Cultural Orchestra. This love story took place against the slow creap of Nazi control. I felt a shiver as I read the latest Nazi edicts: Jews cannot go here, Jews cannot do this, immigrants are dangerous and must be kept out, non-whites are dangerous, other religions are dangerous … I felt that Trump was following HItler’s playbook: Mexicans are rapists, Muslims are terrorists, Christianity is the only acceptable religion … . The Germans, who had a flourishing democracy with Jews totally integrated into their society, elected Hitler to be their leader on 1/30/1933, and gradually enabled the establishment of Hitler’s dictatorship, resulting in the Holocaust. So now I am playing Shindler’s List. We can control the destiny of America. And music will always be a way to communicate and unite beyond borders and artificial categories.

    • Alice Browne January 22, 2021 at 10:30 am #

      I agree that music is a universal language which allows us to communicate and unite. As in Hitler’s time, many were blinded by Hitler’s apparent charisma and forcefulness. As a Christian I have been greatly saddened by my Christian brothers and sisters who support Trump. Our society should welcome everyone as God does. He does not see nations, skin color or culture. Likewise, music is for everyone. I have a studio full of “foreigners” Koreans, Indians, Italians, Mexicans and only 5% are Christian. I am proud to have diversity in my studio. I challenge all teachers not to discriminate on the basis of color, income, culture or religion in their studios.

  34. Miyuki Sanada January 18, 2021 at 7:12 pm #

    Thank you very much for sharing your impressive story with us. Pandemics and politics always wield our lives. Politics does not always benefit us. But music and art always give us peace and hope, and playing the piano can calm our minds. I would like to teach the piano for that so that the students will know about it when they grow up. I believe that it helps their future life a lot.

  35. Marilyn Burdett January 18, 2021 at 7:34 pm #

    Facing our mortality puts life in perspective and challenges us to look for what is of eternal value, what is important, and how to live today without regret. Although some things about it are frustrating others are refreshing. Thank you for sharing your insights about continuing to teach with a new normal, adapting skills with new technology and giving old birds new tricks. lOL

  36. Leon Karan January 18, 2021 at 7:57 pm #

    Great reflection on Art from the musician’s point of view! It is well written and inspiring. Thank you for sharing.
    I do remember our talk during the salad lunches in Hamilton.
    Leon Karan B.Mus., MFA. RMT

  37. Janet Nicolls UK January 19, 2021 at 5:48 am #

    A serous and inspiring message. Thank you.
    Pianists in all fields of ‘work’ unite in harmony to bring joy and peace.

  38. Janet Nicolls UK January 19, 2021 at 5:51 am #

    see above

  39. Jeanie lawrence January 19, 2021 at 8:29 am #

    I am 66 years old and at 65 began to learn the piano. I have a wonderful piano teacher and the piano has provided such peace and enjoyment that I wish everyone would learn to play. That you for your great adult beginner books. I am having a blast! Happy New Year!

  40. Karen Hicks January 19, 2021 at 9:08 am #

    Wonderful perspective! I think my students may be empowered by it: “ . . . but we can command our instrument.” I will share. Thank you!

  41. Kathy Savinell January 19, 2021 at 11:03 am #

    Thanks for these eloquent thoughts. I have been surprised at how quickly my beginner piano students progressed this year and I suspect it is because piano playing is one of the things in their limited daily routine that is physical and “non-screen”. Their parents also seem very glad to have them doing something “real”. My “in-person” teaching is especially gratifying for all of us involved. My remote teaching is even welcomed, keeping one more established relationship growing at a time when many bonds are “on hold”. I wonder if I am going to look back on my teaching this past year as one of my best!

  42. Doug Rohde January 21, 2021 at 8:14 am #

    Pandemic and piano, two great equalizers. Neither one respects artificial barriers terribly much. My colleagues in the Minnesota Music Teachers Association and I remain vigilant and patient regarding the pandemic, and we renew our commitment to the joy of music daily. All our students must ask themselves the same two questions: “What does this moment require of me? What does the music require of me?” every day as well. We are grateful to Randy and everyone in his fine outfit for helping us out with our state convention last summer, and for helping us answer these two important questions.

  43. Sarah January 24, 2021 at 11:30 pm #

    Thank you for inviting deeper thought!

    I have remembered, time and again, that during college I rejoiced that I had selected a career field where I would be able to opt out of computers and technology as long as I wished to do so. [shakes head, rolls eyes, groans deeply]

    I have found myself building relationships with my students more deeply than ever before, as I am often a novel, outside influence. I’m convinced that for many of my students, I am the only adult they will see that week who does not live in their home and is 100% focused on them for 30 minutes. It is an honor and a privilege to spend my quarantine days trying to brighten people’s homes, add beauty through the art of music, and a hint of normalcy.

  44. Randall Faber January 26, 2021 at 3:08 pm #

    Thanks all for the beautiful remarks!
    Hi to Tommie, and Doug…you and the MMTA are most welcome.