How has the pandemic changed how you play? Eight pianists answer

This article was originally published by FYIMusicNews.

The recent passing of jazz piano titan Chick Corea at 79 has tapped a nerve within me and millions of others.

I’ve long had a complicated relationship with those 88 notes which at times instigate, repudiate, complicate and, at best, bring me enormous pleasure and respite from the monotony and tension of that daily grind. The piano is my in-house orchestra, one I can position my hands above then instantly will a change of mood.

I’ve thought about those final months of Corea’s generous life when he seemed to be ever-present on Facebook, offering piano instruction with an insatiable appetite and willingness to share his most intimate practices and endearing fascination with those 88 keys with a universe absent of monetary demands. Short of notice, Corea was gone, dying of a rare form of cancer in a year of incalculable human tragedy. I’m reminded that the piano comes lacking any formula for eternal life, gender-free, and dwells in silence as if a mute visitor until pressed to comment.

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I’ve had cycles of discontent, none lasting longer than a year or so. Decades before the recent pandemic, in the early ’80s, with the dominant keyboard being the synthesizer and MTV fixated on one-finger playing over complete command — those were soul-killing times for me and many other players rooted in keyboard traditions. I could neither afford a $6,000 synthesizer of choice nor justify downgrading my skills to a lone-note novelty player. Instead, I stepped outside music to supplement my waning enthusiasm.

This is when I focused on my second great obsession: basketball. Seven days a week, four hours a day of gym time devoted to honing and refining skills until invited to join a team from Buffalo, N.Y., and capturing a world championship at the first World Masters competitions in 1985. Check that off the wish list and add righteous boost to human spirit. During those years I also abandoned pop and rock and revisited my second music love, jazz, and stayed the course a good two decades, launching a record label then recording several jazz sides.

As the decades passed, I added broadcasting, photography and journalism to the skill set, which, over time, enhanced and revived that love affair with those 88 notes — which brings me to the current pandemic lockdown. I’ve been thinking about my dear keyboard pals — Laila Biali, Aaron Davis, Lance Anderson, Evelyne Datl, John Devenish, Elaine Overholt, Lou Pomanti and Diane Roblin — and was curious about how they are holding up under the pressure. I wondered if any had fallen in and out of love with the instrument, lost confidence, pursued an outside interest, or are contemplating a second engagement with the instrument.

“Maybe not the answer you would expect: During this pandemic, the 88 notes staring at me from my living room piano have elicited a range of emotions: Sometimes they comfort, sometimes they beckon, but most often they say, ‘Wait. We will still be here when this is all behind us,'” says Laila Biali. “The piano and my relationship to it is an enduring presence — here in good times, and in bad.”

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Lou Pomanti explains how that connection has shifted for him. “My relationship to the piano has changed in that my focus has now completely switched to the studio and making records, and away from playing. I’m happy to be making those records with artists like Marc Jordan, Oakland Stroke and John Finley, but I do feel off-balance as a whole. Now my music-making is mostly made in a vacuum. A spore-less, infection-free vacuum.”

“I didn’t touch the piano for months (except for some MIDI projects on keyboard),” says Evelyne Datl. “I felt the piano staring at me a lot… I guess it was a long break, but recently I have felt fresh inspiration around a new project, so maybe the break provided a needed reset. Being an introvert, I sensed a bit of relief in the quiet, the reduced city noise and cleaner air. As a society we don’t stop much, and it felt good to do that. I felt less peer pressure to have to be ‘doing something’ all the time, because a lot of us were in the same boat.”

JAZZ.FM91’s John Devenish perceives it this way: “My own 88 keys are a place to get lost in a spontaneous arrangement of favourite tunes and a place to plunge into new tunes I want to experiment with. The relationship has not so much changed as it is now focused differently. There is more purposed refuge and escape than before as a dynamic, and it is so much more just for me sometimes than it has been in times before.”

Maestro Lance Anderson sees it this way: “I have found it hard to stay motivated and focused. A year ago, I would have died to have a week, let alone months to work on my chops and expand my repertoire. I have found once again that the more I investigate the more there is to learn, and the less I seem to know. It is humbling at [age 67] to be faced with even more possibilities and more horizons to explore than I had when I was 25. I have come to accept that I will never be able to explore all that I would like. I will never play bebop, and I likely will never play Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. I likely will never play enough stride to have the easy lope of Fats Waller, and let’s not even talk about the world of Latin music that I love to listen to and would be thrilled to play more.”

Pianist and composer Aaron Davis finds that the piano offers consolation in these times. “I haven’t changed what I’m playing and working on all that much, but the piano has provided solace. Maybe I’m playing a bit more Bach than usual? Bach’s piano music hints at an ordered universe with musical depth and passion and continues to surprise after repeated playing. I’m referring to The Inventions and Sinfonias and The Well-Tempered Clavier, which are the collections I’m most familiar with. It’s also nice to hear great classical players interpret these: Barenboim, Schiff and Gould being my faves.”

“I had no inspiration to play the piano when COVID-19 and lockdown started… Without live music, I lost my major source of connection and energy exchange with others,” says jazz pianist Diane Roblin. “I live alone and was feeling confused and lost. However, as it turns out, being a musician, playing keyboards has been a godsend. It is because I can play an instrument, that I have had meaningful relationships, and musical experiences with players here and around the world in this difficult time.”

Anderson adds: “My piano is being tuned as I write. It has been an on-and-off relationship. I have been recording a solo piano Beatles record and have done the odd performance for YouTube. So, I am turning into myself, in both senses. I am concentrating on my creations and arrangements and trying to only play something that turns my crank. I will continue to investigate things that catch my ear, but I will only extract the element that I can use in one of my compositions. I will not have time, even though time is all I have, to become proficient in all the music that interests me.”

I’m making quiet time to sit in front of the piano in my basement — after revving up the heat — and try working on a variety of piano techniques, especially touch and feel. Playing on the pads of the fingers in combination with the tips. I’m an early riser yet for piano playing, I prefer mid-afternoon to early evening.

“The problem I’ve been having is balance,” says Pomanti. “As someone who’s been a professional musician his whole life, as I’ve moved throughout my career, I’ve constantly adjusted it, tweaking it, so that my life makes sense to me and makes me happy. The last 10 years have been the combination of studio work and live work. I’m quite happy to work in the studio every day, as long as I get that juice from a live gig three or four times a month. I find that I need that positive reinforcement from an audience to reassure me that what I’m doing in the studio is valid and is positively affecting people. Yes, I’m still playing every day in my studio, but it’s not the same as interacting live with a band on stage in front of an audience. Nowadays I’m finding I’m walking by my piano in the living room instead of sitting down and playing it every day. When I have my monthly gig at The Jazz Bistro with Lou Pomanti & Friends, I’m constantly working up new tunes, searching for new ways to play them, staying limber.”

Elaine Overholt comes at the piano working mostly as a singer and vocal coach. “The piano has always been the truest grounding element in my life,” she says. “Playing from four years old, and sometimes practicing four hours a day in my youth and at university, the piano became an extension of my soul. When times are tough, I sit down with the classics that I learned early … I keep the music right on the piano, ready to sit down at a moment’s notice. I’ve been playing these pieces much more during COVID-19, and when I do, I am taken back to a simpler time. I breathe deeper and am reminded that I am still a hell of a musician, which is good for the self-esteem (even though the fingers don’t go to places quite as well). They are a complete meditation for me and bring a sense of deep joy and connection to beauty. I can go back to the task and joy of ‘finding the magic’ again, rather than worrying about the state of our world.”

A piano in good shape and in tune plays wonders in the head. “I love playing my Kawai 7 grand, and I just had to do a track for someone on a digital, and I hated playing it. I have spent all these months on the acoustic since I have not been playing gigs,” says Anderson. “The piano is my real instrument and love, and the B3 is set up beside it. This tuning will set up another week of recording in my Covid studio. I very much look forward to it. I have become much more sensitive and appreciative of a well-tuned piano. I can sit and let the sound wash over me. It is my best medicine.”

Roblin has found a spiritual companion. “It has been a silver lining for me that will continue long after Covid is over — a great addition to my creative world. Truly the gift of being able to play the piano has afforded me this opportunity to have new connections and creativity during this isolating time. It continues to lift my spirits and I am seriously grateful for it.”

This past year, COVID-19 has left players in the company of those who either love or tolerate us, an abundance of worrisome thoughts and that keyboard staring back from across the room longing for attention and abiding love. Fortunately, the piano and I are a couple again. The pain of arthritis in the thumbs has subsided, allowing me to record numerous funk and soul tracks in 2020 and plod my way through a third solo piano recording. Honestly, I’ve never thought the piano lost faith in me. It was me losing faith in myself.

Datl sums this up nicely: “I heard of many musicians missing playing with their friends and I realized that as a work-at-home composer, I have felt this way for many years since doing more composing and less gigging. This time has pointed sharply to the importance of connection to community. It has been heart-breaking to see venues shut down and so many people, including many musicians, lose their livelihood. After the initial shock of the new norm, I began to appreciate some of the hidden gifts in this strange time. As hard as this has been on the music industry, it seems to me that the music industry has been broken for a while. Maybe we need a collapse for some new and better model to come about. Fingers crossed.”