It started as a much-needed holiday in an otherwise busy year, and now, almost a year later, here we are still wondering when we’ll actually get that ‘holiday’ feeling. I remember a van ride for a gig last March, in which we stopped at a service station only to be informed that we had to turn around and go home - fortunately we’d only made it as far as Washington. Diaries that had been brimming with gigs, recording sessions and teaching days were gradually soaked in TipEx until they returned to their initial blankness. Each new cancellation at first came as a shock, and every time another one came, that shock was diluted somewhat, until eventually all plans were considered ‘unconfirmed’ until the moment they were actually happening; and even then, we were planning our escape routes from the building in case the cancellation was announced half-way through the activity.
And so came the first few weeks of DIY, bike rides, foraging and experimental cookery, until it was clear that it wasn’t going to be just three weeks off after all. It became evident pretty quickly that we were going to have to find alternative ways of working, and perhaps a lot of working to get that work in the first place. Over the first couple of months I had taken to playing the piano more regularly again - something I had ceased to do almost completely for a number of years after studying for all the grades in school and then for university. In this downtime, where there was, at least at first, little expectation for what we could or would do, it became a relaxing and fulfilling activity, perhaps more so than ever before. With the mindset every self-employed ‘creative’ reluctantly learns to adopt, I realised this was another outlet for potential employment, and so, with the help of my tech-savvy partner, worked on putting together a performance video to share online.
This became the first of a few videos - the others included ideas for piano, drum kit, and some experimenting with vocals that I’d had brewing at the back of my mind for a while but had never focused into anything specific.
In the few months that followed, save for a few nice messages, not an awful lot happened with the videos. And then came the offer for a teaching job in a Newcastle primary school - I took up the offer to teach drums for one day a week, only to be emailed back shortly after with a request for me to teach piano there as well. This, it turned out, was on the basis of the piano videos I had posted online. About a week later I got a call from a music practitioner at another school, and before I knew it I had gone from having four online drum lessons, to four days worth of teaching in schools every week. Having had six months of almost nothing, this was both exciting and intimidating - was I even sure I knew how to talk to people anymore? Did I now have to dress in a more presentable way, and not just the top half?
I had one full term of school music lessons before the January lockdown
- of mad 7-year-olds jumping up and down and singing and trying to play any instrument that wasn’t the one in front of them and telling me about their new dog and their sister and their neighbour and their brother’s friend Simon and their dad’s cool guitar and their new YouTube channel about slime - and for that I count myself lucky. Since then life has been a cacophony of Zoom lessons, practice, livestreams, webinars and grant applications that refuses to stop. Yes, life is slow, and shows no signs of speeding up, but part of that realisation is that the things we had before are not likely to come back any time soon - undeniably, it’s now time to adapt.
The time it has taken to accept this change has been a rocky one to say the least. At first it was hard not to feel a strong sense of grief for a former life, with the knowledge that this time last year I was playing the drums on a snowy street in Moscow among a crowd of smiling
(unmasked) people. It wasn’t long after that that we were flown out to play a show in Cuba, feeling almost forebodingly lucky as we stared at a perfect blue sky from a warm Caribbean Sea - little did we know that this would be the last big trip, and that life wouldn’t look so vibrant for a long time. The last year has been a time for questioning our identities and, as musicians and performers who thrive on being somewhat unrooted, always moving through a forever changing landscape, staying at home for so long has seemed somehow alien. On the other hand, we’ve at last learned to appreciate the things about home that make us want to stay, to nest and to nurture, and I have a feeling that we’ll never appreciate the time to travel and play music more than the next time we’re able.
Fran Knowles is a drummer, percussionist, teacher, performer and ethnomusicologist who has toured with international drumming street theatre show, Spark!, since 2014. She plays with Newcastle-based bands Beccy Owen & the Refuge and Poor Moi, and has been teaching drums at Core Music since 2009.