On March 1, 2020 I woke up thinking, “I never learned the third movement of the Italian Concerto. I need to do this. I need to start today.” By March 12, 2020 the piano festival was cancelled, schools were closed for two days, and none of us knew what was coming next. The coronavirus pandemic and Covid-19 had become a reality here in Harrisonburg. How was it that my pandemic project was in place before the pandemic?
As the weeks and months crawled by, I turned to Bach. After I had danced, charted, graphed, analyzed, played, prayed, and painted the Italian Concerto, I turned to other Bach pieces in my repertoire, some that I hadn’t played for years. One hour a day, every day. I didn’t miss, maximizing the opportunity given to me as a result of lockdown, quarantine, and isolation.
By October 2020 I was seeking the next step. During yet another interminable evening I was watching a pre-recorded concert on my phone, enjoying my favorite pandemic treat of vanilla ice cream from Mt. Crawford Creamery. The pianist was Lang Lang. The ice cream was straight from the carton. As Lang Lang played the Aria from the Goldberg Variations, my spoon slowed and then stopped. I thought, “Well, why not?” Now, don’t get me wrong here: the virtuosic variations are not in my wheelhouse. But that still leaves plenty.
My first move was to order a score, a high-quality German edition for such an illustrious work. The score I wanted was out-of-print, back-ordered, and heading into delayed mail and holiday rush. So I turned to Amazon, no problem. Oh yes, there was a problem. My precious score arrived not only bent from the shipping, but torn, actually torn. I stewed about it for days, looking for the Amazon return policy and eager to begin. Then it dawned on me: a work of this scope needed more than one score anyway. Why not go ahead and use the torn score, while I purchased another one from the back-ordered company?
And so I did, using the torn score freely. Eating breakfast, drinking my coffee, waiting in the car, picnicking in the woods, wherever. Spills, hasty notes, I just dove in. And the yoga. On those pandemic mornings I cast a YouTube tutorial to my television, rolled out my yoga mat, and placed my glasses, score, and pencil on the floor beside me. Up-dog, down-dog, scribble notes, plank, low plank, repeat. My favorite tutorials were by Jeremy Denk, Simone Dinnerstein, and Angela Hewitt. For those hours I was in another world. The yoga practice wasn’t the best, and maybe not the piano practice either, but I was transported.
While in isolation in my home I was able to experience a world of Goldberg renditions through the power of YouTube. The PA’dam Chamber Choir sang a marvelous recomposition by Gustavo Trujillo. The Andersson Dance and Scottish Ensemble placed dancing fiddlers onstage with exuberant, shimmying dancers. Simone Dinnerstein played her Steinway surrounded by dancers. A string trio gave their interpretation in a remote Baltic classroom. A young man from the Netherlands sat at a harpsichord on a lonely stage, and I was able to hear the work the way Bach heard it. The chamber orchestra from Emmanuel Music in Boston was a stark reminder of the pandemic. The performers wore face masks, sat six feet apart, and played to an empty church sanctuary. I discovered the remarkable work of Zhu Xiao-Mei, and devoured her memoir, The Secret Piano: From Mao’s Labor Camps to Bach’s Goldberg Variations.
I continued in this fashion, practicing the Variations for one hour a day at the piano. Every two weeks I found myself ordering another score. One edition gave fingering suggestions. Another had larger note-heads and cleaner engraving. Yet another had Variation Three — the canon at the unison — with the two canonic voices printed on separate treble staves. Before I knew it I had six editions spread out on my piano’s music desk. At the height of the pandemic, I had no travel expenses and no meals out with friends. I wore the same outfits, and a tank of gas lasted a month or more. Why not allow myself the luxury of multiple scores?
Did I have a grid, spreadsheet, or calendar? No.
Did I have a path, plan, or roadmap? No.
Am I likely to teach or perform any of the Variations? No.
Does anyone even hear me practice them? No.
So what’s the point?
We know that listeners receive benefits from a performance of the Goldberg. Do we talk about the impact on the practitioner? I can only speak for myself.
I have found a masterpiece of unimaginable magnitude. Practicing one small portion calms my anxiety. For a little while my chattering monkey mind is quiet. I am so mentally and physically engaged that I find myself completely in the present moment. I receive an intravenous antidote to existential angst.
This is how I feel about the Goldberg Variations by the great master, Johann Sebastian Bach. I am a five year-old child again. My parents take me to the ocean for the first time. I stare in awe and wonder for a few minutes. Then I plop down in the nearest tidal pool, and with my little plastic bucket and my little plastic shovel I begin to dig. The child in me has no concern for the immensity of what’s in front of her. She’s not concerned about getting it right. Instead she experiences pleasure, contentment, and absorption in what is at hand.
During the pandemic I laughed and said to myself, “I don’t know what the heck I’m doing.” My thoughts proceeded from, “I’m wasting my time,” to “Au contraire, you’ve never used your time more wisely,” to an awareness that I had stepped beyond time. I felt connected to the whole. The music resounded in my mind during many of the long, isolated hours of the pandemic. Walking alone along the North River in Wildwood Park, I heard Variation 18, the canon at the sixth, bouncing off the rock cliffs. Variation 30, the quodlibet, woke me up at 5:00 a.m., encouraging me to begin a cheerful day. The Aria was a faithful companion throughout those lonely weeks.
The Goldberg Variations sing — in your mind, your body, your heart, your soul, your brain, your bones — they sing. The torn score led me on a journey, a journey where I was finally content to forget about the destination and just be grateful for every step I took along the way.
Katherine Donnelly June 30, 2021