10th May 2021

BLOG: Siân McInally – My journey as a musician over the last year or so

In March 2020 my diary was jam packed with a wide variety of work.  As a member of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra I was due to play in seven concerts at the Royal Albert Hall in the first week of lockdown, each subsequent month had London concerts plus visits to the orchestra’s seven residencies around the UK including Swindon and a rare visit to Salisbury Cathedral. With planned tours to Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Italy & India it was going to be an exciting year building up to the arrival of the orchestra’s new Musical Director Vasily Petrenko in August 2021.

Like so many other musicians, I have what’s known as a ‘portfolio career’.  In addition to performing with the RPO, I am also a member of smaller musical ensembles and I teach, coach and direct.   As part of the Wiltshire based Shelburne Ensemble, April would have seen me working in schools in two clusters alongside my weekly teaching commitments and directing North Wiltshire Intermediate String Ensemble. Suddenly everything stopped. I found myself at home with my musician husband and our eight year old son.

Our life moved into a new world of home-schooling and online teaching, I had learnt the benefits of using an ethernet cable and how to tweak audio settings on Zoom but soon found that we struggled if a pupil’s internet wasn’t up to it. I had pupils who didn’t want online lessons and some parents decided to wait, thinking we’d soon be back in school.

The RPO was finding ways to reach out to audiences, predominantly through social media.  As a section we remotely recorded ‘We’ll Meet Again’ that was released on VE Day.

Like many musicians, Laurence & I started playing outside on Thursdays after the Clap for Carers as a way to keep in touch with neighbours and show our appreciation.

By the middle of the year I had stopped looking in my diary at what I should have been doing, it was too depressing. I felt fortunate that I had teaching but found I didn’t want to practise, I had no motivation and lacked a sense of purpose. I felt I’d lost my identity as well as my livelihood.

In the summer holidays I had my first two days of playing work in four months and more online work, this time coaching the Second Violin section on the National Youth Orchestra of Wales’ digital residency.

The return to school in September brought a feeling of normality, however while all schools have the same guidelines each has responded very differently: in one school I have completed the usual whole class First Access and have recruited new pupils but in another school it hasn’t happened. I wonder how many children are missing out on their first experience of music making?

Fast forward to March 2021 and the Culture Recovery Funding has meant that orchestras have been able to record concerts to be streamed on the internet. Our ‘new normal’ is either sitting 2 metres apart without masks or 1.5 metres with masks. My last concert with an audience was on 13th March 2020, if all goes to plan I will have my first concert with a socially-distanced audience on 19 May 2021.

I enjoyed the variety my portfolio career gave me, I’d go from teaching violin to a whole class one day, to a concert at the Royal Festival Hall the next, maybe doing education & outreach work in settings from special schools to prisons or working with stroke survivors and the next doing commercial recordings and finding myself sitting next to Rod Stewart! Right now it seems like a previous life.

Siân McInally is a professional violinist and Wiltshire Music Connect Associate. You can view her profile here