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‘A new obsession’: the people who learned to play instruments during lockdown

The Guardian has spoken to dozens of people who have used their time in lockdown to fulfil an ambition to make music, with a diverse array of musical instruments being reported.

Learning online with teachers as far away as Australia, South Africa and America, those who shared details of their new hobby with the Guardian described how learning an instrument had helped them cope with the traumas of the past year.

Sarah Melling, a student nurse in Hemel Hempstead, bought a mountain dulcimer on a whim when lockdown started. Her teacher lives in the US and Melling fits her music lessons in between her university Zoom classes.

“It looks a bit like a large violin and you play it on your lap,” she said. “I had visions of myself on a swinging chair on a porch, playing the dulcimer while taking swigs out of a bottle of whiskey, maybe with a blacked-out tooth too.”

Melling is one of thousands of adults who have taken up an instrument during lockdown. Research from Yamaha has revealed that 75% of Britons have turned to a musical instrument to help them beat the lockdown blues. Other research found UK sales of instruments and music equipment have risen by 80% during lockdown.

Kishore Rao
Kishore Rao has been playing retro-Bollywood songs on the piano.

Kishore Rao, 67, a former director of Unesco’s World Heritage Centre in Paris, took advantage of lockdown to explore his lifelong ambition to play retro-Bollywood songs on the piano while John Smith, a 70-year-old retired Baptist minister, was given a Celtic harp on his lockdown birthday last May.

“I had seen a busker playing a similar harp near David’s tomb on Jerusalem four years earlier and must have talked enough about it to inspire the gift,” Smith said. “I have been learning with the help of a lady in South Africa. I practise every day and I love it!”

Dan Savidge bought a keyboard and found a teacher in Australia in lockdown
Dan Savidge bought a keyboard and found a teacher in Australia in lockdown.

Dan Savidge, the managing director at Euphonica, said running a music agency despite not being able to play an instrument had always made him feel like an impostor.

“I’d always planned to learn an instrument. Lockdown gave me the opportunity,” he said. Savidge, 42, bought a keyboard and found a teacher in Australia. “Due to a very young family, I have to get up at 5am to fit in the practice, which I’ve done daily for the last six months. I’m at approximately grade 2 level now and have a new obsession!”

Dr Matthew Jackson, an ICU consultant at Stepping Hill Hospital in Stockport, who has learnt to play the banjo at home during lockdown.
Dr Matthew Jackson, an ICU consultant at Stepping Hill Hospital in Stockport, who has learned to play the banjo. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Others turned to music to help them with their mental health during the pandemic. Anticipating a traumatic time in his hospital, Matthew Jackson, an ICU doctor in Manchester, learned to play the banjo, tin whistle, bass and concertina. “I knew I’d need a new challenge on the home front given the likely stresses at work,” he said.

Liz, a 67-year-old retired infant teacher, said she was “absolutely desperate for something new and fresh in my life after the underwhelming Christmas of 2020”.

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“It was just a sudden whim really,” she added. “I had never had the slightest desire to play an instrument before but it is magical. I prop up my iPad, secured with a bit of Blu-Tack, so my teacher can see and hear me, and it is a glorious experience. I would never have done this without the lockdown.”

Anastasia Diakaki, a 33-year-old content director for professional learning at the CFA Institute, started learning classical guitar when the November lockdown was announced. “I remember watching Boris Johnson’s address that Saturday night and feeling desperate, and then thinking, ‘It’s an opportunity to do something I’ve always wanted to but never prioritised,’” she said.

Anastasia Diakaki who has been learning to play the classical guitar
Anastasia Diakaki, who has been learning to play classical guitar. Photograph: Tracy Geddes

The next day, Diakaki bought her first guitar. “The woman who helped me there told me there has been a huge surge in new learners since the beginning of the pandemic,” she said.

“I’m so glad I decided to just go for it and make the best out of a situation I can’t really control,” she said. “The ability to play music is a soothing, inspiring skill that I hope to work on for the rest of my life.”

Clive Cunningham, a partner at the Herbert Smith Freehills law firm, said that taking his grade 4 piano exam in a local church hall between lockdowns in early December had been one of the scariest and most exhilarating experiences of his life.

“I have never been so terrified,” he said. “I was physically incapable of playing notes in the right order for the first 10 minutes of the exam. It was made worse by the fact that I could hear all these small children practising for their exams in other rooms. They were all incredibly proficient, utterly calm and completely self-possessed while I was a total wreck.

“But I felt a fantastic sense of achievement once I’d finished the exam,” he added. “I passed and I’m working on my grade 5 now.”

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