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Performers in the Time of COVID: Lene Sahlholdt

Lene Sahlholdt, a Danish soprano of enormous range and versatility, talked to me on Zoom in the second week of Lockdown 2. I asked her to tell me a bit about the shape of her life before March 2020 and she described busy days of both peripatetic and private teaching. Lene explained that in recent years she has realised the importance of preparing for the future in terms of employment. 'Freelance work is always uncertain and precarious,' she said. 'I decided to make sure there was variety in my work so that if one strand fell through there were many others to compensate.' Lene focussed her considerable energy on preparing for lessons, organising exams, helping students get ready for auditions and providing tuition in music theory. She had also started directing a choir of twenty members the previous year and spent time preparing for their weekly sessions.

'With teaching,' she said, 'you can't stand still. You have to keep growing in order to help each individual student to grow. I try to understand my students' strengths and weaknesses and use my intuition and creativity to help them reach the highest level possible.' Lene told me that every Christmas she records each student singing a carol. 'I think of it as a time capsule,' she said. 'We listen to the recording the next Christmas and each student is able to hear how much he or she has progressed.' Her commitment to her work has been widely recognised: 'I had become extremely busy and was in great demand,' she said, understandably proud of the success of her work.

'But I was also aware that it was important to feed my own creativity,' Lene said. I made sure that I kept time aside for myself, for frequent performing, either in London or Denmark, for walking and thinking, maintaining my voice and learning new skills.' She laughed as she explained that she often drifted off to sleep practising musical games. 'I make little competitions for my students and I can't let them beat me!'

So what changed for Lene on the 23rd of March of this year? 'I think I was in denial at first,' she said. 'I suppose the most difficult emotion was that sense of uncertainty, of not knowing what was going to happen in terms of work and income. So she, as so many other teachers did, immediately researched online platforms and after some trials and tweeks settled on Zoom as being the most appropriate for her needs. And soon the phone started ringing. 'There were requests for lessons from a student in Finland, one in Denmark and many here in London. My partner and I decided to keep the choir going on Zoom and although we initially decided not to charge, the participants insisted on making a contribution. It was very touching. I was aware that if I hadn't put much of my energy into teaching and into the choir rather than into performing, I would have been penniless. I was very grateful.' Meanwhile the Musicians' Union provided some generous financial support. 'And of course I was spending next to nothing.'

But inevitably there were times when it was all too much. 'Suddenly I would stop and the panic would surface. I would become aware of the precariousness of everything.' She and her partner thought of ways to lighten their mood when things were tough. They videoed light-hearted songs for Facebook and made a ritual of an after-work Bloody Mary with a lot of tomato juice and a tiny bit of vodka. 'We took turns making it,' she told me laughing at the memory, 'and competed to see whose cocktails turned out better.'

The worst part of the situation for Lene was her distance from her family in Denmark. They would meet regularly on Zoom and in August she was even able to visit twice. But she wept as she told me how concerned she was for her parents who are older and vulnerable. 'If something happened to them,' she said, 'I wouldn't be able to say good-bye.' Lene described how at one point when the infections in Denmark were considerably reduced, her siblings had arranged to meet up with her parents. 'I felt the shock in my whole body when my sister told me,' she said. 'I was terrified for my parents and only calmed down when I understood the seating arrangements they had put in place. You keep a brave face,' she said, 'because that is the only thing you know, but for me the weak point, I guess, is my family. They mean the world to me.'

I asked Lene if she felt she had grown or changed as a result of lockdown. She reflected that for her, the greatest stumbling block has always been the balancing of her own needs with those of others and the apportioning of energy to all of life's demands. 'I'm interested in so many things,' she said. 'I love creating things and showing people how to get past difficulties. I like to help, so I tend to say yes and put myself under pressure.' Strangely, lockdown provided the time to look at her life and all her activities and to gain a sense of perspective. 'I was working less and didn't have to travel; I felt as if there was space to evaluate what I'd been doing.' Lene seems to have put the extra time to good purpose. 'One of my weakest links,' she said, 'has always been sight singing. For many years I've wanted to create ways to help my students improve in that area. During lockdown, I've started composing a series of exercises and have even begun work on an app! It's a slow process; I've spent ages getting the landing page right. I want the app to be the best on the market and to be used for years to come.'

I have no doubt that with her joyous, affirmative spirit, Lene will both create a sight singing app par excellence and continue to navigate her way with huge success through these uncertain time.


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