Performers in the Time of COVID: Livia Frankish
I so much enjoyed speaking to clarinettist Livia Frankish in the third week of Lockdown 2. Our conversation was full of laughter and serious reflection. Livia combines a range of seemingly disparate skills: she is an extraordinary sight reader while also being able to improvise with creativity and originality. Her tech skills are pretty wonderful as well. Livia was modest about these accomplishments. She attributed them to her training at Trinity College of Music which, she told me, encourages collaboration and a broad approach to music. At the same time, she said, she came out of Trinity having lost her enthusiasm for orchestral playing. 'Some of my teachers,' she said, 'were really strung out. They put me down and made me feel like an idiot. I decided that I didn't want to put myself through more auditions. But I retained my passion for chamber music.'
After College, Livia spent a couple of years commuting between her childhood home in Cardiff and London where she had some part-time teaching. 'Originally,' she said, 'I was couch surfing and then I sublet a room in Zone 6 for half the week.' It was exhausting, but by 2018 she was able to settle full time in London where she had started teaching peripatetically. Quickly promoted to Lead Teacher of Clarinet at a local authority music service, she was responsible for class teaching, ensemble coaching, Saturday school and the directing of wind ensembles for which she found and arranged music. 'I used the mining town brass band model of teaming advanced players with less experienced players. It works well if you mix them up,' she laughed. Coming up to March 2020 life was extremely busy as Livia was gigging at least once a week and running a community house. She had also just become part of a newly-formed Klezmer band which was proving enormously popular and viable.
But then Covid struck. 'I was travelling between teaching commitments on the Tuesday before lockdown,' Livia said. 'Everyone was already very anxious. Loo roll had disappeared from the shelves. We were all aware that lockdown was imminent but my employer had said that everyone should act as normal until told otherwise. Then very suddenly all my work was cancelled. I lost £500 of income over two weeks. To make matters worse, it turned out that my employer had overpaid me on my last payslip and I was told I had to refund that money. I hadn't noticed the discrepancy and of course didn't have the money – it had gone in taxes and rent. I remember standing in the music office and breaking down in tears.' A friend failed to cheer her up when she commented that, 'The music industry isn't crucial.'
'I realised,' Livia said, ' that as musicians we do too many things for free. People feel that it is perfectly acceptable to download music illegally and there are too many free platforms. There are so many ways that musicians fall through the cracks. The thing is though, I went through feeling very hard done by to feeling immensely grateful that I could still work.'
In the summer term her place of work honoured its contracts with its teachers. Livia was asked to create a virtual music school which involved pdfs, audio files and a series of videos hosted privately by Youtube which took students through basics such as instrument care and scale practice. She both recorded some of the content herself and organised the pool of wind teachers to complete the content. It was a huge task and by July, she said, she had come to a sense of peace about the situation we have found ourselves in. ' I took my first real break since secondary school,' she said. 'I learnt the value in having a slower life. And I've remembered there are so many things I want do do and learn.'
But she missed the chance to play her clarinet for other people. 'Lockdown taught me that I was still passionate about performing,' Livia said. 'One of the Thursdays when we had gone outside to clap for the NHS, I took my clarinet out and played for a few minutes. Everyone stopped and clapped. When I went back inside I cried.'
Livia formed a bubble with her boyfriend. 'It was a joy and relief to be together,' she said. 'We had time to talk, time to make decisions. It was a perfect situation but it was bittersweet as it was teamed with our concern for, and distance from our families.
In October when things had eased a bit Livia was able to perform with her Klezmer band to an enchanted audience. She explained that the evening was a completely nourishing and uplifting experience. 'Klezmer,' she said, 'encapsulates that feeling of bittersweetness. That feeling of a sort of joyful sorrow. Everyone knows what that is. In the past, my Mum has said to me, 'Choose happiness.' I think Klezmer holds both sorrow and the will to be happy.'
I thanked Livia for those reflections. Maybe that model of acknowledging the difficulties and tribulations we are experiencing while choosing to see what is beautiful and good, is a helpful one for these strange times.
You can listen to Livia's beautiful playing of her own arrangements here: