Written by Dave England (PMZ Community & Events Coordinator / Music Leader) & Anna Batson (Creativity & Learning Director / Music Leader)

Pat Tansell & Dave England playing a piano duet on Plymouth Barbican as part of PMZ’s ‘Piano for a Day’ event (July 2015)
Pat Tansell & Dave England playing a piano duet on Plymouth Barbican as part of PMZ’s ‘Piano for a Day’ event (July 2015)

In March 2020, Covid-19 sadly put a stop to all music workshops and face to face interactions with Plymouth Music Zone participants.

On the surface, it seemed that we wouldn’t be able to continue any sort of musical interactions with our participants, particularly those who were most difficult to reach.

However, in this beautiful and heart-warming story we share how one of our musicians has been finding hope and continuing their music with PMZ despite being in isolation.

Introducing Pat and her journey with Plymouth Music Zone

Pat Tansell is 85 years young and began learning piano with Dave England through Plymouth Music Zone in 2014. She talked to us about her previous disillusionment – being let down repeatedly, despite being extremely musically intuitive and clearly passionate about all – things musical. She was failed by a series of music teachers and schools, and described losing out on many opportunities in general as a blind person.

Pat always especially wanted to learn to play the piano, but somehow it had never been possible until Dave and PMZ came along! Her motto has always been that it’s never too late to start learning and her positivity is infectious and inspirational to others.

Demonstrating her commitment to music, she is an integral member of PMZ’s ‘EngAGE’ (older people’s forum), is a PMZ ambassador, and is clearly passionate about the work of the organisation, music, developing talent and including people from different backgrounds in making music together, especially those who have not had previous opportunities to try it.

On a mission to involve others in music, Pat was the driving force behind a group of residents at ‘The Rise’ in Plympton who wanted to start a group and open up opportunities for singing for those with sight loss. This group has since been running for 7 ½ years, initially with Simon Hackworthy and then with Anna Batson, although it’s currently been interrupted by Covid-19. Pat says she misses this group very much as it is well-known for bringing much enjoyment, fun and energy to the residents. Pat said she’d also noticed that having rested her singing voice during lockdown she realised that when she sang again she couldn’t reach the high notes anymore, she was out of practice.

Pat says she misses the musical and social interactions in another group she’s a member of, and often wonders how everyone is doing. ‘The Musical Misfits’ is a band of older musicians (age 55+) playing a wide variety of instruments at PMZ in which Pat sings, plays piano and percussion. This amazing group was due to perform at a festival celebrating arts and older people at The Tate Modern in London in April this year, but the event sadly had to be cancelled due to the Coronavirus outbreak.

“I’m currently working on playing Pachebel’s Canon, which we were also doing with The Musical Misfits before all this lockdown – it makes me think of them – I miss them. I really hope they’re doing ok.” Pat Tansell

Pat Tansell at the piano at Plymouth Music Zone (2019) before Covid-19
Pat Tansell at the piano at Plymouth Music Zone (2019) before Covid-19

Overcoming Challenges

Pat underwent gruelling cancer treatment over a number of years during the time we have known her, but the piano playing and music-making has been with her throughout and helped her remain focused. She is now thankfully cancer-free, and has retained the determination to keep playing to help maintain her physical and mental wellbeing.

Pat told us she used to struggle with the arthritis in her hands and that playing the piano has really helped with managing this, and has improved her dexterity. This has continued to be the case throughout the spring and summer of this very challenging year.

Early on in the UK Covid-19 lockdown (March 2020), Dave telephoned Pat Tansell to see how she was doing. They quickly realised that it might be possible to continue learning after all using some basic technology – a good old fashioned landline telephone, a piano and Dave’s precisely tuned supersonic hearing! Pat wasn’t able to use Zoom or other online platforms that involved a computer.

A Busy Mind and Busy Hands!

During lockdown, Pat said her hands have been in good shape and that she has been knitting, baking (in particular, trying out new recipes) and keeping her mind busy. She says that she’s particularly fond of making pastries. She has been working her way through a collection of newly-translated braille versions of 200 Mary Berry recipes! She also recommended a rather tasty peanut cookie recipe from her sister.

Pat’s phone is very much a lifeline used for many things. An information-sharing communication system is set up at her extra care housing setting for all residents with sight loss for the individual flats / homes.

Pat used to work as a volunteer for the Samaritans and was a regular phone user for that too, hence being used to how the phone sounds and can be operated. Her family all live on the other side of the country, so she has been keeping in touch with them and communicating regularly. Piano / music mentoring sessions by phone therefore seem to have been less of a technical challenge in that respect.

Pat told us that she’s been listening to a lot of music (mostly classical) on the radio and through her new Alexa device.

“I ask her, Alexa can you play Pavarotti?”

…. and just she was explaining this to Anna over the phone, the Alexa device started playing Pavarotti! Pat then said,

“Shut up, shut up!….but honestly, I do love that man’s voice. He does something to me!”

Pat also said she’d heard a wonderful Swiss pianist who started playing at the age of 4 and was playing Beethoven in a recording at the age of 18.

“I couldn’t believe her age, she didn’t make a single mistake. They wouldn’t let her off the stage.”

Pat has a great interest in young musicians and learning about their lives and how they progress.

“It makes you realise things, like when I wanted to learn… I remember really clearly at the age of 10, the doctor of music at the school put me in the choir because I showed him I could sing. So, then he made all these excuses about having enough piano players….I was so upset, but what could I do? However, I love it because I am doing it now.”

Photo by Anna Batson: Landline on the Piano
Photo by Anna Batson: Landline on the Piano!

Just a voice in the room?

Dave England talks about the transition from physically being ‘in the room’ to doing distanced piano mentoring sessions conducted as a ‘voice on a phone’:

“To Pat, I was only ever a voice in the room – as in, she couldn’t see me in any case! So, when coming to terms with a new way of working together remotely during lockdown, this seems to have actually worked as an advantage to her. We began using her landline telephone set to speakerphone mode so that she could hear me without having to hold the handset.

Initially we started off just having catch up chats on the phone – it was simply a matter of keeping in touch and having a natter about everything. Then we tried playing a few scales on the piano. This then progressed as we worked out that it was possible to communicate in this way quite successfully together.

I quickly realised, however, that the main challenge for me was that I wasn’t able to see what Pat was doing, for example which fingers she was using. This, of course, I realised was ironic and that I would have to start finding strategies to ‘hear’ what was going on and work with that.”

Pat is methodical in how she learns and tries to get things right. This was helpful in terms of setting tasks and working through the different ideas. This ongoing learning is another reason why music making has been so important to her during this extremely isolated time. She has a very active mind and the continuation and consistency has been really important to her. She says that the uncertainty of everything has been the biggest challenge through lockdown and said to Anna,

“It feels great to have that focus!”

She said she’s very disciplined about it and plays for at least an hour and a half a day, but in blocks so that she doesn’t get tired. She added,

“It works fine on the phone with the sessions compared to in person, all things considered, definitely. I think it’s absolutely wonderful, but I will be glad when we can be back together.

I wouldn’t have gone far without Dave, he’s a good teacher and he won’t let me get away with anything.

I have been really amazed to be honest with you – he’s been really good at conversing with me and is really patient.”

Progression – for music leader and participant…

Dave reflects:

“There’s been some very genuine musical progression happening over these past few months. It’s actually been mutually beneficial because we’ve both continued to learn about music, new ways of listening, teaching, noticing small changes – and really just ‘tuning in’.

I’ve really learnt from the whole experience – I now have much more empathy with Pat’s sight loss. I cannot see her, the piano, the room etc. but I have been learning to adapt.

More often than not, there are small things that become so important. For example, something amazing happened a few weeks ago – I noticed that Pat started to play the scale of C starting an octave too low. I realised she was seated too far across the piano and asked her to play the note that was nearest her tummy. I was then able to ask her to shift her position across as I’d identified that something wasn’t right.

I have begun to be able to ‘hear’ when her fingers are not playing things in the correct order as there’s a tiny pause just before the note within the phrase.

I’m audibly learning what is happening down a crackly phone-line and am able to talk through what Pat needs to do to improve.”

Dave says that the biggest challenge is often teaching yourself out of bad habits and muscle memory that gets embedded with the wrong way of doing something. This is sometimes the case with what Pat is working on. He says it’s been really important to be able to laugh at each other when Dave tells her off for launching off into the wrong Hanon exercises! Pat tells Anna,

“I’m learning to do scales on the black notes – it’s great. The exercises sound wonderful but he (Dave) doesn’t always know if I’m using the right fingers. I tell him I am – perhaps he does know though…?”

Pat & her guide-dog, Ziggy outside the PMZ building
Pat & her guide-dog, Ziggy outside the PMZ building

Practical Considerations


“Initially, we were trying to find our way around the problem of not being able to be in the same space. However, the solution was simpler than we thought it would be. For example, the good old-fashioned telephone has had the real advantage of not having any latency in the sound.”

This is quite a contrast to some of the experiences of musicians using online platforms, such as Zoom etc. where the musical experience can often be unsatisfying and frustrating because of time delays and a lack of precision on that front. However, Dave also reflects,

“I have noticed a couple of less positive things too, for example how it sounds over the phone in the higher registers through the tiny speakers. Pat is now playing all the scales from C to B in the different keys, however, higher notes are really unpleasant over the phone and over time this is very tiring on the ears and brain!

Another time….here’s a funny story – Pat dropped the phone on the floor. In fact, this has happened on a few occasions when it’s fallen off her piano. I’ve had to shout to her “I’m over here, I’m over here” until she manages to scrabble for the phone and continue the lesson!”

Pat also recounted this story to Anna, chuckling as she said she could hear Dave’s voice coming from the floor!

“This is so funny – I put the phone on the end of the piano and it fell off (laughing)…….There was Dave’s voice…and eventually I found it and we got back to what we were doing…”

Evidently both of them have found humour in the situation.

Beautiful Outcomes

Pat played Bach’s ‘Prelude No 1’ to her sister over the phone who lives on the other side of the country. Her sister said she was going to share these lovely few moments with other family members, including one who is a music teacher. Pat regularly plays to her nephews and nieces, sharing her love for the piano with them. She said her sister often tells her how proud she is of what she’s achieving.

Hope has been a theme that has been present throughout lockdown on this musical journey with Pat. The ongoing mentoring session setup between Dave and Pat, and the tangible and very real connection has had an impact on other staff who find knowing that she is still engaging regularly with us gives everyone a real boost.

Many of the staff have described a feeling of grieving for their participants because they are unable to interact with them. Therefore, the PMZ team enjoy hearing about how Pat is doing. Sharing this with each other has a bigger impact than just the actual sessions taking place.

Pat, Dave and Anna have a lovely rapport between one another. Even before lockdown, messages and anecdotes, stories and tale-telling banter were regularly exchanged. During lockdown this has continued, which has provided reassurance and a sense of connection being retained, like an invisible thread!

When Anna asked Pat what the sessions with Dave had meant to her:

“If Dave hadn’t been phoning, I would have just given up. I love PMZ so much, particularly as you reach out to people who wouldn’t otherwise get a chance.”

See if you can spot Pat and Dave in this video from our ‘Piano for a Day’ project from 2015, when we tool a piano to the waterfront by the historic Barbican’s Mayflower Steps for passers by to play, we shared some magical moments with locals and tourists alike.