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Classical 101

‘Being human is better than being perfect:’ A cellist’s journey with long COVID

cellist Joshua Roman with his cello lying on its side in front of him
publicity photo
courtesy of the artist
Cellist and composer Joshua Roman

In January 2021 cellist and composer Joshua Roman tested positive for COVID-19. More than three years later, and after being diagnosed with a COVID-related neurological condition, Roman is still living with those and other symptoms, in what has now been diagnosed as long COVID.

The nature and severity of Roman’s long COVID symptoms might have ended his career as a performer. Instead, Roman’s COVID journey has taught him important life lessons – to let go of perfectionism and embrace fully his humanity. Roman’s health crisis has also led him to embark on some cutting-edge collaborations that illustrate classical music as a key ingredient of well-being.

Roman’s case of COVID charted its own course from the beginning. There were none of the typical flu-like symptoms, but instead, a little difficulty breathing, loss of smell and taste, brain fog and a feeling of heavy fatigue.

“I just never got better,” Roman said. “I had issues processing what was happening around me sometimes, speaking or reading. And as time wore on and those (symptoms) set in, I realized I wasn’t going back to normal.”

Roman’s “normal” might look quite different from what “normal” looks like for everyone else. A world-class cellist, Roman is an elite athlete who, in a normal workday, uses his whole body – muscles large and small – and his mind and soul to create musical wonders. He’s accustomed to a schedule of practicing for hours each day, sculpting melodies to perfection, shaping every nuance of tone and timing, refining finger agility and bow technique to breathtaking virtuosity.

As the fatigue and cognitive issues from COVID lingered on, it looked like the symptoms might end Roman’s performance career. He took about a month off from practicing during and just after his bout with COVID. When he picked up his instrument to begin practicing for a performance of Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto No. 1, it was all he could do to play.

“At first I could only play for a maximum of five minutes, absolute maximum,” Roman said. “When I stopped, I couldn’t lift my arms. I would have to have help putting the cello down, unscrewing the bow. The debilitating fatigue was heavy, it was intense.”

Over the next few weeks, Roman developed enough stamina to be able to play the entire concerto straight through from beginning to end. But he needed to practice the piece – to stop and refine details, not just run through the notes. The cognitive energy Roman needed to make those subtle but important improvements in his playing brought a whole new set of challenges.

“Instead of making it (through) 20 minutes of practicing, I made it less than two minutes, and the same thing happened – I was completely shut down, had to have help putting the cello away,” Roman said. “I learned an important lesson that had never really been apparent to me as lived experience, which is that cognitive energy is still energy, and that, at times, could be equal to the amount of drain that physical energy would take.”

Roman got through the Saint-Saëns concert and pushed himself to prepare and get through a performance with bassist Edgar Meyer and violinist Tessa Lark. Afterwards, with his live concert schedule decimated by the pandemic and symptoms from long COVID persisting, Roman fell into what he calls a depression. He didn’t touch his cello for nearly three months.

“It literally collected dust,” Roman said.

During that fallow period, Roman seriously considered not returning to performing. He had promised a friend he would play the cello at a party, so Roman again picked up his instrument. The first thing he played was the famous Prelude to Bach’s Suite No. 1 for solo cello. As he played, tears came to his eyes. He realized that in all the years of perfecting every detail of his playing, Roman had lost sight of an important ingredient – his own joy in making music.

“I was feeling something that I hadn’t felt in so long, which was this need to play, to make music, to feel music,” Roman said. “Maybe a lot of musicians have this: we’re so good at picking weeds, that sometimes we forget to water the flowers in the garden. Practicing can turn into a lot of nitpicking and finding mistakes and trying to play perfectly in tune and respecting the composer’s wishes. But that process can turn into something that cuts you as a musician out. I have to be moved myself in order to feel what it takes to move other people, to truly reach people. So for me it was a lesson in the power of vulnerability and letting go of perfectionism and focusing on being human.”

With humanity also comes limitations of the physical body. As Roman’s symptoms continued, he was eventually diagnosed with dysautonomia, a disorder in which the nervous system interrupts the body’s physical processes. For instance, if the nervous system perceives an activity to be too physically strenuous, it will induce a physical reaction in the body that encourages limiting that activity. The condition affects Roman’s playing and how he prepares for performances. And some tasks that were once easy for him are now more challenging.

“I was walking up the subway steps and it took a couple of minutes. And it’s, like, 20 steps, but I had to stop a couple of times because I just got so exhausted, and it was really hard to lift my legs. And there’s nothing wrong with my muscles, but there’s a miscommunication of the nervous system that says, ‘hey, we’ve just run a marathon; we need to slow down.’”

Though dysautonomia is forcing Roman to manage his career differently, he is by no means slowing down professionally. A team of medical professionals affiliated with a clinic at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital that specializes in long COVID helps Roman manage his symptoms. Roman’s long COVID journey has also led to his involvement in two wellness-related musical enterprises.

Roman created Immunity, a concert program featuring musical works – including one of his own new compositions – that have been important to him at various stages of his long COVID journey. Roman has expanded the Immunity concert into an educational project in partnership with the Juilliard School. There, he coaches music, dance and theater students to embrace vulnerability in their work.

Roman is also bringing his long COVID experience to Carnegie Hall Weil Music Institute’s Well-Being Concerts. The concerts include specially curated repertoire, guided meditations, and a gently lit, intimate performance space stocked with cushions and a range of comfortable seating options in chairs and on the floor.

Amid all the changes long COVID has forced Roman to make in how he works, one thing remains the same – he still seeks to serve his audience. But now that audience includes not just music lovers but others seeking answers to deep questions on their own long COVID journeys.

“This is my life now. And so many people out there are going through this and don’t understand what it is, don’t have access to the care, or don’t feel comfortable talking about it,” Roman said. “As someone who has these experiences and being a musician and working in a field where you use your brain and your body at the same time, I feel like that gives me an insight into some of the strange things that happen, and that I almost have to share that out of responsibility, to help (others) understand what’s going on, and even just that being human is okay. In fact, it’s better than being perfect.”

Classical 101 COVID-19Well-Being
Jennifer Hambrick unites her extensive backgrounds in the arts and media and her deep roots in Columbus to bring inspiring music to central Ohio as Classical 101’s midday host. Jennifer performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago before earning a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.