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2022 - Blog

Compose yourself! 

Covid brain fog has me tongue-tied at the mic

Khatia Buniatishvili started it all. Don't get me wrong, I've nothing against the Georgian pianist, she’s brilliant. But at some time around 10.42 on Monday 23 March 2020, l found I suddenly couldn't say her name. (It's CAT-yuh buhn-ya-tish-VILL-ee, in case you were wondering.)

Until that moment, names like Sofia Gubaidulina, Kristian Bezuidenhout and Thorkell Sigurbjörnsson were my bread and butter. My daily show on Radio 3, Essential Classics, requires a good working knowledge of German, Italian and French; musical titles and song lyrics might be in Icelandic or Irish, Catalan or Czech. All of It has to sound effortless.

Early on in my career, scared witless by this United Nations of names and words, I was told by a producer that it doesn't matter if you say it right, just say it with conviction. But I've got a lot of flying hours under my belt since then (I started on Radio 3 over ten years ago), and I’ve been lucky enough to meet and interview most of the artists whose names I have to pronounce, so I often have it straight from the horse's (or the pianist's, or trumpeter's) mouth.

And it was all going swimmingly, until one Monday morning at 10.42 when something weird happened. My jaw felt like it was working in slow motion. My brain went to soup and my script began swimming before my eyes. Live radio went from being second nature to more like drunkenly singing the Nato phonetic alphabet backwards while doing a headstand. Dangerous, misguided, and not pretty to listen to.


As soon as I got home, the Covid symptoms began raging. Three hellish weeks later, I was still recovering from pneumonia, feeling breathless and dreadful. I had searing pain in my hips and legs, low oxygen levels - and, worst of all, was struggling to recall even basic words. I forgot "mug”, "cupboard", "keys". I couldn't read anything because the words made no sense.

Several blood tests later, I was assured the virus was completely gone and I wanted to get back to work. I knew how important a lifeline radio was proving to be during the pandemic, not least from my own experience, wedded to music, news and comedy to get me through the miserable days of being sick.

So I returned to Broadcasting House, not feeling 100 per cent but raring to get back behind the mic. Once I did, it was astonishing - hundreds of messages every day from people not only in the UK but across the world, feeling lonely, who'd suffered bereavement, who'd lost work - everyone wanting to connect through listening to the same glorious music, at the same time as each other. Together, they and I have shared these past few months, joined by the invisible thread of connection and shared emotion that only live radio can deiiver.

And yet, it's not been without pitfalls I’m still struggling to be as pin-sharp, reactive and aware as you need to be in live radio. Texts, tweets and emails flood in, there is music to choose, cues need to be hit at the exact second... and still, of course, there are those fiendishly difficult names to pronounce, not helped by the brain fog of long Covid. As if sponsored by Mr Spooner and Mrs Malaprop, my show now contains regular bloopers - just this last week, Carmen's "zesty gypsies" became "chesty zipsies", Tchaikovsky came out sounding more like "Shislovsky", and as for my pronunciation of "pianists"...

But listeners are forgiving and if Covid's taught me one thing it's that we're all in it together, doing whatever it takes to get through, and taking the laughs and the little pleasures where we find them. So I look forward to you joining me on Radio 3 for Eshenthul Crassocks soon. Hang on, that doesn't sound quite right...

Suzy Klein co-presents (with Ian Skelly)
Essential Classics, weekdays at 9am on Radio 3
Radio Times Article