To Thine Own Self Be Tru(ly Kind)

Breathe. In. Out. In….why is this so difficult to remember?

You would think a person could never forget how to breathe. Perhaps I haven’t forgotten, but I seem to have committed to holding onto my air, just in case my inner world implodes as the outer world explodes with the pandemic. I cling to my breaths, just in case they become more limited — I covet the surge of oxygen in my body, and am always hesitant to exhale without letting that oxygen get a moment of notice, a hug of thanks, and a regretful farewell as it leaves in its new guise of carbon dioxide. I hold my breath in case I miss something. In case I’m not alert enough, present enough, in the moment enough.

Exhale. Deliberately. Through your nose. Release the cord that is your tongue jammed firmly against the top of your mouth.

I sit in my pale grey studio chair. I look away from my computer screen and instead gaze at the keyboard, the score, my tea cup bedecked with soft pink roses and black vines. I gaze out the back window at my neighbour’s giant spruce tree swaying against the brisk, Saskatchewan breeze.

Roll your shoulders back. Release. Just listen.

These are common check in moments for me during long days of online teaching and collaborating. I have learned to drop by the reception desk of my mind with scripts quite similar to the interior monologues listed above, the M.O. being to remind myself that I am a body, a living breathing being, and not just my own image reflected on a screen. Of course, online lessons can and will hopefully never fully replace in-person music instruction. However, my knowledge that the circumstances are less than ideal crystallizes in me this desire to try so very hard in ways that do not serve me well as a person, an artist or an educator. As a result I decided to compile a list of realizations to share with fellow teachers, with other people working from home, and with anybody who is feeling a little (or a lot) uptight, lonely and impatient with this uncharted territory of constant remote work. I hope my reflections will be of some comfort and perhaps provide a familiar, yet fresh perspective on professional self-care during the time of Covid-19 and online learning.

  1. Found Moments of Movement

Have you ever noticed how carelessly us humans treat our bodies when we engage with screens? We hunch into the blue light as if it were a midnight fire casting warmth into the wilderness, our shoulders tense, our arms crumpled into our side and our wrists held at odd angles. We become like a great big praying mantis crouching over our smart devices. I noticed this in a serious way when I began teaching online.

I like to think I’m reasonably fit — I dance around the house, I love to run and have been known to take part in various forms of sport. However, as the weeks of Zoom lessons passed, I felt increasingly sore, like I’d taken a five hour flight going absolutely nowhere. I’d sit on the tarmac of my studio, strapped in for hours at a time with no palm trees, snowy mountains, or unseen vistas on the other side of my journey. I would wake up in pain, feeling much creakier and older than I ever could have imagined from teaching music lessons. Headaches were a constant companion until I learned the wisdom of blue light filtering apps. If you haven’t yet tried this for your screens, I swear by it in relieving both tension headaches and problems with sleeping due to hours and hours spent on the computer. I use Night Shift on my phone and Flux on my computer.

I discovered a remedy for my aching frame: movement. I don’t have any specific goals for my body during this pandemic beyond a greater sense of balance in combination with both prevention and relief of physical tension. My new motto reads as follows: a tiny stretch break is better than no stretch break at all. If I have a small gap in my schedule, I get up and walk around the house. I check the front mailbox, and sometimes just a few lungs full of fresh air are all it takes to reset my energy and clear my mind. Despite the longer nights and darker mornings, I still crave moments outside. If I have a longer break, a walk is necessary and my favourite apple tree gets a little visit before I return to teaching.

Found moments of movement have made all the difference. No matter the posture, our bodies are not designed to stay stagnant in any given position for indefinite periods of time. Something that feels inherently comfortable may transform into a posture of ache and pain without regular variation of movement. Online teaching helped me to realize how often I moved in the studio during in-person lessons, be it for student switch-over, demonstration, searching my library for scores, or stretching and games with students. I had developed a “theory at the coffee table” approach with the wee ones, complete with repurposed purple and gold meditation pillow that ascended into the “Magic Theory Pillow.” Sometimes, especially restless kids and I would would do theory while laying belly to the floor, just to switch things up. In teaching online, movement decreased significantly for both me and my students. I continue to read up on the subject, and have developed the following ways to help my students find movement during their online lessons:

  • Drumming Time: Have your student kneel on the floor and use their piano bench as a drumming surface for rhythm games and exercises.
  • Jumping Jack Breaks: “Give me ten! Give me twenty! Okay, now let’s play that sonatina, con brio…”
  • Warm Up Stretches and Breath Exercises: Reach the arms slowly above your head as you inhale through the nose for five full counts. Exhale through the nose and slowly release the arms down to your sides. This is extremely helpful for both my singers and pianists as it opens up the intercostal muscles and creates a more open body space for deep breaths.
  • Walk Breaks: Invite your student to take a small walk, skip or run around the room before returning to the lesson space. Sometimes I ask the student to go on a tiny adventure to find some item in their home that will help with explaining a concept during the lesson.

I continue to try new movement breaks with my students. Sometimes it is okay to have a moment of searching for a book or a pencil. A misplaced or distant pencil = a found moment of movement.

2. Invest in Your Voice

As mentioned in my previous blog post, initial escapades with online teaching rendered my voice hoarse and exhausted. As a professional voice user, this pained me greatly, causing much stress and heartache. I would want to visit with my Beau during off hours, but found I had no voice to share stories. As I was offered the opportunity to continuing singing for my sacred music duties at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, I felt burdened by my burgeoning vocal challenges. Any opera singer will tell you — the easiest way to fell ill at ease is to feel vocal inflammation and fatigue. I had both in full measure.

My Beau was at home with me during the lockdown, and mentioned at dinner one night the general volume at which I was communicating with my students, and let’s just say it was more a “recess voice” than a “classroom voice.” I was almost shouting through the screen in an effort to be understood and heard. We all know the tendency to yell into the phone. If we don’t do it, we know somebody who does. I had become that person. I was the resident phone yeller.

Over the summer, my research led me to invest in my voice through the purchase of a microphone for my studio. The Blue Yeti USB Microphone – Blackout Edition came into our home this past August, and I’m so pleased. I know there are countless tech options on the market, but the Blue Yeti has been a gift for la mia voce. I am able to speak more softly, and generally have managed to keep my voice in a much healthier space this fall. I will likely do another blog post on all my newfound studio tech, so stay tuned. If you are experiencing the woes of a tired voice, I cannot more emphatically recommend investing in a studio microphone. I can now sing outside of teaching hours again, and my Beau and I have shared many cozy conversations after the teaching day is finished. This birdie has found her voice again!

3. Isolate With Care

It is so easy to work the day away when you live and do all of your business from home. Without breaks in the flow to attend rehearsals, recitals, workshops and meetings, it becomes so very easy to just work oneself to an exhausted pulp. My projects rarely take me out of the house these days. For two out of my several pursuits, I am the sole employee at my workplace. As a self-employed artist, I am very familiar with being a staff of one. However, with live gigs, rehearsals and collaborations reduced to screens and silence, it can become awfully isolating and lonely to work from home. I work for several hours, then I sit by the window and sip my tea in my own company. If I am lucky, Scout, the neighbour’s cat will pop by for a cuddle and a meowing chat.

Before the pandemic I would frequent local coffee shops, book stores and cafés. With my laptop and a satchel full of books in tow, I would set up my own little camp in a bright window, or in a corner surrounded by walls of books and work amongst the bustle of shoppers, the churning of coffee machines and the symphony of chatter, rustling pages and soft music. The change of atmosphere gave my creative energy a jolt (and no, in case you are wondering, it wasn’t the caffeine — I am one of those weirdos who drinks decaf coffee for…can you imagine…the flavour alone!?). I often left those environments feeling refreshed and full of renewed perspective. With Covid-19, my days of two-hour encampments in exchange for the purchase of a book or a cappucino are on hold.

Last week, despite the dropping temperatures and cutting breeze, I set up my creative camp on the deck to accomplish some administrative tasks. The shift in scenery was refreshing (as was the near 0 degree temperature) and I felt like I had been on a miniature outing just steps from my back door. It is a shame that computers don’t like -30 degrees or I’d honestly give it a try! My expectation for what constitutes a change in scenery has had to shift dramatically – I must be flexible while I ache for my book shops. I will brew my own coffee and peruse my own shelves for now. Changing up work space, intensity of tasks, and time frames of focus has saved my professional wellbeing….a little at a time…one day at a time. I need a coffee? Perhaps the plants would like a drink of water. I need a snack? Maybe Hermann II needs some flour to feed his ferment. Hermann is my sourdough starter, moonlighting as a cameo character in this blog. I promise you will meet him more officially at a later date.

4. Get Outside

Yesterday the first snow arrived, an expectant blanket of white crystals reflecting in the shimmering stillness of sunrise. It isn’t Halloween yet, but snow is incredibly eager to visit Saskatchewan before November, so I can’t say we were surprised to see it mischievously laying over the leaves we haven’t managed to clear from the yard.

I partook in my morning work and then bundled myself up for a run. The cold air rushed into my body as I navigated the quiet, snow covered streets. It warmed my spirits to see children out playing and people out shovelling in their yards. I greeted my Halloween pumpkins at the front door with snowy, wet runners. My adventures in the neighbourhood helped me to face the rest of my day. I think it’s the Norwegian blood in my heritage — I love a warm, steamy shower or bath after facing the winter elements!

I don’t have a chance to run every day, but I like to embrace the outside world as often as I can, even if that is just to mail a letter, wander down the river pathways or go to the park nearby to see how the trees are keeping. I am by no means trapped at home, and am determined to continue embracing these small bursts of nature into the winter months. If you can manage, depart from within the walls of your domicile. Look to the sky. Look at your feet in the grass, the snow, the dirt, wherever you may be. It has done wonders for this isolated artist.

5. Reach Out

Something that is easily accomplished during physical isolation is silence between yourself and your now even more physically distant friends and family members. Resist that silence. Reach out to the people you love and care about in this world. We all feel tired, closed in and exhausted from this constant state of emergency that continues to draw in the days, weeks and months of our lives. Sometimes my body and voice are too tired to speak, so I write letters, cards, texts and emails. If I have the strength to connect on a deeper level, I phone or video call friends and family. In my recent explorations in preparing for married life, an often heard piece of advice resonates with these pandemic times: never stop communicating. Communication is so vital during this unpredictable duration of quarantining and distancing. Whether you feel wonderful, terrible, tired, silly, frustrated, impatient or brimming with hope, reach out to your people. Connection is an antidote for the soul.

6. Breathe.

In closing, I know nothing that I have written here today is new or particularly revolutionary. However, I feel it is empowering to share my own discoveries from my increasingly isolated life. My hope is to help other remote workers feel less alone in their experience. I don’t sense this quarantining will end any time soon, and I would love for the world to prove me wrong and surprise us all with health, safety and a very Merry Vaccine Christmas. In the interim, while we dream of a freer, healthier future, we can band together in our strange, fascinating and unfamiliar journeys through uncertain and unchartered waters. Passerà: it will pass.

Wherever you are in this wide world, take a deep breath. Let your tongue melt down from the roof of your mouth, and slide your shoulders down into their nests to rest. Take a look outside of your window. I will too. You are not alone.

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