I began 2021 with a running start. Literally. My parents have this tradition with their local running group — no matter how late you stay up to celebrate and ring in the New Year, we run at dawn…well, more like 10:00am, which I suppose isn’t much after sunrise at this time of year in Saskatchewan. This year’s pandemic restrictions meant no trips to Yorkton and no running group festivities. However, that didn’t stop me from rolling into the morning light to shuffle several kilometres, starting 2021 off with both tradition and intention. It also didn’t stop me from tucking into a well deserved breakfast featuring the previous evening’s Yorkshire puddings with eggs and a spread of coffee, tea and fresh fruit. Oh yes, part of the Yorkton running group’s New Year’s tradition is an opulent potluck brunch following the morning run. To give you an idea of the relative grandeur of the event, I usually bring chocolate covered strawberries. We are fitness and food enthusiasts in equal measure.
In the afternoon Stephen and I decided to go on a miniature adventure to Pike Lake. It’s amazing what 25km can do in changing both landscape and mind space. Our friend and colleague, Hannah, had recently been to to skate on the frozen lake. Neither Stephen nor I had ever skated on natural ice, so we felt compelled to embrace this different winter experience.
Nestled among hilly farmland and acreages, Pike Lake is not particularly large, but has its charm. From the beach-front parking lot, both of us later admitted feeling both trepidatious and slightly underwhelmed by the snowy lakefront. However, upon closer inspection we found terraced benches carved from the snow on the shoreline, which offered a stable perch to don our skates. The ice was uneven and snowy, but Stephen laughed and said, “Imagine — it’s just like we’re skating in the 1600s!” His good nature fuelled my enthusiasm to find my balance as we explored along the side of the lake.
Hannah had told us to look for the canal, and after skating around the bend of the beach we found the narrowed ice passage leading to a rest area featuring hay bail seats and a wood fire. The ice on the canal was mesmerizing. Below the surface, cracks and fissures streaked through a spectrum of midnight blue to azure, clouded with crystal white. Leaves, twigs and water plants peeked through the glassy pane from the frozen depths.
I was most entranced by the bubbles that were frozen on their journey up through the lake. The bubbles elicited a strong personal response in my heart. Since March 2020, bubbles have been such a defining and delineating part of our lives. As I gazed at those frozen bubbles, I identified with their uncertain journey. If these bubbles were able to speak, what would they say? They might cry out, “Please help us!”
Of course, the reasonable response would perhaps be, “I’m sorry, you’re just going to have to wait until the ice melts in order to join the rest of the air particles out there.”
“But this isn’t fair — I just want to be free in the atmosphere,” wail the bubbles.
I say, “I can bring an axe, but it would damage this beautiful ice and cause both destruction and danger for everything around you.”
“…okay, fine, but for how long must we wait?”
I would release an empathetic sigh and say, “I don’t know. Eventually the ice will melt and you will be free. That could be next week, next month or longer. Nobody can say.”
How many times have we all had these kinds of conversations in 2020? How much longer must we bubble? How much bigger or smaller will our bubbles become? When will we burst these bubbles and have the freedom to interact with each other and the world around us? No one can say.
However, as I gaze at the frozen Pike Lake bubbles, I don’t see sadness and isolation, I see hope. The canal ice will not remain frozen. One day those captive bubbles gracefully and gradually will be freed. This season will come to an end.
Heading into 2021, let us all freeze for a moment and remember that this is all temporary. Yes, the time of thawing restrictions and freedom to gather safely will come. For now, it is a season to be still, to reflect, to allow our imaginations to stretch toward new ideas and patterns of thought beyond our tiny bubbles that feel frozen in the icy lake. From the depths of the ice, dare to choose hope.
I have been experiencing a period of reading. I’ve been reading about Tom Bombadil’s house, about Gene Kelly dancing his way from the cloops* of Pittsburgh to Broadway (and beyond), about checkmating and en passant. [*A cloop is Gene Kelly’s definition of an establishment that is, in his opinion, a club crossed with a chicken coop.] I’ve been reading recipes for Speculaas cookies, slow roasted vegetables and Gai Lan bedight with minced garlic.
I’ve been reading letters, cards and gift tags from parcels and greetings sent from near and far. I’ve been reading the glances, gestures and expressions of our parents, siblings, friends and extended family on smartphone and computer screens. I’ve been reading the corners of my emotions to find the joy in the gift of the present. I’ve been reading my memories of past seasons that shaped my sense of tradition and celebration at Christmas time. I’ve been reading along the root lines of my life to realize that every moment really does contain all that has past, all that is present and all that will be (The Muppet Christmas Carol may or may not have inspired greater pondering in this vein); I hold a childhood Christmas ornament in one hand and a fresh mandarin orange in the other.
This year my Mom sewed us a quilt made from Christmas bear panels. I chose these panels from a fabric store in Ganges, B.C. when I was eight years old. I don’t recall my choice, but my soul recognizes that every bear depicted is singing or playing an instrument, a foreshadowing of the future me that sits wrapped in a forgotten decision which seems to have somehow shaped the pathway of my life. As of late, I’ve been reading along this path, following the footsteps I have left on the earth. I close my eyes and remember what I thought were discarded memories of napping and purchasing a toothbrush upon arrival in Rome, of the geographical layout of Königsplatz in Munich. I nibble on my mother’s shortbread cookies and once again I am in my childhood living room breathing in the balsam oil of the tree.
I surprise myself with my aptitude in preparing Christmas dinners just like Mom. As I balance the act of a well-timed festive meal, I find myself coming of age; I have graduated from Christmas guest to (potential future) Christmas host. I can bring the magic to create a joyous Christmas for those near and dear. The eight year old in me smiles along the roots at the person I am becoming. This year is not without its opportunities to grow and embrace changes in myself reflected against the ever changing world around me. I sense the spirit of Grandma Olga at the table and can hear my grandpas’ gentles voices and their singing laughter echo off the walls of our bungalow. I feel, for the first time, my yet-to-arrive children in my heart’s centre. They are all with us. We are not alone this Christmas.
Since the new pandemic restrictions came out in Saskatchewan, I had been unable to write about Christmas until today. I fully believe this course of physical separation is the greatest gift we can offer our loved ones this holiday season. I feel immense gratitude for my fiancé whom I get to see and hug each day, and am comforted in the knowledge that my loved ones are safer from not visiting us this Christmas. I suppose I needed these past few weeks to read, to grapple, to find peace, to gently allow some joy in despite the worries and separation of this past year. Even though this Christmas was neither what we hoped for nor what we expected, in its way, it was still a beautiful Christmas. This gives me hope for the future – a moment of light in the immense darkness painted across December night skies, and indeed across 2020. Perhaps this darkness will continue for some time, but we must keep our lanterns lit and our hearts open. The spring will return. The light will kiss the earth once more. We will be together again.
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.
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.
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.
After many months of silence I’m finally returning to blogging. I am almost always writing at home in my journal, for the private audience of my mind and my heart has much to share. However, whenever I think about posting my writing and thoughts on the internet, I somehow feel it to be in disagreement with the sacred privacy of my journal entries. When considering my current practice of online teaching and administrative work, perhaps my reluctance to spend more time on my computer than is absolutely necessary keeps me from blogging more often…well, more than once every two years… However, as we are all so very physically separated these days, I have been feeling a more intense calling to write and share with a greater community. I love to write and connect with people, so here I am, and here goes.
Last year, life became a very joyful form of busy. I was growing my teaching studio, conducting the choir at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian, accompanying the SCC Cantare choir as a collaborative pianist, leading painting workshops and completing painting commissions. In addition, I was touring, recording and making plans with one of my best friends, Emily Shaw in Duo Estelle (if you haven’t already, check out our website: https://www.duoestelle.com/). My partner and dear beau, Stephen, was there every step of way, and was rapidly becoming an increasingly important part of my life’s journey.
As I sit here on this sunny October morning, the increasing chill of the season cannot touch the warmth held in my memories of 2019, each moment tinged with a sort of unique nostalgia often considered foreign in the remembrance of events that happened only a year ago.
I close my eyes and can see the silvery white bark of the birch trees at Kenosee Lake as I walk hand and hand with Stephen along the lakefront. I see the vibrant fields of flowering canola and maturing wheat at my uncle’s farm, punctuated by the antics of their growing family of outdoor cats flitting around the deck in the early morning light. I see the snowcapped spruce trees greeting me on dark, candlelit winter mornings outside the north-facing window of my apartment.
I can smell the delicious aromas of meals made with love by my Mom, my Auntie and my future Mother-in-Law. I see those 365 days as a kaleidoscope of vibrant prairie sunsets and quiet, blue-skied mornings interspersed with fierce winds, cloudy rains and relentless snow. I hear laughter, gentle whispers, boisterous cheers, meaningful conversations and so much music. So many memories swim in my mind involving so many people. I somehow knew as it was happening that it was a special time.
As we know, when March 2020 took the world by storm everything shut down. Here in Canada we kept to our homes in an effort to slow the spread of the virus, only emerging in Saskatchewan in mid June with tentative and cautious footfalls. Those months of quarantining were deafeningly quiet, yet full of constant noise and sound. The music events stopped. The laughter was stifled. Sometimes the colours seemed to drain from the sunsets as the days blended one into the other. My painting practice ground to a halt. I stopped writing for a time; my journal pages lay empty and expectant on my bedside table, a daily reminder of my inner silence. The poetry stopped flowing from my heart. My body tied itself into anxious knots, making singing a challenge rather than a pleasure. My voice was constantly fatigued from worrying and trying to speak through my tiny smartphone microphone to my students during their digital lessons. My inspiration and imagination had joined the lockdown.
However, while reflecting on this period, one must balance the darkness with the light. I continued to bake sourdough bread with renewed purpose (yes, I did indeed bake bread before it became Pandemic Chic!) and developed a pizza dough recipe with my starter. Stephen and I delivered bread to friends and family in town and drew ourselves a little chicken wearing a cupcake liner to serve as a mascot for our imaginary bakery called Holliston Bread Co.
My challenges with singing caused a direct funnel of my musical energy toward increased piano practice. I started to be able to manage more difficult repertoire with greater ease. If my voice failed me, I knew I could sing through the works of Chopin, Mozart and Bach at our loveable old Nordheimer piano. I was also incredibly lucky to have kept my contract with St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. The music director, Gillian Lyons and I worked tirelessly to keep music as part of weekly online services. Virtual choir rehearsals and projects have become a norm — you could say that church choir has given me the opportunity to learn more about music production and video making. I’m excited to see where all of this newfound knowledge will take me.
Speaking of technology, teaching online presented a new set of challenges to explore and embrace. I chose Zoom as a platform to connect with students each week. My families did their best to adjust, and my teaching took on a new focus — to connect and to support students in pandemic times through music education. I now am the proud owner of a studio microphone, a tripod, a separate webcam (which I refer to as the “Spy Cam” or “FBI Cam” that sits above my keyboard) and of course a whiteboard. One of my favourite parts of this whole process was being able to connect with students I had worked with in Ontario. Digital lessons will never replace the value of face-to-face interaction, and I miss in person lessons terribly. However, it has been rewarding to find new ways to innovate my studio in order to continue in the safest way possible at this time.
At Easter, Stephen and I dressed up and enjoyed a night of Ukrainian and Greek fusion (we live in SK, thus these foods are as common as the endemic flora and fauna). After dessert, Stephen sidled around the edge of our cozy table, knelt down and asked me to marry him. An overwhelming sense of certainty and purpose filled our hearts. Despite the woes and challenges of this pandemic era, we were ecstatic to have happy news to spread some joy during these times that are continually labelled “uncertain” and “unprecedented.”
The neighbour’s cat, Scout, paid us frequent visits to snuggle when he was able, and sometimes just to sit by the dining room window with us during coffee breaks and meal times. We reached out to friends and family all over the world to connect and share in the unifying joys and struggles of a quarantined lifestyle. Perhaps our greatest accomplishment was taking in Wagner’s entire Ring Cycle over a period of four days…somehow after that we needed a little break before returning to the realms of opera viewing. Fifteen hours of Wagner = no regrets.
Stephen and I took wintery walks around our neighbourhood, slowly watching the snow and ice melt into spring. We witnessed the elm tree in our yard awakening from its snowy slumber. As April thawed into May, we tilled up a corner of the backyard and started a potato patch and garden from our reclaimed, weedy earth. Stephen trimmed the giant lilac bushes that line our back fence as I excitedly ordered seeds and brought home entirely too many plants, supplemented by rhubarb roots, dill, lilies, hostas and delphiniums from my Mom and Auntie adding to the riotous explosion of life in our burgeoning garden. Oh, and we grew weeds, so very many weeds. They must be mentioned, as they seemed to work the hardest of all our plants.
I started up running again after several months of pandemic infused hiatus. I found new paths to explore and experienced moments of humility as I pushed the limits of my body’s endurance, making a few mistakes along the way and generally taking time to be alone with the river and the trees.
It has taken me several months to put all of this into words, to balance the light with the darkness. Perhaps more darkness is yet to come. I try to embrace the shortening days and the increased isolation with a greater commitment to my family, my studio and my art. Like so many others inhabiting this planet, I cannot quell the concern for my family, my friends, my students, my community. For people I do not know and will never have the opportunity to meet. Wherever you may be in the world, I hope you feel safe, and I hope you are supported and loved through the challenges, pains and frustrations that accompany humanity during this pandemic. No one can say what tomorrow may bring, but for my part all I can do is take things one step at a time, one hour at a time, one day at a time with as much hope and love I can muster for the people around me…while wearing a mask and keeping a respectful distance.
“Cold is the arctic sea, far are your arms from me…”
With the cooling temperatures and first tendrils of frost reaching across the land, I received a request from a previous student for a commission. My task was to create a rendering of James Gordon’s “Frobisher Bay” (please see my previous blog post here for more details about this heart clenching song and my zealous preparation surrounding the project). “Frobisher Bay” is special to my client, not only because of her Nunavut roots, but also as a part of her life’s musical journey. I had the pleasure of singing choral voice parts of “Frobisher Bay” with my past student, and so it was wonderful to create a painting which held the gift of shared musical experience.
“Dark are these sunless days waiting for the ice to break…”
The improvisational creation of paintings is always an immensely personal process, but having had the opportunity to sing “Frobisher Bay” with my client made this particular creative endeavour hit even closer to home. Having recently moved from Ottawa, I didn’t have a chance to bid farewell to everyone that was a part of my life in Ontario. Even though this new chapter in Saskachewan feels natural, inspiring and grounding, I find myself still processing relationships and connections from my time in the nation’s capital. Every student teaches me something, and this particular student opened my eyes to her beautiful province and the fascinating culture of it’s people. Telling of stories through song, dance and spoken word is critical to the survival of Nunavut’s cultural history, so sharing the story of “Frobisher Bay” with my student made me feel a part of that oral history, however small. Shout out to my Nunavut Sivuniksavut family. You taught me so much and it was a joy to sing with you!
“Deep were the crashing waves that tore our whaler’s mast away…”
So back to “Frobisher Bay”. One crisp October morning, I laid out my paints and blank canvas, trusty Bose Soundlink Micro (I need to dedicate an entire blog post to this wonderful little speaker) set on loop for “Frobisher Bay.” To further embrace the Nunavut climes, I turned down the heat in my studio, and stripped down to shorts and a tank top. If I was going to do any true justice to “Frobisher Bay”, I knew I needed to foster a palpable shiver.
“Strange is the whaler’s fate, to be saved from the crashing waves, only to waste away frozen in this lonely grave…”
An hour of continuous shivering and diving into the splintered, fierce beauty of “Frobisher Bay” and I came out the other side with the following creation:
I can feel the ice freezing into the groaning timber of the whalers’ ship. The endless sunless days. The pervasive ache of bodies and spirits longing for warmth, comfort and tender embraces. The striking beauty in the infinity of the skies.
“Long will this winter be frozen in Frobisher Bay”
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
– “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost
My creative process is always a meandering adventure leading along nebulous pathways into manifested clearings of artistic output. As I scraped the frost off of my car on my way to the art supply store this morning (yes, it’s happening…insert all possible “Game of Thrones” references **here**), I was reminded of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”. I love his trepidation, standing at this fork in the road, looking down Path A and Path B, trying to decide which way to go. I also identify with his ballsy decision to say “Nope, I’m taking that less frequented pathway, thank you very much.” That’s how I feel whenever I have a new painting commission. I stand before this multi-pronged fork in the road, gazing at pathways I have taken for past creations. There’s always this decisive moment in my mind when I start forging through the grass and trees to find a new pathway.
So back to my shopping outing. I feel art supplies “shopping accidents” are perhaps the most joyous of shopping events. I hear a resounding “why?” from the imaginary interwebs peanut gallery, so let me explain. During an art supplies run, every item in the store nearly vibrates with yet-unleashed potential. I never feel like I’m finished saying what I need to share through my art, so walking into a store packed with artistic potential makes my creative energy whir and dance. Every tube of paint and blank canvas whispers to be awakened. The beauty in this part of the process is that I never know what my arsenal of supplies will yield, especially with some new additions to the collection! My creative process is always a reminder to make this whole life about the journey rather than the destination.
Pre-shopping trip, my client tells me about their experiences as well as their connection to a particular piece of music or song that they would like to have interpreted on canvas. I often step into the store with an idea of the following:
Do NOT buy these colours (for some reason I have yet to do a painting that features neon hues…stay tuned for the day I play with this palette!)
DO buy these colours (especially if I’m feeling the painting needs a colour that’s not in my stash)
I am willing to spend X amount for the sake of stocking the arsenal (directly proportional to the sales I discover).
When visiting a store full of art supplies, it is always, always, ALWAYS exciting to discover a sale on those items you use up like they’re sashaying out of style. In my life, the “bread and milk” of art supplies are respectively “canvases and paint.” Imagine my delight this morning to discover the BTGO (the less commonly used acronym for “Buy Two Get One Free”…that I might have just made up…) offer on acrylic paints. Woawww!!! Yaaaass!!!
I can’t tell you if all of the above paints will make it into the final commission, but I do know I’m feeling ready to express this beautiful song on canvas! Once the painting has been delivered, stay tuned for pictures here on the website. So with this Frosty poem on the brain and this frost-bitten song in my heart, I start this new comMISSION with excitement and anticipation.
Job Description: Musician. What does that even mean? 95% of the world has no clue, and who could blame them? Where do we even come from? It’s like one minute we’re plinking out “Twinkle, Twinkle,” the next minute we’re battering against the glass ceiling of the music biz. How do we just suddenly **POOF** appear on a stage somewhere, dripping in either black or glitter (or both – my go to combo), sewing filigree seams of magical beauty into the very fabric of existence?
To be a musician in society is akin to being a wizard. We are shape-shifters of sound. People pay to witness us moving, twitching, breathing, and articulating as we pull vibrations, frequencies and emotions from nothing but sinew, fiber, flesh and bone. Physics aside, there’s something mystical about the sounds we musicians are able to produce. Just like wizards, not all musicians are as skilled as others. As in the Wizarding World, there is a spectrum of agility, grace and power in the music community. We all can’t be Dumbledore, but that doesn’t mean we can’t strive for his heights of prowess, passion and humility. After all, where would the Headmaster be without a Hogwarts full of wizards striving for something bigger than parlor magic tricks? Like an avid reader spellbound by Harry Potter’s odyssey to conquer He Who Must Not Be Named, concert goers are enticed by a musician’s somewhat inhuman ability to create virtuosic strains of sound from seemingly nothing but thin air.
I like to think of myself as a musician. I focused my post secondary education in Music: Voice Performance. I can decently shape-shift the odd sound. I’m no Harry Potter, but I’m in the midst of the fray (think Luna Lovegood; Neville Longbottom or Bill Weasley – not protagonist material, but a good supporting character). I don’t go up against Ol’ Voldi Himself, but I can sing a mean Vivaldi aria despite my short comings in sound shifting…I mean…singing. I make my livelihood by multiple means (that’s a whole other blog post – insert circus juggling music), all of which involve music in some capacity. By trade, I am a musician. If I was a wizard my super powers would be “Primary: Singer; Secondary: Piano.”
However, singing wasn’t my first love. Nuh-uh. Nadah. No way. It was piano. Ever since I was a three year old, barely able to spread my little sausage fingers over the keyboard, I wanted to play the piano. I remember my sister’s introductory piano lesson with Mrs. Apland (I’m going to be 30 soon and I still have trouble calling her by her first name). I crept around the corner of the living room to see my soon to be piano teacher, weaving spells of “Hand Position” and “Note Names” from the keyboard, as my sister sat there in excited anticipation. What was this sorcery?
Unfortunately I was a little too mini to start piano just then, but the second Mrs. Apland thought I was ready I leapt into the deep end. Show me the good stuff! Teach me this music magic, I thought as I conquered chart topping hits such as, “Mouse in the Coal Bin” and “Sixteenth Century March.” Along the way, Mrs. Apland shared recordings with my sister and I of Canadian pianists such as Glenn Gould, Angela Hewitt, and Oscar Peterson. These were the true wizards. The rest is relatively standard history, culminating in an A.R.C.T. in Piano Performance before scooting off the Hogwarts…I mean, Western University. (Honest Freudian slip – check out the Western University Tower; it looks quite like the magical castle that seems to have forgotten my acceptance letter.) Fast forward through several degrees and a budding teaching studio and we have come to a screeching halt in present day. I hope you enjoyed the Hogwarts Express.
Just this past Thursday I had an opportunity to witness Ottawa piano superstar Angela Hewitt in concert at the National Arts Centre. The evening was the third installment of a four year project entitledBach Odyssey. Hewitt is planning on tackling all of the known keyboard works of Bach in a 12 recital series between now and 2020. All. Of. His. Keyboard. Works. **Dramatic pause to allow readers to pick their jaws up from off the cold, hard floor.
I feel I’m slowly earning my stripes as a shape-shifting sound-weaver. I can play through the odd prelude and fugue. At the ripe old age of twenty-six I can say I’ve devoted a fair sampling of blood, sweat and tears to the art of making music. But Angela Hewitt is another level. That’s some Dumbledore echelon sound-weaving right there. Sure, some of you readers may have more Gandalfian tastes, but nobody can argue with Hewitt’s agility and precision. It is exhilarating to behold. Just even considering the kind of brainpower involved in performing three complete Bach partitas and one sonata in a single sitting is a harrowing notion at best.
At the end of the day, what I’m saying here is that it’s healthy to be floored by the Angela Hewitts of the music community. Whether you dabble in party magic tricks or wish to conquer the universe with your immense sorcery, there’s something in this experience for everyone. The simple awareness and digestion of high level music creates a twofold benefit: It reminds you of where you stand in the music cosmos, and it inspires you to strive beyond your current level of musical wizardry. I wish I could have brought every person I know and filled that hall. I would have stated emphatically, “See this? This, right here? This is magic.”
We don’t need to look to Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings for magic in this world. Magic is within us. It’s in our bodies. It’s at our finger tips. Thank you, Angela for reminding me never to forget this.
“Ah, music,” he said, wiping his eyes. “A magic beyond all we do here!” — Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
My dear friend and fellow musician Emily Shaw and I were having lunch the other day and she served up some lucrative advice. With a side of real sauce. Extra sauce. A local luthier, performer and music teacher, Emily has a flourishing business and is living the artist’s dream — successfully making one’s way in the world as a musician. Emily is a trailblazer amongst millennials striving to find their professional footing in an wild and uncertain economy. Through her building, teaching and performing, my friend is establishing her growing business in the Ottawa and Ontario music scene (not to mention tending to the many little lives in her garden – the lettuce is ah-mazing!). Her resourcefulness, imagination and good ol’ elbow grease have brought Emily success and meaning in her artistic life. In short, she’s a pretty amazing human. Go check her out. Do it. Do it now!
Okay, now that we’ve established the awesomeness that is my friend, I’ll get to the real sauce mentioned above. To be a successful teacher/artist/modern businessperson/self-employed super-musician, you need a digital presence. Especially on the inter webs. And I’m not talking about a stagnant website that’s updated once a year (Ahem…yours truly may or may not be guilty of this in the past 365 days…), I’m talking about regular updates and activity. It’s a must, a necessity to be taken seriously in your profession.
So there we were, sitting at Nordstrom noshing on our Green Rebel boxes (don’t worry we ordered drinks so as not to be squatters in the coffee bar) and Emily throws out this golden truth nugget (don’t forget – slathered in real sauce). “You know, a website that is continually being updated with new content will inevitably increase visits to your site.” A technological neanderthal, this concept blew my mind. I mean, it makes sense – upping one’s presence on the web by, well…having more of a presence? That makes sense, right?
“You enjoy writing — consider keeping a blog on your website. You could write about anything – music, teaching, painting, performing, life…the list goes on, ” Emily said as she peered at me with wise eyes over a cup of African Nectar tea. “Give it a try. I’ve found it very helpful for my guitar building and studio.”
I do love to write. I’m not sure how admirable (or despicable) I am as a writer, but I do know I enjoy sitting with a nice coffee and riffing off some prose into the ether…net…(insert groan here – bad joke alert). I’m also not a 140 character kind of human. In school teachers would encourage me to resist “writing essays for long (and short) answer questions.” I guess you could say I’ve always been long winded in the scribbling department. There’s something far more intense about writing things down than orally stating one’s thoughts or opinions. Something more eternal and more final. Like the Velveteen Rabbit, the more I write the more real my thoughts seem to become. It’s comforting, risky and cathartic all at once. Perhaps that’s what draws me to this whole blog idea. And what nobler a pursuit in this time of 24/7, lighting speed, social media and instant gratification than the pursuit of “becoming more real.” I’m Velveteening it up — time to honour my inner stuffed animal heart that has weathered some storms and is becoming more real with each passing day. I’m going to keep it real — in my music, in my teaching, in my art and in my business, and I’m here to share this journey with you and the ether.
So without further ado, I leave you with a passage from one of my favourite books of all time, The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams:
“Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’
‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.
‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’
‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’
‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”