Finding My Voice Again

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.

Frobisher Bay

“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:

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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”

Frost and New Commissions In the Air

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:

  1. 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!)
  2. DO buy these colours (especially if I’m feeling the painting needs a colour that’s not in my stash)
  3. 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!!!

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I’m currently working on a commission for the choral song “Frobisher Bay” by James Gordon.  Take a listen here (don’t mind the rattling cough at about 3:00): “Frobisher Bay -University of Michigan Women’s Glee Club” 

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.

 

Angela Hewitt and the Chamber(Music) of (Bach’s)Secrets

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.

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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 entitled Bach 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 



A Blog? Who, Me?

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.”

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Okay Blog, let’s do this!