Christmas Reading

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.

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.

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.