Dr. Carruthers

How to fully describe a wizard? Both in appearance and in action, that was what Dr. Carruthers was to me. Meeting Dr. Carruthers opened up an entirely new realm of possibilities for me; simply put, I may not have had a career in music if not for him.  He saw me, and many others in our infancy as artists; and with the wisdom of a seer saw us for who we could grow to be. He chose to invest in me with generous scholarships and time, and I began to thrive, grow and blossom in an environment of support and positive expectation. Music school is where I began to come alive, and where I discovered that I could be seen and heard if I chose to be. Dr. Carruthers was one of the first people in my 17 years of life that I truly felt seen and respected by. That in itself was a tremendous gift that I have never forgotten. He had a profound reverence for his fellow humans that continues to inspire me, and a curiosity about and devotion to his musical craft that always intrigued me. I never heard him speak ill of other students or staff, and he approached each challenge or source of resistance with respect and a healthy dose of lightness, philosophy and  humour. I would often stop by his office to say hello as his door was always open, and catch him up on my various successes, struggles and student-y musings. He always made it a point to wander the halls on Fridays with the intention of connecting with students, the importance of which has not been lost on me as I myself began teaching in post secondary. He was genuinely interested in, curious about, and devoted to us as students, and this was something we could all sense tangibly as we went to class, interacted with one another, and struggled with the complications of being a human, a student, and a burgeoning artist all at once. Together with his remarkable wife Heather, they welcomed students into their lives and experiences – their beautiful home of collectibles and curiosities was to witness many a raucous post-exam gathering, of which they exuberantly hosted and took part. 

It was Dr. Carruthers who insisted on and made my acceptance to Brandon University a reality. It was necessary for me to drop out of my rural Saskatchewan school and I didn’t have a highschool diploma anywhere on the horizon – I was raw in my musical skill but determined – struggling but proud; and my quietness in person disguised the searing emotions within that were only revealed when I played violin.  He laid the groundwork for me to be accepted conditionally – the requirements were rigid  and required a 3.8 GPA in order to remain a student without a proper diploma, and I was to be required to write the GED exams once I turned 19 – he was convinced that I was up for the challenge.  In fact I was more than up for the challenge, I thrived on it.  The fact that someone else thought I could do it was all the more fuel to my motivation to overcome and succeed. I was familiar with what it took to overcome obstacles and setbacks of all kinds in my personal life, and he seemed to know that I had what it took to propel my way through a university degree at the age of 17. It was his belief in me that enabled me to start believing in myself.  He saw in me things that no one else had, and by his own example, showed me how to perceive myself in a respectful and understanding way. Throughout my four years at Brandon, he was a constant presence and encouragement to me, and even though I was only in contact with him sporadically after I finished my degree, his influence followed me well beyond graduation.  I contacted him the day I was offered a high-profile conducting job. The position happened to be in the city he was now posted in as Dean, and I was in town for the audition/interview process. I called to make an appointment, and he generously cleared his schedule to meet with me. Having taken a position at a larger university, his office was a larger version of the tasteful one at Brandon that I had remembered, but he remained unchanged in appearance and manner, and we talked for an entire hour about life, career path, and possibilities. I asked his advice on the position that I had been offered but was yet to accept, and together we discussed the pros/cons and what a future could look like, both within the position and pursuing my own path as I had been. I was early on in my conducting career, having pivoted my professional career from working as a violinist full time, still feeling my way along and struggling with the newness of the demands on me both personally and professionally. As always, he was affirming and listening to me fully, completely.  I have often thought of his gift for listening to people, and how calming, healing, and nourishing it feels to be be fully heard. At the end of our meeting, he told me, “there are no wrong choices, and whether you take this position or not, you will be successful!” It turned out the job was not the right fit for me and I declined the offer, but I often thought about that conversation in the months that followed. 

His belief in students’ abilities and ideas created a culture in the School of Music of innovation and independent creation and thinking, and he enthusiastically supported my extra projects both in and outside of school. This was probably one of the most empowering and beneficial lessons to have been imparted during my time at Brandon, and one that served me well in the many years to come of freelancing, creating, and founding my own ensembles, concert series and orchestras. He gave me confidence to create independently and authentically, and allowed me to hone the skills of musical entrepreneurship and individuality within the protected confines of school. 

There are few people who could execute the job of Dean in a burgeoning School of Music with as much grace and care, and the ripple effects of his contribution to the post secondary music world will be felt throughout the future generations of musicians, educators, professors and artists that benefitted from his benevolent leadership. 

It is truly impossible to express the impact and lasting resonance of a job well done and a life well lived, but I endeavour to do so in a small capacity in this post. 

Dedicated to the memory of Dean Glen Carruthers who passed away on December 24th, 2020. 

Digging Deep.

This is a transcript of a speech I recently gave at the Coalition for Music Education Youth4Music Leadership Symposium held in Vancouver on April 1, 2017. I was asked to share about the impact of music in my life, and the founding of my orchestra.

My name is Janna Sailor, and I am the founder and Artistic Director of the Allegra Chamber Orchestra, an all female ensemble dedicated to empowering women and their communities through music.

I am also a violinist performing with several orchestras in town, including the Vancouver Opera Orchestra, in addition to my own solo and chamber projects.
Does not leave much free time (lol)

Music has had a profound and transformative impact on me, and I truly love my life and what I do.

But it wasn’t always this way.

I grew up in a town of 300 people in rural Saskatchewan
(Elbow, Sk to be precise!)
It is not far from Eyebrow Sk. Google it, they exist!

Growing up, music was a part of the everyday routine for me, just like brushing my teeth.
You see, my mom was a piano teacher, and music lessons for myself and my 2 siblings was mandatory.
I remember as a three year old trudging off in my snow boots to violin lessons, this wasn’t my idea of a good time!

As a matter of fact it wasn’t until many years later that I realized the true power of music, my calling to create it and how it would become a tool for transformation in my life.

Growing up I was painfully shy.
I didn’t have any friends, I rarely spoke up,
and I found each day at school to be truly terrifying.
You see, despite the picture perfect appearance to an outsider looking in,
our family was anything but.

I was physically and sexually abused throughout my childhood.

However, throughout my confusing and tumultuous daily life, practice time on the violin went from being a daily chore, to a place of solace….., relief……. and escape.
Music became my voice when I literally didn’t have one.

At the age of 13, I was accepted into a youth orchestra, which quickly became a place of belonging, self expression, and safety for me. As a troubled and bullied teen, I dropped out of high school, and never returned. Orchestra rehearsal was truly the only place where I felt accepted, happy, and at home.
The power of the orchestra around me brought me a tremendous sense of freedom, joy, and a sense of my own personal power in contributing to it.
Despite the early mornings and the hour and half commute each way to rehearsal, I loved and lived for every minute of it.

However, the family business was struggling, and soon my parents could no longer afford to pay for my tuition. I was determined to continue my studies, so I took on jobs cleaning houses and as a maid at a local motel. Since I wasn’t in school, at 13 I was working full time. I would return home from a full day of cleaning jobs exhausted, but I could wait to spend time with my violin. I would then practice until the wee hours of the morning. I did this for years.
Somehow, deep down, I knew that music was my way out of my present circumstances, as an abused, depressed and suicidal teen. Day to day struggles and turmoil were so prevalent in my life, the future didn’t seem very promising.
And people warned me that not being in school would limit my career opportunities & my future. In a small town, it felt like there was no escaping the cycle of poverty and dysfunction.

Until one day at 16, a friend was taking a road trip to audition for a music school, and I decided to tag along. I took a lesson with the head of the violin faculty which ended up being an informal audition. That day, I was accepted to their performance program.

My life changed drastically in an instant.

After three years of cleaning houses, I found myself on full scholarship at a music school, despite the fact that I didn’t have a high school diploma.
To me, this was a miracle.

Music had literally taken me out of a troubled and unhealthy situation, and created time, space, and resources for me to grow, flourish, and to begin the process of emerging as the person and musician I was supposed to be.
I was creating music everyday, and for the most part, I was free from the constant dysfunction of my home life. To me, university, (even cafeteria food) was heaven.

It wasn’t easy though.

I hadn’t been in school for a long time. And, as a scholarship student, I had to maintain a 3.9 GPA. The gaps in my education showed. It felt like I always had to study twice as hard as everyone else to keep up. After 4 years, I finally graduated at 20.

However, the long hours of practicing for numerous competitions and auditions had resulted in significant nerve damage, and by the time I graduated, I could no longer play. The one thing that I relied upon and had kept me going, I could no longer do. And unfortunately, the patterns of the childhood I grew up in followed me into adulthood.

With no way of supporting myself, I married right out of school and straight into a dysfunctional, controlling and abusive relationship. I was right back where I had begun.

It took years to heal my body, and to relearn how to play the violin from scratch. Despite the progress in my playing, my marriage had become increasingly unbearable and dangerous. After my life was threatened several times, I finally left. I took my violin, my favourite gown, and my orchestra clothes.
I didn’t have any money, or a place to live, and music was literally the only thing I had.

Once again, it was my way out of a hellish situation.

Over the next few years, I played countless concerts wearing that gown,
continued my education and went to grad school, began playing with several orchestras, and rebuilt my life. Once again, I felt free, powerful, and happy, making music each and every day. Music gave me confidence that I didn’t know I had.

The presence of music in my life empowered me to overcome circumstances that overwhelmed and limited me in scope. I discovered, that in creating music, I had the opportunity to get a glimpse of my strength, and overcome my perceived obstacles. Some of the most profoundly moving music was created, not out of ease, but out of struggle, pain, and a desire to uncover and understand the inner workings of being a human.

Music showed me my best, worst, most tender and compassionate, and most vulnerable aspects of myself. It is mysterious and powerful force, and the influence of music in our lives cannot be underestimated. As such, music education and access to it deserves our protection, advocacy, and a place of honour and respect in our society. The influence of teachers, mentors, and my youth orchestra conductors in my life was profoundly life changing,
The skills and perseverance that I learned in the practice room and on stage, went on to serve me well in other areas of my life.

When we educate others in music, we are teaching not only an art form, but another way of being, interacting, and consciously creating the world around us.
Music in turn, teaches us more about ourselves and others. All of us, as musicians, leaders, teachers, it is up to us to create, inspire, and share music in a way that it’s transformative power can truly be realized and experienced.

Although my life circumstances were less then ideal,it did set me on the path of dedicating my career to music and in it’s service, and to creating opportunities for others to experience it’s unifying power. This was my motivation is starting an orchestra with a social action mandate: women empowering other women through music.

Allegra has participated in the founding of a music therapy program at the WISH Drop in Centre, a resource centre for women on Vancouver’s DT East side through a charitable partnership with Music Heals. Since it’s formation 8 months ago, the orchestra has performed in 9 events, all with a social action mandate, with many more upcoming. The orchestra has been featured in several documentaries,
radio programs in 4 countries,
and reviewed in numerous magazine and online publications.

There is truly an appetite for music, contribution, and change.

The creation of Allegra was part of my personal mandate to empower and improve the lives of women and children that struggle and have experienced similar circumstances to my own. Music is a universal and multifaceted force that brings with it healing and far reaching capabilities that transcend language, culture, societal status, gender and religious barriers, among others. As such, it is the ideal vehicle for social transformation, meaningful communication and impactful change.

I would like to end with the words of Michael Gilbert, the former concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic. I spent a beautiful afternoon with him in his Manhattan apartment going through scores and recollecting his experiences working with legendary conductors over the years. As I was leaving, he said to me, “Your job on the podium, is not to criticize the orchestra or dictate what they are to do. It is your job, as a leader, to make them powerful and to love music and each other. “

To Hear nor There…

…And what I learned about the art of listening

When asked in a writing exercise to articulate what my greatest challenge was this week, I almost yelled “No one listens to me! No one hears what I am actually saying!” This seems to be the theme in my professional life over the past few months, and this was a week of reactions and reacting, and in my mind, trying to MAKE OTHER PEOPLE LISTEN. I spent most of this week on my soapbox, touting my agenda and chiding those that were too ignorant to join my cause. Needless to say I didn’t get very far outshouting my fellow soap box-ers. It was a tumultuous week that was filled with interpersonal bumblings, professional friction, and ultimately, a life lesson.

In a suitable bookend to the week, I finally took pause long enough to truly take in the humanity and not just the words, striving to hear with compassion rather than through my own filters and agenda. I realized that my challenge was not so much being heard, but my own resistance to hearing anything other than what I wanted to hear. Further, I noticed that I often listen just long enough to respond, tuning in only to hear what I want or need in the moment. Needless to say, neither of these superficial approaches was serving me in my efforts to diffuse tensions and truly get to the heart of the situations I was dealing with this week.

In short, I realized that when I am not being heard, it is actually a call to listen more deeply, more sincerely, and to adopt the intent to understand. As a conductor I often joke that I am a professional listener, and I am constantly working to improve my awareness and the sensitivity of my ear to better serve the orchestra. Truly receiving and hearing those around me is a necessary and humbling art that I will strive to perfect going forward as well.

Lesson learned…until next time:)

This blog post is in response to Natalie’s 10 Day Blog Post Challenge Day 1: http://suitcaseentrepreneur.com/10-day-blog-challenge/10dbc-day-1

Mr. Toews

I was a quiet and skittish teen—naïve, painfully self-conscious and awkward in every way. However, I auditioned successfully for a position with the Saskatoon Youth Orchestra when I was 13. I thrived there and lived for the early Saturday morning rehearsals, even though getting to rehearsals on time from the small town where I lived meant getting up at 5am to make the commute. It was the best day of the week, and I would return home filled to the brim with inspiration that fed me until the next rehearsal.

Although violin was my vehicle of expression, I was utterly enthralled with the orchestra as whole. Youth orchestra was like a little piece of heaven to my young ears. It seemed that there were limitless possibilities, colours and power within the orchestra that I had never experienced before. It was an entirely new world that was inching its way, ever so slowly, to match the music that was constantly resonating in my head and heart.

Mr. Toews was the conductor, and something of a living legend in my mind. I had heard stories about him all my life as he had mentored my mother in her university days as a music major. He conducted the youth orchestra with a mixture of sternness and humor, always looking for ways to engage us in the rehearsal process and creating opportunities to learn and interact with the music using not only our technique and intellect, but also our imaginations. Storytelling and analogies that were at times shocking to my young ears were on tap to ensure an engaging and spontaneous rehearsal. His blue eyes would always sparkle mischievously when he would say something especially impish, and I would fully apply myself to playing “like…you know what!”

My extraordinary four years with the youth orchestra instilled in me tremendous gifts that I didn’t fully comprehend and appreciate until years later when I was conducting and creating youth orchestra experiences for dozens of bright eyed and keen young musicians as a conductor and staff member of the Vancouver Youth Symphony. Observing the four orchestras at work, I was quick to identify the misfits, those that found solace each week in their musical tribe, as well as those that were truly on fire with the passion of creating music. Not a rehearsal went by that I was not reminded of my own experiences playing under Mr. Toews and the many lessons I learned under his baton. The tremendous musical, social and travel experiences as a member of the orchestra had lasting effects on my life path and helped me to truly discover who I was and the direction my life was to take. He empowered me with a lifeline of confidence and belief in my own ability. He always demonstrated a profound respect for each of us as people and artists; no answer was incorrect, no idea was silly or insignificant, and each mistake was an opportunity for growth and deeper understanding.

Years later I heard my own voice echoing to my intrepid young orchestra those same concepts and analogies instilled in me so long ago. The tempo relationships, subdivision, bow distribution, authentic musical expression and countless other lessons that were taught to me so diligently over those years I was now able to pass on to my bright eyed musicians. I sincerely aspired to create the same learning and musical environment that would inspire my impressionable musicians with lasting lessons and values to take with them beyond the rehearsal; I offered up the same gifts of experience that were bestowed upon me many years ago.

The profound influence Mr. Toews has had on the lives of hundreds of musicians is incalculable, and I feel profoundly grateful to have been one of those shepherded so carefully in his flock. For all the timeless lessons, inspiration, humour, guidance, generosity of spirit and knowledge, I give tremendous thanks to my mentor Wayne Toews.

(I fully admit to stealing and using his most memorable lines in my own rehearsals, and sometimes… I still hear his voice in my head telling me to play a passage “like…you know what!”)


The more I travel through life, the more I am astonished by the extraordinary lives and beauty of every soul I meet. There are people I have come across that I know I was destined to meet, and that changed me forever, and my history was rewritten once I found them. Such was the day I met Nancy.

The first day of my Masters degree I felt even more broken than usual. Not the usual funk of the occasional bad day, but when the thick, crushing fog of existing in spite of dysfunctional patterns and insurmountable struggles that seemed to overshadow and control anything else that dared come into my life. This is how I lived, for days that stretched into years, until I had somehow landed in this place.

My life wasn’t working. My body wasn’t working. I was a violinist fraught with injuries and nerve damage, and as a result stifled by debilitating stage fright and anxiety. I had somehow bumbled my way through auditions for grad school and ended up here, the school that was my very last choice. I was conflicted as to what I was doing there, as I hadn’t played properly for months, some days the pain was so bad I could hardly hold my bow properly for more than a few minutes. My body seemed to abhor the positioning of the violin and symptoms would flare up just thinking of playing. I was told to quit violin altogether by my previous instructor. Sports physiotherapists, chiropractors and neurologists tried to splice together the pieces of my body and mind with marginal success. I didn’t know what was wrong with me, and neither did anyone else it seemed.

I met my motivated, outgoing and talented classmates, and made my way through the awkward stages of a first day, my one on one violin lesson being the last class. After some general niceties, I played the first few measures of Mozart A major concerto, which I had slaved away on in my limited amount of playing time a day. After a few measures I stopped.

“I am sorry for wasting your time,” I blurted out. Nancy looked at me as if she could see through the back of my head to uncover my soul and everything about me that I was trying so hard to hide. I felt incredibly vulnerable, shaky, and…seen. That sense was all I needed to let down my guard and allow the struggles and pain of the past several years of a tormented relationship with my body, mind and music making to spill out in a tangled mass of words and emotion on the studio floor. I was ashamed, to act like this in front of a total stranger, and my new teacher, on the first day of grad school. Nancy listened intently, compassionately, asked questions, and above all, respected me.

“So…are you just going to quit then? No more violin?” She asked, with a spark in her dark eyes… it was a daring challenge, not a question, and I knew it. Something in the way she said it reignited the drive, determination and love for what I did. The months that followed were some of the most challenging that I can remember in my musical career. She had unshakable faith in me, and in her own innate skills to heal and reconfigure injured violinists, in both body and soul. While my colleagues were competing and taking audition tours, for a month I played only open strings, and with a modified bow hold. My technique and emotions were taken apart and stripped bare. The next month I played G major scales.

She held onto me tightly, nurturing me with the right combination of tough love, straight talk and gently pushing me beyond what I was capable of, always with compassion and understanding. By the third month the pain was lessening, and I could play simple things in first position without nerve issues and pain. I sounded like a beginner, but I was proud one. These triumphs were truly monumental for me, but when I looked around at my effervescent colleagues achieving notoriety and handling demanding performance schedules with ease my accomplishments seem to wilt to the floor in an instant.

I sputtered about not finishing my degree on time and that I was so far behind the rest of my class that I would never catch up. Perhaps I would not be able to complete my performance degree at all. “Keep your little nose to the grindstone and things will begin to shift around you while you work,” she told me one lesson, “You’ll see!” Months of tedious repetition, observing, learning and unlearning, unpacking, choosing new patterns, thoughts and sensations in my playing were to follow.

She always knew when something wasn’t right in body or mind, and the wellbeing of Janna the person was always paramount over Janna the violinist. Each lesson was truly an experience that deepened my understanding not only of the violin, but of myself and my relationship to it, and the world around me. It was her guidance and support that mirrored back to me the factors in my life that had created the conditions for my injured state. Nancy helped me gain a foothold in order to begin the process of climbing out of it. I felt like I was scaling a sheer and imposing rock face, but that she was the one on the ground, belaying and providing the safety line so I could never fall, while continuing to ascend.

Two years later I completed my final test recital only hours before the midnight deadline to qualify to graduate, and completed my Masters with the rest of my class.
This past summer, in an interesting stroke of luck, I had the privilege of conducting the National Academy Orchestra of Canada with Nancy as the soloist. There was no one else I would have rather conducted for my first experience accompanying a soloist. Starting over again it seemed, and only a few months into a new career path as a conductor, I felt like I did on my first day of grad school. Once again it was Nancy who was there; to see, hear, understand and create music beside me.

With much love and monumental gratitude, I dedicate this post to my teacher, Nancy DiNovo.