Nancy

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.

Gabe

He was almost a mythical character, rarely seen in town, and when he was he hardly spoke a word. Gabe was gnome-like in appearance, stooped and rounded from years of working on his farm. His face was deeply crinkled and his eyes nearly disappeared when he smiled. He lived alone on a simple farm far from town. He had no family, few friends, and was rumored to be massively rich.

Gabe was in his 80’s and I was in my early teens when I knew him. He would sometimes shuffle in for coffee at the only restaurant in town, a place I worked in the summers. I would often overhear the chatter after he left; old women clucking over what was to happen to his fortune when he passed away. He was always kind to me in his silent way and would leave me a tip bigger than his coffee bill. His low, fuzzy voice was almost inaudible to me when he did speak. My 13 year old self was timid and skittish around him.

When I wasn’t working I was practicing my violin. It was around this time that music began to play an increasingly important role in my life and its unfolding identity. On a whim I began competing in and winning local competitions. I auditioned for a youth orchestra an hour and a half away. When I was accepted I used my prize money to pay the tuition. I lived for Saturday morning rehearsals. To me, delving into the symphonic repertoire was as refreshing and energizing as a holiday in a magical foreign country and it always seemed to end too soon. I would return to mundane weekdays eagerly anticipating and preparing for the next rehearsal.

I worked hard and practiced harder, traveling hours for competitions and auditions from my home in rural Saskatchewan. Sadly, it became glaringly apparent that my drive, work ethic and musicality would only take me so far. Until this point I had been playing on a violin worth $300 and my family’s financial situation was such that an instrument of higher quality was out of the question. Even as a young student the disparity between my instrument and those of my peers was obvious, most of which were valued in the thousands. In a town of 300 people, where every success and every trip out of town is noted and discussed at length in the coffee shop, the fact that I had stopped competing spread rapidly. It must have been at one of these conversations that silent, gnome-like Gabe caught word of my situation.

One evening I was preparing for bed—early, because my shift at the town bakery began at 4am—when there was a knock on the steel door of the factory where we lived. Although I was only wearing my pajamas I hurried through the darkened factory to answer it. Gabe was on the other side. Though we both seemed confused to see each other, I invited him into the lunchroom. Small talk between an awkward teenaged girl and a man who didn’t talk much proved impossible, but he eventually mumbled something coherent, something about wanting to buy a violin. He gestured awkwardly and recalled hearing me perform once; saying that I had played his favorite hymn, one that his mother used to sing to him. I clearly recalled the performance. It had been months back. I had been playing for an evening event at a local church, and he had lumbered noisily in while I was performing, even muttering out loud with no regard for the music. He sat down close to the front for a moment, then bumbled out again before I was finished.

The broken hearted prayers I offered night after night for a competition-worthy violin were answered in the factory lunch room that evening in the form of stooped, awkward Gabe. He handed me a cheque for $5000 and almost inaudibly said something about buying myself a violin so I could play hymns for more people. I remember standing in my pajamas after he left, my bare feet on the concrete floor of the darkened factory, sobbing and feeling like I was flying at the same time. This new violin would be my wings.

To this day I am still not sure why he showed up at my door that night. Gabe didn’t want anyone to know what he had done for me and we never discussed it after that day. He was too shy to attend my concerts in the city, so he never heard me play again. I wonder if this quiet, gentle farmer had any idea of the possibilities he created for me from that day forward. Within a year of buying the instrument I was performing with a professional orchestra in the nearest city. I wept those same tears of gratitude when I eventually sold my precious “Gabe” violin to a dealer so I could buy my professional instrument seven years later.

Gabe passed away when I was studying at university completing my undergrad in violin performance. I wasn’t able to attend the funeral, but whenever I play hymns, or even step into a violin shop, I think of the day I purchased my Gabe violin. I give thanks for this beautiful, quiet soul whom I hardly knew. I give thanks for the innate power of music that inspired generosity in him and now in me.

Muriel

30 People
This is a series of blog entries that celebrates those who have empowered, inspired, and helped me create my journey, dreams, and values up to this point. These are my stories of opening and becoming that celebrate these people.

She was a Senator’s wife, I was a gangly, awkward 12 year old with dreams bigger than the rural Saskatchewan town of 300 where I lived. She had an exquisite home overlooking the lake; that in my adolescent mind looked and felt like a castle when I stepped inside. Everything in it was perfection. From the beautifully tiled floors that she hired me to scrub, to the extraordinary art work on the walls that I dawdled over as I dusted the frames. There was always music playing, usually opera, and she was surprised that I knew many of the melodies as I would hum along softly as I worked, unaware she could hear me. She noticed I liked books and after a while she offered to lend some to me. I greedily snapped up as many as I could carry home, staying up late at night to read them—beautiful books on everything from opera synopsis and world history to the fascinating lives of politicians and actresses. I loved them all.

She thought I was older than I was. I looked older and had always felt generations older than other kids my age. I stopped going to school at age 12 and never went back. My days were spent caring for my infant sister, working in the family woodworking factory, or as a maid at the local hotel. There were rare moments that brought a combination of plentiful energy and quiet space when I would work on some schoolwork by correspondence, but I was hopelessly behind my grade level and soon gave that up all together. Finally, once the workday was over, I would practice my violin late into the night. Practicing in the darkened woodworking factory, which doubled as our home after the workers had left. I worked so I could play, so that I could keep playing. The flailing and mismanaged factory ensured that finances for violin lessons were almost nil. Playing became my coping mechanism to deal with the confusing chaos of a dysfunctional and abusive family life.

In the midst of this turmoil I met Muriel. I can’t exactly identify the time and the place, but she heard me play violin somewhere. Meeting Muriel offered me a glimpse into another life, another way of being. She was unlike anyone else I had ever met. She thought I was interesting and talented. And she had heard I was good at cleaning. She kept several residences and needed help maintaining the one in my town. Walking down the dusty gravel roads I felt like the luckiest girl around; I was on a very important mission to clean the nicest house around. She paid me twice as much as the hotel did and always gave me nice things to eat. It felt like a holiday when I went there to clean twice a week.

We didn’t talk very much, but she understood me. She knew I needed to leave, to escape home life, and the small town. Although we never spoke of it, I am sure she understood at some level the trauma and turmoil my family life inflicted. We both knew that music was my escape plan. Music was my way through this and a key to a better way of living, being, and creating my life. She was the only person who ever spoke of my future having possibility and encouraged me to go to university and beyond. Sometimes I would bring my violin to play for her on workdays, but after a while she would ask me just to come over to visit. I felt like she was my only real friend.

When I turned 16 the stifling issues of home life and extreme poverty had created in me a deep desperation to escape from my circumstances, although it seemed impossible given the number of obstacles I faced. My visits with Muriel were nourishing- she would come home from amazing trips, bringing with her special souvenirs she gave to me as gifts. She would tell me stories recounting the amazing concerts and productions she had taken in. Muriel was unconditionally supportive and I always imagined her sitting in the front row whenever I performed.

On a whim, and with Muriel’s encouragement, I hitched a ride with a friend to a small university several hours away when she went for an audition. Although I had not completed any type of formal schooling since Grade 7, I hatched an escape plan on the drive up. By the time we got there I had firmly resolved to go to that university. I managed to arrange an impromptu lesson with the violin prof and, having found favour with him, was allowed to audition off the books. I was accepted on the spot. To top it off, the professor pulled some strings to land me a full four- year scholarship when he learned of my financial situation. He also saw to it that I was provided with a housing stipend and a teaching job. In an instant it seemed my new life was on the way. I felt like I was literally living on miracles, one right after another. The fact that I was 16, in university, and without a high school diploma to my name was the least of them. All of a sudden I was living in a dorm with a roommate instead of in the three-room dust-filled quarters of the factory offices where my family of five lived. It was a luxury I couldn’t have imagined even days before. And cafeteria fare seemed lavishly abundant compared to eating from the food hampers my family regularly received from the church. I was thoroughly thrilled… and terrified.

Muriel sponsored and organized a fundraising concert for me in town to raise money for my miscellaneous expenses. Due to her influence and advertising, the event sold out three nights in a row with people coming from outlying towns. For the first time in my life I felt celebrated, empowered, truly special, and provided for.
As I started my new life away from home with all of the adventures, triumphs, and struggles that came with being an undergrad music student, Muriel was always there, sending support in the form of notes, cheques, and beautiful books every few months. The stringent conditions of maintaining a 3.8 GPA as a condition of my scholarship, and with the gaps in my education becoming more apparent with each course I took, the pressure I felt was immense. It seemed each time I was truly overwhelmed by what was ahead throughout my university years I would check my mailbox to find a handwritten note from her, full of love and unconditional belief in me.

We don’t talk as often anymore, but there is hardly a day that some aspect of my relationship with Muriel doesn’t come to mind, or that my eyes don’t settle on a book or item she gave me. I rarely get back to Saskatchewan to see her in person, but she is never far from my thoughts.

With all my gratitude and love, I celebrate Muriel with the music she enabled me to create today and every day.