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.