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. “

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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!”)

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.