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. “