Friday, February 10, 2017

The Air That I Breathe

I never smell very good after a seniors home gig; I'm sorry, but that's the truth of it. They keep the heat cranked up- and rightly so- for the feeble and the slow-moving, and neither of those words describes me when I'm performing. By the time my hour is up, I'm rather...damp, to put it politely. 

Today I had to spend a good while putting together a new book of songs for the gig, as my usual binder is packed in a box somewhere. I've been getting a jump on my move by boxing up everything I think I can do without for a few weeks... and a few things, obviously, that should not have gone into boxes just yet. After reluctantly slitting open a few boxes with no success, I decide to just print out new lyric sheets; after all, most of them are saved onto my laptop anyway. This leads to some new song choices, which is refreshing. I decide to bring my ukulele as well as my accordion, since I'm playing more uke than squeezebox these days anyway. As I stagger down the street with my accordion in a knapsack on my back and my uke and purse in my hands, the good angel on my shoulder urges me to check my pack... good thing, because I've left the binder with all my freshly-printed lyric sheets in my bedroom. Stagger back (luckily not far). Surprise the cats with my re-entry. Grab binder, depart again. Two buses later and I'm there. 

Up on Three West I begin with a new one: Singing In The Rain. Right away I know it's a good choice as a chorus of voices immediately joins in. I keep 'em coming: Big Rock Candy Mountain into Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen into Blue Days Black Nights... Today's seniors grew up in the '40s and '50s, so I mix country blues, folk, Canadiana, Irish and good old rock 'n roll, with the occasional Big Band-era blaster like Minnie the Moocher or Won't You Come Home Bill Bailey. 

Right away I notice a bubble in the air, an energy coming up to me and getting bounced back to the audience through my music. Maybe it's the slightly younger crowd: I see more than a few residents who look to be in their early seventies, even one woman with punky green streaks at the front of her bleached or grey hair. I've always had fun playing at this home, but sometimes I've seen people wheeling or shuffling away before my hour was up. Not this time. Their voices join me on everything from Harvest Moon to Blue Suede Shoes. Maybe it's me. I'm feeling rested and my voice is in fine form. Whatever the reason, today we're cookin'. 

Imagine you spent most of your time breathing something that was like oxygen, but wasn't. You'd do fine, but something would be lacking. And then some days, you got to breathe the real deal- your lungs would fill and your eyes would sparkle and you'd feel extra zest and energy you didn't know you were missing- That's what singing and performing feels like to me. Oxygen. Even when I'm sick it lifts me up. When I'm not sick... Pow. 

I say this a lot, and I really mean it: I have the incredible good fortune to do what I love for a living. I never thought I'd be a good music teacher, but I love it. I never used to think I'd be a good musical director, but they keep hiring me so I guess I've got the skills. And I DO love my jobs: I love showing kids (or actors) how to put a song together; I like arranging; I like getting to pass on my rag-tag collection of Things I Know. I even like the herding-cats exercise that is teaching preschool music. But here's why I'll never be the best teacher or musical director there is: because there's always going to be this little diva inside of me that is silently yelling Just step aside and let me do it instead, Jesus CHRIST let me because I can do it better than that, because it's all I want to do and I can't, they won't let me they keep hiring me to teach you instead-
Which isn't to say I'm silently hating on you when I work with you or your kids, far from it. (Unless you're really terrible at your job and they hired you instead of me. Then yeah.) It's just... I have this friend who has a doctorate in music education. He's never in his life played in a band, or been in a play, and he's Never. Wanted. To. His passion is teaching music. (He also helped me get my teaching job, for which I'll be eternally grateful.) Mine is performing music. 

I lack the killer instinct, which is why I'm not recording an album or touring Canada, or, you know, famous. Instead, I'm a (mostly) very happy teacher of music/music director who plays in a band with three good friends and has moments of passion and inspiration at all of her jobs, and really really comes alive when she gets to step into the studio for a session, or play onstage, or even when she lugs two instruments on two buses to play for thirty or so seniors, some of whom may even not be sleeping. 

Today, we make some magic at Royal Arch Masonic Home. Who knows why? I make my way through 21 songs and the seniors are with me every step of the way. Someone (dear god, probably only my parents' age) asks for Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah", so I do it, scrolling through the lyrics on my phone with one hand as I stumble through the bass notes on my accordion with the other hand. I am surprised how many voices sing the haunting chorus with me. 
I launch into Stan Rogers' "Forty-Five Years" and feel my eyes water a little as I take in the pink and crepe Valentine's Day decorations strung up around the room. The song is Rogers' beautiful tribute to his much-loved wife; how many of the seniors in the room still have their loved ones with them? Too few, I'm thinking. I finish with "Goodnight Irene", which I often close with because I love to hear the old ones sing it with me. 

They've handed my money to one of the residents: Ms. Green-Hair. She wheels toward me slowly, a challenge in her eyes. First, she thanks me for bringing some sunshine, because "it can get kind of dreary in here." I bet. Then she says, "But we're not going to give this to you that easily. If you want this, you'll have to do another song for us." 
Challenge accepted. It's the first time I've been asked for an encore here. I rifle quickly through my pages: what would be the perfect finisher...
Ah, yes. I put on my accordion and launch into "Folsom Prison Blues", the perfect song for people who are trapped in a seniors home, no matter how nice it is. As I sing, I hear their voices joining me one last time. 
I'm stuck in Folsom Prison/And time keeps rolling on/But that train just keeps on moving/On down to San Antoine.

And then I leave, back to the rest of my unfettered life. Breathing that sweet, pure oxygen until my lungs are as full as they can get. 

Friday, February 3, 2017


So, how are you all doing? 

I think a lot of us are feeling a bit fragile these days. It's hard to know when to engage, and when to switch off and spend some time with people you love. I've seen friends get absolutely lambasted recently on social media for daring to have an opinion on women's rights (Imagine that! Women having opinions on women's rights!), or for writing about the wrongs being done to Muslims. One thing I've noticed is that people get very, very nervous when they're confronted by steely logic and righteous anger. And then, unfortunately, they often get angry, and the whole thing degenerates into name-calling and insults. But keep on, brave men and women out there. Keep fighting, and using logic, and making bigots and racists and chauvinists as nervous as possible. I have never seen so many "normal" people galvanized into taking action as I have in the last month. It's the one heartening thing I can take from this; that it's jolting us out of our complacency. 

We're already a month into 2017, guys! That's what happens when we're busy and angry and working hard- time gets away from us. 

So, what's been happening so far this year?

Like a lot of people, I marched:

I am at a bit of a loss as to what to do next. It is a pathetic excuse to say I'm busy, because who isn't? I don't have much money to donate to causes, and I don't always have make time to go to vigils, so... Can I promise to try and do better? To try and lend support to minorities who need allies? To give some of my time to being political? I really don't want to ignore what's happening- how could I?- so if any of you have suggestions, I'd be glad to hear them. 

In the meantime, I've been nesting. This is probably a sound and predictable  instinct when things in the outside world get scary. I have two other very good reasons for increased nesting recently: first of all my roommates are away for 3 weeks, so I have the whole house (and four kitties) to myself! I've been extra busy lately, so today it feels amazing to curl up on the couch and watch the snow (yup, it's baaaaaaack) coming down outside. 

And the other good reason for nesting? 
I found a place to live!

This collage doesn't really do it justice, but here's my new suite. I found it on Craigslist, and it was only the second place I physically went and looked at. I know, hate me. I would too. It has a gas stove, a big bedroom, gorgeous bathroom, tons of light even though it's a basement suite... and a gigantic alcove that seems to be expressly designed to be used as a giant window seat for reading, working, playing music, and dreaming. I think it was this eccentric detail that sealed the deal for me. I was as charming and polite as I could possibly be to the landlords, a nice couple who live upstairs. That, and the fact that my boss gave me a glowing reference, sealed the deal for them, and they called me back the very next day to offer me the place. The best/worst part is that the suite's not available until March 1st, because they're actually going to expand some of the windows to make the place even lighter. That's great because a) Bigger windows! More light! and b) Time to pack! Time to put aside money! but of course I also want to move in right now because IT'S MY OWN PLACE FINALLY, COME ON! AND ALSO I WANT TO LIVE THERE FOR AT LEAST A FEW MONTHS BEFORE DONALD TRUMP DESTROYS THE WORLD!
While I wait, I am starting to pack. I took a trip to Ikea with my angel mom, who bought me many kitchen and home-related items as a moving present to me. One side effect of being older is that I am not content with a couple of mismatched plates and some grotty used particle-board furniture. I want my place to look... pretty. Put-together. Warm and inviting and funky, but not student-chic, ya know? 
So it's going to be a mixture of things, but pretty ones.
The functional: Stuff from Ikea: dishes and cutlery and bookshelves and cubbies and utensils.
The antique: my Mongolian sideboard, which is dark and knobbly and has doors which slide up and into it, which makes it quite hard to use effectively, but is still my favorite piece of furniture I've ever bought. 
I can't adequately capture your unique beauty, sideboard, but you're still my fave. 
A really cool desk I just found at Sellution, which is the best place to buy used furniture with a personality. A little rocking chair that was actually outside of Sellution with a "free" sign on it (it's a fixer-upper). 
The ridiculously hipster and self-indulgent but not actually that expensive: My knives:

I bought these very inexpensive but well-reviewed knives at Atelier St. George, which is probably the only time in history that the words "inexpensive" and "Atelier St. George" will EVER be used in the same sentence (I mean, they have a wool jumpsuit that costs $1700.00, for fuck's sake). 
And now I sit, and I wait to move house. Well, mostly I go out and work and have band practices and clean litter trays, it's just today that I've superglued myself to the couch watching reprehensible YouTube videos and avoiding any sort of work at all costs. 

Hey, work. Remember my ambivalence about teaching, last year? Well, sometimes there are things you do where you walk into a situation or a job and think Hell No and walk right out again, and you just know that you were right to leave. And there are other times where you immediately think: This is what I was meant to do, and the more you do it, the more it confirms that initial thought. (Performing is like that for me.) But there are other things that feel like a no at first, and may end up feeling like a no for a long time before revealing themselves to be, in fact, a big yes. Teaching was like that. I'm glad I stayed. I'm glad when I get to teach kids how to write songs, and when I get to play games where I teach them music theory games and pretend to die horribly if they get the answer wrong. I'm glad when I make a bunch of sullen teenagers sit in a circle on the floor and sing the harmonies to "Jolene" and they do, and it sounds beautiful. Even more when the tallest, sleepiest, sullenest kid voluntarily picks up a ukulele to play along. I'm glad when I get to sing my soprano heart out in choir class, and when I get to yell at kids to stop running in the halls. Glad to the point of transcendence when the evil/cute little 11 year-old who slouched in a corner in my junior class glaring at me and growling that she was "bored" every week suddenly decides to drop the attitude and lights up with glee as she and her classmates hammer out a very creditable version of "Bittersweet Symphony". Teaching is like oxygen; it takes all my energy and yet  gives it back to me, a hundredfold. (And suddenly I get a glimpse of what parenting must be like. But...nope. Still don't want 'em. Phew.)

So that's what I'm doing. Plus mentoring/music directing a youth theatre company in Saskatoon, plus getting ready to do another show in Saskatchewan in the summer, plus teaching preschool music, plus session work at my favourite recording studio, plus... You get the idea. Most days I'm really happy, which feels kind of wrong with all that's going on in the world, but 
(I accidentally hit "publish" without finishing that last sentence, but I can't think of any good way to finish it anyway, so it stays like that.)

Oh, and I coloured my hair. Fuck grey hair. Actually, it wasn't the greys that were killing me, it was the boring brown. 
I'm going to blame my phone's camera for the fact that my face looks strangely puffy, not the fact that I'm still not in shape post-Christmas gluttony.
New place, new work, new world (dis)order: 2017 promises to be...interesting, in the Chinese-Curse sense of the word. So batten down the hatches, get mad, get smart, get safe. And look after yourselves. I know some people disdain self-care (and I certainly hate the phrase), but I don't think it's wise to burn out, either. 

See you soon.