Xin Chào! I’m back from Vietnam, no worse for wear. Just perhaps a little softer around the middle from eating so many noodles, as I set out to do. I initially referred to that trip as my “Eat, Pray, Love” experience, except that’s perhaps the wrong novel/movie/franchise to reference. It was a major stepping stone in my own pursuit of happiness. The tattoo I got late one night in downtown Hanoi supposedly translates to happiness as well, though there was some debate between waiters at the restaurant where the tattoo plan was conceived. It’s either the Chinese character for happiness or for woman, either of which I’m fine with. Happy woman would be all the better.
But I’m flip flopping around my life here, because I can’t stop thinking about my amazing trip back to Newfoundland in March, which really launched this whole happiness thing. I guess there really was something to that Ode to Joy. I did not expect that after two weeks home, I’d be frantically trying to change my flight to buy myself more time. More conversation. More insight into my own life. And so, I stayed, an extra week. And I can’t imagine my life today without those precious six days. I need a little more time to find the words of gratitude that are swelling inside this noodle-filled belly to thank my friends and family for their company. But I have found the words to explain the reason I always come back home…
Few people (possibly no one else, actually) plan their travel to Newfoundland around the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra’s season, but I do. It’s a rare moment of luck in my life that Cathy Dinn saw the potential in my 8-year old man hands and gave me an instrument much larger than the violin I had signed up to learn. And although playing solo was never my thing (spontaneous nosebleeds, anyone?), I fell in love playing with people. Duos, trios, chamber groups. But then the pinnacle of it all: orchestra. For 12 seasons I sat amidst the NSO cello section and played my heart out. Cathy will never understand what a gift she gave me.
My life was transformed by the experiences, opportunities, and relationships that playing in my local youth orchestra and, sequentially, symphony provided. Through the turmoil that frequented my teenage years and the confusion and trepidation of early adulthood, I found comfort in the cello section. Playing in the NSO has consistently brought me joy, given me a sense of belonging, and kept me grounded. In essence, it’s been my happy place. (Happy is a big word for me, these days.) My membership in this orchestra ignited a passion for community and volunteerism, and led me to become a very young Chair of the Board of Directors for the Newfoundland Symphony Youth Orchestra, its first executive director, and a seat on the NSO’s own board and fund-raising committee. Being a cellist with the NSO gave me invaluable experience working for my community, at times leading, at times helping, but all the while transforming me into the person I am today.
It hasn’t all been rainbows and roses. In my expectation for a safe and respectful teaching environment, I had no choice but to leave my cello studies at university and flounder around several science faculties while wondering what to do next. I was sexually harassed in an arts job by an older man, with only older men to report him to. I’ve had to tell friends, colleagues, mentors that their contracts would not be renewed. My car has been vandalized, my email hacked, and I’ve twice now been threatened to be sued. That’s a lot, I feel, for a 29 year old. Being so young also meant having to work twice as hard, do twice the homework, and arrive twice as prepared to get my voice heard and counted. (Not a bad lesson, though.)
I often say that the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra is my other family. And it is. I was 16 when I first performed with the NSO, and over the next 12 years, the musicians and staff were an integral part of my village, my community, who I readily acknowledge helped raise me. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: it takes a village to raise a child. And the NSO has been my village. My home. So although it may sound crazy to some, when I step off my plane in Newfoundland, give me 24 hours and I’m either walking off the elevator on the 3rd floor Arts & Culture Centre to say hello, or tearing tickets at an Atlantic String Quartet recital downtown at the Anglican Cathedral. And it isn’t just because my mother works there. Or my cousin. Because its CEOs and musicians and guest artists have equally become part of my circle, people I hug goodbye and hug hello and send funny texts to in between.
I knew 2016/17 would my final whole season home for a long time. It also happened to be the season my beloved cello teacher and section leader, Theo Weber, took a sabbatical. It was very special to me that it so happened his early return aligned with my official final concert. Playing in his section for so long has been a great privilege in my life, and I was even more honoured when Theo played at my wedding ceremony just one month later, solo cello as I
walked tripped down the aisle. (Not so much like The Swan…)
And in a world where so many of my incredible influences, music teachers, and conductors have been men, it is through the NSO that I also found strong, inspiring female role models. Again, not just my mother, although her patient demeanour and poker face is something I can always learn from. There’s no better example than Heather McKinnon, a fierce woman that I admire and aspire to be more like. A woman whose leadership I was lucky to observe and just be around to remind myself that I do not have to “be the girl who gets asked how it feels to be trotting along at the genius’s heels.” (Oh wait. Maybe Jason Robert Brown wrote that line first #lastfiveyears.) Heather’s dedication to the NSO remains an inspiration to me, as I am only coming to realize the depth of my love for the Newfoundland arts community and my desire to be home in it.
I often bemoan (a more polite word than complain, I think) the fact that Daytona Beach does not have a resident symphony. I know now, for the first time, what it’s like to live somewhere without an orchestra. To live where in any direction, I have to drive at least an hour and a half to hear an orchestra only half as good as the NSO. You St. John’s folks have no idea how lucky you are to live what, 10, 15 minutes in any directions from the Arts & Culture Centre. When hosting the last Masterworks concert of the 2016/17 season, I asked the audience to take care of the NSO in my absence. To celebrate them, applaud for them, and buy tickets to support them. And the standing ovation we received from a sold-out audience after performing Beethoven’s 9th in March was a wonderful display to see that the NSO is cherished by so many others.
My pursuit of happiness is only just beginning, but I know anytime I come home to play, it fills me with joy. Having tea and pie with principal cellist, and my teacher, Theo Weber, brings me comfort. Playing with old friends and new always puts a huge smile on my face, as pictured below. It thrills me that such a large part of my identity home is associated with the NSO and as a cellist. That makes me happy.
Edit: If you’re curious to know when I’ll be home next year, take a look at the NSO’s 2018/19 season brochure.