Adult Gymnastics Camp

Because there seem to still be spots left, and I’m feeling sad that I have to miss both the winter version of the camp  and the World Masters’ Championships this season, I guess I must be overdue for an endorsement post about Adult Gymnastics Camp!

I first heard about camp on the Gymcastic podcast. It didn’t seem like something I would ever do, but it sounded cool.

When I first met Emily, I knew her as jumping_ginger. Yes, it happened to me: I accidentally met in real life someone that I followed on Instagram. I was at an adult open gym night at the Kitchener-Waterloo Gymnastics Club, and kept glancing across the room at a tall ginger woman who I felt like I recognized. Apparently the recognition was mutual, because a while later she came over and said, “Do we follow each other on Instagram?”

I was lucky, that year at KWGC, to meet a ton of adult gymnastics of all levels. They have three adult classes a week, plus a Coach’s Night, and it was amazing to find myself squarely in the middle in terms of ability—there were plenty of beginners, but also plenty of former competitive athletes and, most exciting of all for me, people who were going buying the gymnastics they had learned as a child. It wasn’t just KWGC, either: there are actually a lot of gymnastics clubs in the Kitchener-Waterloo-Cambridge area, and KWGC, Revolution Gymnastics in North Waterloo, and Cambridge Kips in Cambridge all offer adult open gym. (Supposedly Dynamo Gymnastics also has some sort of registered adult class, which was sold out the time that Emily and I tried to go, but as the head coach there occupies a rarefied position in the hierarchy of Canadian gymnastics and quite a few elites and high-level athletes train there, I would really like to check it out some time!) The same constellation of people show up frequently at all of the open gyms, and I even sometimes found myself spending a few hours coaching at KWGC, then driving over to a different gym to train for the rest of the evening. The gymnastics-adjacent activities are also well-represented in the Tri-Cities; Grand River Rocks is a fabulous rock-climbing gym that also offers yoga and martial arts, and one of my colleagues at KWGC was deeply ensconced in the apparently thriving local parkour scene. Overall, it’s a great place to be a slightly physically reckless so-called adult.

When I attended my second Masters’ Championships, it was as part of a team:




Emily and I both competed level 6, and Laura level... 7 or 8? And Josh in the general Men’s Competitive category that they do for WMGC, and competing a double back on floor—as far as I can recall, the first time I’ve seen one in person.

Shortly after the meet, we started talking about camp. It’s frequently brought up in the Adult Gymnastics Facebook group, and along with another woman from the Tri-City area open gyms, Corina, we decided to bite the bullet and sign up. We drove down together and stayed in a motel 6 where the room key stopped working every time we exited the room.

The camp is in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, from which Maine is just a stroll over a picturesque bridge. The first day, we went to the beach:

And ate a lot of lobster:

Seafood, unsurprisingly, was a culinary theme of the trip. Now that I think about it, probably next time I could go a little easier on the fried fish and lobster in the interest of getting the most out of the Gymnastics portion of the event 😂

The camp was divided into three groups, based on a survey we filled out beforehand. Me, Emily and Corina are all around the same level, with different strengths and weaknesses, but I’m the only one who’s been training all 4 events (including tumbling on the real floor, which many adults skip altogether for obvious reasons) so I assume that’s how I ended up separated from them and in with the top group. Which at first I was going to ask to just be with my friends, but decided not to be a weenie and stick with the group I started with.

(These groups are not strictly enforced, just to be clear. You can pretty much do what you want, since it’s acknowledged that adult gymnasts tend to have less well-rounded skill sets than children who are forced to follow a rotation schedule for their training. Also— for anyone who might be reading this and wondering if camp is for them— yes! The first group is absolutely appropriate for beginners. You should go. Do it.)

It turned out to be a ton of fun squeaking into the top group, because I’ve never been around so many gymnasts of that level before. Plenty were former competitors of the level 8-10 variety, and some had competed in college. My gymnastics background is purely recreational: I started in regular-flavor rec, then “advanced rec” when my gym started offering it, and finally “interclub,” which permits rec kids and broken and/or inadequately enthusiastic former competitive types go to a few invitational competitions a year. So being around athletes with a completely different background was at once inspiring and encouraging. Because I could see real grown-up bodies in the flesh doing things I wanted to be able to do; and because every so often it seemed like the gap between us wasn’t so gaping after all: cast handstands on bars, layout fulls off the tumble track, tsuk drills on vault; there were skills that we were all working on together, albeit as gleaming new, edge-of-my-ability skills for me and basics for them.

The camp itself is run by Gina and Brian Pulhaus. Gina is an adult gymnast and coach who trains with the young’uns and is a huge advocate for adults in competitive gymnastics. She and her husband Brian started the camp a few years ago, at her home gym of Atlantic Gymnastics in Portsmouth.

They’re both incredibly motivated, enthusiastic and bright, and it turned out that they had been watching every single attendee of the camp the whole time so that, at the very end, we could do an “awards ceremony” where everyone got to climb up on a box and present, red-report-card-style, and receive an adorable medal with a title awarded to each athlete personally. (Mine was “hula queen.” Don’t ask.) Then, we had to tell the assembly what we were most proud of from the week.

What I said was: I’m most proud of how amazed my thirteen-year old self would be, at the point that she quit gymnastics and figured she would never achieve what she wanted to in the sport, at the skills that I’m training today.

Two in particular stood out from camp, things that I don’t think I’d even know were like, options, physically.

Giants on strap bars:

70 Likes, 5 Comments - Anna Norris (@nichteilen) on Instagram: "Things My Teenage Self Would Not Have Freaking Believed, part 1 #gymnastics #adultgymnastics #bars"

As I’ve blogged about before, I never got my kip as a kid. So obviously, my hopes and dreams on bars were somewhat stunted, and I’d never imagined that I would be able to start training giants. Of course, I’m still nowhere near being able to do them on the wooden bar, unassisted and unsecured, but they have improved since the first time at camp:

64 Likes, 4 Comments - Anna Norris (@nichteilen) on Instagram: "I have progressed to contributing maybe 50% of the effort to my giants! #havingacoachisgr8 #bars..."

The second is this:

61 Likes, 1 Comments - Anna Norris (@nichteilen) on Instagram: "Things My Teenage Self Would Not Have Freaking Believed, part 2 #gymnastics #adultgymnastics #vault"

Okay, so as a compete-able vault it’s, optimistically, several years away. But like... I don’t think I even knew other vaults existed, as a kid? I mean, I knew that there was a difference between the handspring with a mini-tramp that I was doing, and what I saw on TV. But that was as far as my analysis of the situation went. I’ve made a few more improvements, mainly in putting it on a real vault:

59 Likes, 8 Comments - Anna Norris (@nichteilen) on Instagram: "My last week of training at @kwgymclub, I rang the new skill bell to show this off 😝 #gymnastics..."
34 Likes, 4 Comments - Anna Norris (@nichteilen) on Instagram: "Off the real vault, into the pit (landing located approximately halfway to China) #gymnastics..."

I don’t think I’d have considered trying either of these for a long time if it hadn’t been for camp.

Another amazing moment at camp was a revelation about that humblest of elements, the cartwheel. Even knowing, intellectually, that gymnastics is all about basics, it can still bowl me over the extent to which it is true that the best gymnasts are the ones with the best handstands, cartwheels, and roundoffs, the best applications of the hollow and arch positions in their skills— I remember being maniacally focused, as a kid, on all the stuff I couldn’t do, and all the skills that seemed beyond my reach. When it turns out the important stuff is all right at the beginning, and you just keep learning it over and over again.

Some of the women in my group— who were, needless to say, capable of doing much more difficult elements— were working on cartwheels on a beam rotation. Working really hard, and struggling with something. I asked what was up, and it was explained to me that they were trying to fix their dropping arms. My mind boggled as I realized that I had been missing, for all of the time that I thought I knew how to do a decent cartwheel, a key cue. It’s natural, as you bring your hands towards the ground to begin your cartwheel, to let your first arm drop away from your head, I.e. if your shoulders start glued to your ears— which they should— by the time your first hand touches the ground, the shoulder of that arm will no longer be touching your ear. Whereas really, it should be— your upper body should be a perfect see-saw with your back leg, such that by the time your first hand touches the ground, your back leg should be almost vertical. And your head squeezed between both your arms the entire time.

I had simply never considered that this was a factor in a cartwheel— despite the fact that your head should be squeezed tight between your shoulders during pretty much every single skill in gymnastics that involves your arms going overhead. This whole sport is deducible from first principles... most of us just don’t have the brainpower.

So that’s where the real meat of gymnastics— and of any pursuit worth doing— lies: in the basics. True to that principle, we spent a lot of time at camp on stuff that it would sure be nice to have time to do in the gym, but most of us on he open gym circuit don’t have time for: beam complexes, drills involving complicated arrangements of mats, warming up in a leisurely fashion and not “what is the absolute minimum of warm-up I can do to be able to train safely,” etc.

I really wish I could go back this winter; the problem with the concept of Adult Gymnastics Camp, of course, being that adults tend to have pesky things like jobs. Thanks to my not-really-too-pesky job, I’ll have to miss both the winter camp and the Masters’ meet in March; I’m hoping to line up another meet for slightly later, but hat remains to be seen.

Here is the link to sign up for camp:

Unrelated to gymnastics, as well as eating a stomach-turning amount of fish, I also had the best salad I’ve ever eaten at The Oar House in downtown Portsmouth. It is called grilled romaine salad, and it was the holy grail of restaurant meals that is too good to even attempt to recreate or even like pay homage to at home; better to just let it be a memory.



New year, same me

I am back in Regina as of today! My first port of call for this holiday break, immediately following the Messiah, was Calgary, where Mike and I spent the first part of the holiday with his parents. For the past few years we’ve been there just before Christmas, so they usually pick a date to call “Christmas” and celebrate Christmas Eve and morning accordingly. I was introduced to The Shepherd radio play, which I hadn’t heard before, as well as the supposedly French-Canadian tradition of tortiere as a Christmas Eve dish.

Then, on actual Christmas Eve, we went to see my parents, just in time for a family meal. After a few days in Toronto, we headed back to Kitchener for the rest of the break (we’ll, break for me, Nutcracker for Mike.)

I have two Masterworks concerts left with Regina before heading back to Ontario for Five Sacred Trees. I’ve been debating the best way to deal with the issue of music for the performance. I have memorized it, and have been doing memorized runs of the entire work almost every day for about a month already. However, pretty much everyone who has played it has advised me to play it with the music onstage. As a wind player, I don’t have a lot of experience with playing solo repertoire, well, at all, compared to string and piano players; and memorization isn’t expected of wind players the way it is of other families of instruments. So I will have the part onstage with me.

However, it’s complicated to arrange the page turns so that they work out well; and even once photocopied, the pages require folding over and under each other in a way that would look awkward to do between movements. I don’t want to have to be shuffling around with pages between every movement, especially if I have it memorized anyway. I even, if it turns out to be possible for all relevant parties in the orchestra, would like to do almost all of it attaca from movement to movement— excepting the break between Tortan and Eo Rossa, which requires vigorous tone hole-blowing and prayers to the gods of gurgling water incidents :P

I considered getting a foot pedal and playing it off of  tablet; but that then adds in the potential for technological malfunction; and since there are electronic components in concert halls that could interfere with the Bluetooth that connects the pedal to the tablet, a successful run at home doesn’t guarantee success in concert.

I still have a little bit of time to figure something out...

Winter bassoon adjustments

One of the things I decided to accomplish this winter (or rather, have someone else accomplish while I sat around and watched) was having my bassoon tuned up. Since there are, shockingly, no dedicated bassoon repair professionals in Saskatchewan, I made an appointment to go see Frank Marcus in Wasaga Beach while I was in Ontario for the holidays. 

I was mainly concerned about my wing joint; I had been having more trouble than I thought was entirely fair with my high B and C. Both reassuringly and somewhat disappointingly, there was nothing massively wrong with the area that, once fixed, could cause the entire high range of the bassoon to suddenly become easy. (How unfair!) However he did adjust the B resonance so that there is no delay in it coming up, which should remove some uncertainty. He also added some (clear) paint to some parts, explaining that the wood of a bassoon isi also sometimes a source of leaks, which I had had no idea of. 

When he got to the long joint, though, he stared at the pressure gauge in surprise, and said, “maybe it’s wrong.” It wasn’t sealing at all, and when he removed the keywork, it was obvious why: one of the holes underneath was neither uniformly flush with the pad, nor even circular. “It looks like a beaver gnawed on it,” Frank commented. “Benson didn’t do this.”

The end result of the long joint work was:  


I am pleased to report that it is indeed much easier to play low notes... an inability I seem to have not noticed too much during the past few months. Whoops! 

The asshole problem

Did you hear? That creep that everyone knew about, now, like, everyone everyone knows about! 

In the aftermath of these “revelations,” in all industries, it has become customary for the organization that hired and retained the individual in question to adopt a kind of collective wide-eyed expression, a shocked and innocent “oh goodness, I had no idea!” kind of passive horror. The first irritating thing about this is how calculated and transparent it is. The second irritating thing is that it’s difficult to prove it actually untrue. Did the CEO or the Board of Directors of an organization know that they were hiring and/or retaining a rapist, a child pornographer, a perpetrator of violent assault— in short, a criminal? Maybe they didn’t. (Maybe they didn’t look all that hard.) In some cases— USA Gymnastics, looking at you— they demonstrably did know, and just cared more about their own paycheques than about the well-being of the members of their organization. However, in some cases, as unlikely as it seems, one has to admit the possibility that they didn’t know. 

There’s a slim possibility that the bigwigs may not have known they were employing a criminal. But there’s an easier question to ask these people, and a more difficult one to wiggle out of: did you know he was an asshole? 

Come on now. Really. Look me in the eye and tell me you had no idea he was an asshole. I double-dog dare you. 

This isn’t a spurious question. There is a strong correlation, it seems, between a powerful individual being an asshole, and a powerful individual being a criminal asshole. It makes sense that someone who treats people around them with casual disrespect is also likely to show disrespect in more serious ways. 

This is bad news for the orchestra business. The cult of personality surrounding the idea of the conductor is almost exclusively based on the difficult-to-define but immediately recognizable suite of traits broadly described as assholeishness. It’s such a ubiquitous trait on the podium— even in the leadership styles of people who are not assholes off the podium, and seemed to have specifically acquired the trait as a career-development move—that it’s actually somewhat jarring, as a musician, to encounter a kind, skilled and respectful human who also behaves that way while conducting. (Which jarring feeling, luckily for me, is fresh in my mind from my current gig.)

And look. There are asshole conductors that I like. There are asshole conductors who helped my career, or withheld their wrath from me individually in ways that were confidence-building. (Can anyone who exited the music education system with a modicum of confidence deny that at least some of it was built on a foundation of schadenfreude?) Do I think that everyone who’s rude on the podium is also a criminal? No. I don’t think so. Or at least, I hope not. 

I just wouldn’t be surprised, is all. It would be disingenuous to act surprised when someone who built their careers publicly terrorizing subordinates turns out to have also been terrorizing subordinates in private. 

So what does this mean for musical organizations going forward? Can managers and board members evaluating potential hires start actually prioritizing hiring people who aren’t assholes? Are we finally going to stop saying things like, “yeah, he’s kind of an asshole, but he’s a good conductor...” for that matter, can we retire the term “brasshole” and the indulgent smiles that go with it? 

Being an asshole isn’t a criminal act. And despite what some suspiciously defensive dudes seem to think, nobody is trying to make it one. It’s just something which will—hopefully, in the future— mean that nobody wants to hire you. 

So they won’t have to pretend to be surprised by you later.

My first outdoor climbing experience!

On my way to Regina, I stopped for a day in Thunder Bay, where I stayed with a friend from the orchestra. Hoping to get some exercise on my one day not spent sitting in a car, I went to the local climbing gym., Boulder Bear. 

This is Boulder.

This is Boulder.

Climbing gyms are great because the eccentric demographic of people who enjoy climbing mountains (and, although this wasn't the case in any of the climbing gyms I've been to in Southern Ontario, indoor climbing in Thunder Bay really is regarded mostly as a training regimen at best, or at worst a pale imitation of outdoor climbing) also tend to be game for pretty much any type of physical activity that presents itself. Thus, climbing gyms tend to have weight rooms as well as odds and ends of any other pieces of athletic equipment they can get their hands on. (In this case, they had just installed a trampoline, although the lack of safety net meant nobody was allowed to use it sans harness and extra fee.)

I did a quick leg workout and some bouldering, and then the owner of the gym mistook me for someone else and greeted me enthusiastically. Once we had sorted out that we didn't in fact know each other, he invited me on an outdoor climb that some of the gym members were going on that evening anyway. I'd never been outdoor climbing before, and had actually previousy assumed that you had to be able to lead climb to do it, which I can't, but he assured me that they would be setting up toprope courses.

The bouldering courses were WAY harder, per grade, than the equivalents at my gym in Kitchener.

The bouldering courses were WAY harder, per grade, than the equivalents at my gym in Kitchener.

Here are the pictures from Silver Harbour, about 20 minutes outside of Thunder Bay. I'm looking back on them fondly since the enjoying-the-outdoors season is quickly drawing to a close here, and there are no indoor (or, obviously, outdoor) climbing walls in Regina (other than a crossfit gym that costs $170 a month, has a seasonal bouldering wall, and advertises with a big picture of a banana-back handstand on its outside wall... no thanks!!) IIRC, I managed all four of the courses that the more experienced climbers set up for the topropers in the group, although my phone ran out of battery after the first one.

"Uh, how am I supposed to get up there exactly??"

"Uh, how am I supposed to get up there exactly??"

Getting going

Getting going

The kind of gripping I had to do felt super different from in the gym., although I'm not sure in exactly what way.

The kind of gripping I had to do felt super different from in the gym., although I'm not sure in exactly what way.

At this point, I was informed that my only hope was to shove my leg as far into the crack as it would go.

At this point, I was informed that my only hope was to shove my leg as far into the crack as it would go.

Crushin' it, bro.

Crushin' it, bro.

Yay, this whole rope idea actually works!

Yay, this whole rope idea actually works!



Guy Amalfitano's Crossing of Hope

I arrived in Regina, Saskatchewan about two weeks ago, taking 5 days to get here from Kitchener. The first day, I drove to Sault Ste. Marie (stopping at the beach in Parry Sound along the way) and tried Couchsurfing for the first time! The second day is hands-down the best day of driving-- between Sault Ste.-Marie and Thunder Bay, along the shore of Lake Superior, through house of provincial park where you can go for quite a while without seeing a single other car.

About 40 km outside of Wawa, Ontario (home of the Wawa giant goose; or rather, the lineage of Wawa giant geese) I started thinking about Terry Fox. Terry Fox looms large in the collective consciousness of all Canadians, but particularly those in provinces he actually made it through; and it's hard to watch the pavement whizzing by underneath your car without imagining what it would have looked like from the perspective of a lopsided jog.

Just as I was contemplating this, I saw a man by the side of the road in athletic clothing. And crutches. With one leg. Running. 

Did I hallucinate him? Where was he going? Who was he? I didn't see any other vehicles around him, but that didn't necessarily mean anything-- I was in the middle of a park, but there were campsites fairly nearby, and a few small on either side of the large parkland. I considered turning around to go talk to hum, but by the time the thought appeared in my mind, it would have been impractical. He certainly didn't seem to be in distress, so I figured it would remain forever a mystery, and filed the anecdote away to relate to the friends I was staying with in Thunder Bay that evening.

Well, just as I was typing this up, I hopped over to read the news from Northwestern Ontario. And lo and behold, an answer: Guy Amalfitano, a French cancer survivor who watched the Marathon of Hope on TV from his hospital bed as a teenager, arrived in Thunder Bay last week.

According to the itinerary on his website, he is planning to arrive in Regina on the 24th of September, and to finish his journey on the 6th of November.


I'm playing a concerto!

Yep! It's on the internet, even. With my picture and everything. So that you, too, can be puzzled at the sight of a reed player holding their instrument with a reed on the bocal and also wearing red lipstick for some reason.

When Bradley Thachuk, the music director in Niagara, first suggested that I play John Williams' Five Sacred Trees and I agreed, to be perfectly honest I couldn't have hummed you a single bar of it. I sent off an email saying yes, that sounds like a good choice, then hopped over to youtube to listen to it. And thought, oh, this sounds kinda hard. Uh-oh.

That was about a year and a half ago. That initial listen put the fear of God in me, and I immediately ordered a part and started working on it. Finally, about two weeks ago, I could at last say that I was able to play all the right notes, in the right order, at more or less the right tempo. (Actually, if I had said that two weeks ago, I would have been technically incorrect-- I only noticed yesterday that I learned a run in the fourth movement-- luckily only a single bar-- in the wrong clef. WHOOPS. Fixed now.) Not-so-coincidentally, last week I traveled to Ottawa to have a lesson with Christopher Millard, principal bassoon in NACO, on the piece.

Usually, I would prefer to be farther along in the preparation process than just "able to play correct pitches" before traveling for a lesson. But in this instance, I didn't really have choice. I knew I wanted to play it for someone who had performed it recently, and Chris gave the Canadian premiere of the work. And it needed to be before he left for summer festival work in mid-July, because on August 12th, I'm getting in the car and beginning the drive to Regina for the season.

So, that's just the way it was. And honestly? I needed the deadline of a lesson to make me put my butt in a chair and finish learning the thing.

In a sense, the time, expense and general inconvenience involved in going to Ottawa was the whole point. As they say in my current home city of Kitchener-Waterloo: it’s not a bug, it’s a feature. As the vast legions of ABD graduate students of the world can tell you, human psychology is uniquely poorly equipped to deal with large projects with definite endpoints but no immediate pressures driving them forward. So, creating a short-term deadline that had meaning and importance suddenly became a much higher priority for me when I won the Regina audition.

Prior to that audition, I had been planning on attending the Glenn Gould School for next year. I had decided it was a good time to go back to school because I wanted the structure of school to help me achieve my goals. And mostly what structure is, is small but strategically placed deadlines. Lessons every week, studio recitals every few months, final recital at the end of your degree. (Or something similar to that schedule.) I wasn’t at all worried about learning this enormous concerto, because I would have all the right kinds of pressure to keep me on track with it. I might even have other performance opportunities (recital, concerto competition, etc.) to get it ready.

As soon as I got the Regina job, all of that assurance vanished. Not only would I not have any of those same small deadlines looming for the concerto, suddenly I had a whole lot of new deadlines, of a sort I have never really encountered before: namely, preparing and performing an entire, full-time season as a principal player in a professional orchestra.

Considering that this time last year I had just been accepted to paramedic college and was seriously considering how relaxing and fun it would be to just play music as an amateur, uh, a principal job and a concerto in the same season is a little bit of a change of pace.

(Spoiler alert: I did not end up attending paramedic college this year. I like having hobbies, but I’m not quite at the win-a-bassoon-job-while-in-school-for-a-completely-different-discipline kind of level.)

So, that's what the next six months are going to be about for me: manufacturing deadlines, as well as managing the ones I already have. I'm grateful for my time as a freelancer/underemployed musician (let's be real here) because it taught me that manufacturing deadlines is a huge part of a life in music.

Woohoo! Let's all make up some arbitrary dates to freak out over!



Endings and beginnings

It's a bit difficult, as a freelancer, to separate "season" and "summer" in the way that someone with a job, or even a student, can. However, it's probably safe to say that it's now the summer for me: I played my last concert with the Niagara Symphony for the time being two weeks ago-- I am going to be on leave from the NSO next year as I start my new job as principal of the Regina Symphony, and couldn't have asked for a better ending to my time with the NSO than playing Mahler's 2nd symphony, with my fiance playing beside me.

The week after, we were going to work together again as I came to visit him at his job, and I played 3rd and contra on-- I am not making this up-- Mahler 1. Yes, two Mahler symphonies in as many weeks: I'm pretty sure this is what I imagined being a professional musician would be likein my first year of music school.

That concert was particularly special because it was Music Director Edwin Outwater's final farewell to the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony. During the many bars of rests I had the privilege and pleasure of counting during that concert, I also had the opportunity to reflect on this crazy profession; after ten years-- a decent amount of time, in MD terms-- here's a guy choosing to move on from his job in part because that's simply what's done, not to mention the fact that he also lives and works in a different country. This is normal for a conductor. And to a lesser extent it's normal for musicians, too. 

In the past two years of "being a freelancer," I've worked in three of the four farthest practicable corners of the province-- Windsor in the west, Niagara in the south, and Thunder Bay in the north. (The farthest east I've been is Oshawa with the Ontario Philharmonic, and while I hear the Kingston Symphony is a nice band, I don't exactly regret missing the opportunity to have driven the three and a half hours it would take to get to a gig in Kingston from Kitchener...) There are really great, fun things about doing this. I listen to a lot of podcasts. I have a decent understanding of the geography and transportation systems of the entire province. And, by and large, I've been lucky that so many of the places I work are beautiful. St. Catharine's is one of the most astoundingly quick-growing cities I've ever been in -- it seems like every concert cycle, there are three or four new businesses on St. Paul street alone. Thunder Bay has some of the most stunning views from inside any city, ever. I've played pops tunes beside Niagara Falls underneath fireworks displays, I've stood on the bank of the Detroit River and listened to a Creedence Clearwater Revival reunion concert being played in another country, I've gotten to live and work in places like Dundas and Ancaster which, as a Torontonian, would have remained in the category of "places vaguely near here that aren't" if I hadn't discovered how gorgeous and special they were. I've played on the rooftop of a condo in downtown Toronto while being filmed by a helicopter. My job, such as it is, for the past few years has been really exciting, and when I attempt to describe what I do to people, they invariably seem intrigued and somewhat envious. But also confused.

Because it's hard to explain to people in other industries why this-- where by "this," I really mean this much gorram driving-- seems like a reasonable thing to do as some semblance of a regular job. And to a large extent, it's not. It's a totally ridiculous way to make a living that is wearing on me after only two years, and while there are some people who manage to sustain it long-term, I suspect I would opt-out if it started to seem like I might have to be one of them.

But at the moment, the pendulum is swinging the other way: In mid-August, I'll load the car up and drive for four days, to Regina, where for the first time in my life I'll be making all (or most) of my income from a single source, an employer who provides me with benefits and, following the tenure process, the guarantee of a job to come back to.

So, that's different. It's also eerily familiar: get in the car, drive, play. The timelines are just extended.

In all seriousness, though, I am really looking forward to this drive in the way that I don't look forward to driving, say, in rush hour on the 403. I've done about half of it before-- the bit between Toronto and Sault St. Marie, and then the Soo to Thunder Bay-- and then the next two legs (Thunder Bay to Winnipeg, Winnipeg to Regina) are new to me (except I have been a passenger in a bus going Thunder Bay to Kenora... so yes, I will probably stop at Egli's on my way by.)

I'm spending the summer, in chronological order: coaching gymnastics, going to Ottawa to have a lesson on Five Sacred Trees with Chris Millard, having a pre-party in Toronto for my wedding, going to ADULT GYMNASTICS CAMP WITH MY ADULT GYMNASTICS FRIENDS OMG THIS IS A REAL THING THAT EXISTS AND I AM GOING, getting married in Calgary, going on a honeymoon-type hiking adventure, possibly coaching some more gymnastics, and then... leaving.

It's a strange life.


World Masters Gymnastics Championships 2017


My second year as an adult gymnast; my second World Masters' Gymnastics Championships! If you want to compare to last year (hint: it compares favourably! Grown-ups can improve at stuff! :D) that post is here.

We'll go in Olympic order because why the heck not.


Well hey, this is a big improvement in that I actually trained vault this year! Vault was my worst event of a not-very-impressive all-around lineup as a kid. As far as I recall, it usually consisted of me running, putting my hands down at the front of the table, piking up to handstand, walking on my hands across the table so as not to smash my spine on the back edge of it, and flopping off onto my feet. It was SUPER IMPRESSIVE. So anyway, in the past year I've figured out how to get over the thing successfully at competition height, which is a win! I still pike up a bit, and my elbows bend to propel me off, but these two were good vaults for me and I was happy!



This was the event I was most proud of. Not because it actually met the requirements for the level I was competing in (it didn't.) But what you just watched was the fulfillment of probably the most epic struggle of my entire young life... THE KIP. For the uninitiated, the kip is the movement by which gymnasts, from moderately skilled recreational athletes all the way up to the Olympics, get from hanging beneath a bar to supporting the body on top of the bar.  The specialness of this particular movement, as physics professor Rhett Allain wrote for Wired, is that "the gymnast starts in a position with low potential energy and ends at a higher potential energy (here I mean gravitational potential energy in the Earth-gymnast system). How does this work? Clearly the gymnast must do some work, but her arms don’t even bend."

Indeed! And not only is the kip an fascinating, beautiful and elegantly simple movement, it's also one that's pretty damn hard to learn if you're a jiggly, uncoordinated goober, like like my thirteen-year-old self, and not a wiry, obedient six-year-old. And having gone through the recreational, not competitive stream of gymnastics as a child, as a young teenager I found it to be simply beyond my abilities, physically and intellectually. So when I quit gymnastics at fourteen, despite many years and countless times of being told I was "so close!" to finally ending up on top of the damn bar, I never did get my kip.

I finally did get it, about ten years after my supposedly-final Kip Defeat, at an adult open gym practice at the Thunder Bay Gymnastics Association: 

 It took me almost another full year to get my other kip-- it turns out the same skill on the high bar feels vastly different from the low bar version-- but at WMGC I finally fulfilled a long-held dream of having a bar routine with no pullovers in it.

The other new skill in my bar routine is the dismount, acquired this summer; flyaway was a skill that seemed impossibly far away as a kid, and turned out to be relatively easy for me to learn now. (Shout-out to the parkour dudes at open gym who effectively taught me a flyaway with the following advice: "It's easy, yo, that's like, the first gymnastics trick I leaned. Just let go of the bar and flip.")


Beam is the one event where I haven't caught up to where I was as a kid, only because I used to have more back flexibility and thus back walkover on the beam came fairly easily to me in ye olden days.  Still, I thought this was pretty solid (and the dismount was new!)


I am a terrible choreographer, wow. But my choreography was marginally better than last year's! Part of my problem is inordinately ambitious music... this years' was heavy metal Shostakovich, last years' was the Stranglers' Golden Brown, and for next year I am terribly tempted by Tanya Tagaq's Uja. Perhaps a dance class should be part of my activity schedule next season!

I did the same back tumbling (roundoff back handspring back tuck) but it was much less terrifying than it was last year, and I can now do it out of two steps, not two million, so I fit it in vertically across the floor just to be weird. The front tuck is new but I landed on my ass. But I also landed on my ass in last years' front handspring, so... yeah.

The final "events" at WMGC are the extras: the timed rope climb, and the (this is the real name) Back Tuck Circle of Rainbows and Happiness. I didn't compete in either of these last year. This year, I actually got up the rope (and am now working on my foot-less rope climb as a goal for next year) and I DID THE BACK TUCK CIRCLE, because I learned a standing back tuck this year! Another new, not re-acquired, skill. I only got five rounds in before landing on straight knees and bouncing onto my hands-- disappointing since I wasn't even tired! Just means there's lots of room for improvement.

"Lots of room for improvement" sums up my gymnastics pretty well; and I mean that in a joyous way. How would my frustrated, ineffective pre-teen self have felt about the idea that she would finally start improving at the rate she had been waiting for long after she had aged out of "normal" gymnastics classes?

And who cares about her opinion, anyway?

Just like fine wine... the adult gymnastics facebook group

How to win an audition

I have no idea. Yeah, I won one last week, but I still exited with a longer "to improve in my preparation process" list than a "things I did awesome on" list.

I'm still gonna write down everything I know about auditions, though, because the one thing I do know is:

you have to go to them.


~Winning my job~ was not the surreal, magical experience I imagined it would be while I was in school. There's a mythology about that idea, and that phrase, at music schools. "She won a job!" "Back when my teacher won his job..." "If I win a job..." or, for the cockier, "When I win my job..." We spend years imagining how we're going to feel on that day.

Winning my job felt normal.


I started taking auditions in third year of undergrad, which was the first point at which I had even a basic level of control over the instrument. In my final year of school, I won a tenure-track position in a small regional orchestra-- where only two people showed up to the audition.

I didn't win because I was an super-duper player and totally ready, I won because, on that specific day, to that specific committee, I was preferred over the other candidate. That's it; a relatively small thing, but it had an outsize effect. Besides a lot of street cred back at school, I suddenly had a small foothold in the freelance scene, a calling card of "I play here." I had a window into the lives of working musicians, the kind who aren't in the Montreal Symphony. Two years later, that orchestra moved from playing in a university lecture hall to a brand-new, gorgeous, city-owned performing arts center that rivals the best in the province. I've played principal parts with that orchestra that I would never have had the chance to do, as an out-of school freelancer: Tchaik 6, Don Juan, Bolero. We once played every single Beethoven piano concerto in the same concert. Next month, we're doing Mahler 2. Beyond the playing, I ended up on the Player's Committee; through the PC, I attended the annual conference of the Organization of Canadian Symphony Musicians, and became the delegate for my orchestra. A year after that, I became a member of the committee to re-negotiate our collective bargaining agreement. This is not exactly standard fare for the first few years after graduating from an undergrad in music.

In the middle of that, I won an audition where I WAS THE ONLY PERSON WHO SHOWED UP, for a one-year position in a small but full-time orchestra. Because I was the only person who bothered to do the audition, I ended up with the immense advantage of having the experience of doing a whole season, full-time, with a professional orchestra, straight out of my undergrad. What I learned is that the difference between being a freelancer, and being a musician with a pile of folders on the stand from the same orchestra, is HUGE.

I also learned that the things that seem easy in music school become not-so-easy as soon as you're not in music school. At McGill, I took for granted that I would practice at least 3 hours a day or so. Why on earth wouldn't I? All my friends were doing it. The practice hallway was the social and community hub of the school. I would arrive there around eight in the morning and start warming up. As people arrived, they'd check in on their colleagues-- you have a lesson today? What are you going to play? How's the face feeling? K, have a good warm up. Skipping classes to practice was de rigueur. The cafeteria would clear out at around 1 or 2 PM when stragglers finally managed to convince each other to get get back up the stairs to the practice wing. If I ever felt bored in the evenings, I knew I could walk the two blocks back to school, noodle around a bit on the bassoon, and chat with whoever else was still hanging around. Life was good-- practicing itself was never easy, but the idea of needing motivation to practice was laughable.

HA. HA. HA. Living in a basement apartment, playing second bassoon to a level that was pleasing to the people around me and thus mostly uncommented-on, suddenly I found myself struggling to sit down and get in an hour a day of focused practice. It turns out that, just like the act of practicing is a skill, the act of planting your butt in a chair with the intention of practicing is also a skill, and one that atrophies fast.

I'm still not up to the same level of consistent, quality practice that I was at McGill-- but if I'm being honest, I think it's probably pretty universal feeling among professionals about their student days. And I do regret all the lost practice time in the past few years, especially when I contemplate how most of the people who show up to the same auditions as me went to grad school, and thus have at least two more years of intensive practicing than I do under their belts. But I also have the experience of making the transition, and having it be shitty at first, and then gradually better. That, too, was an education. To a certain, still small extent, I know how to transition into a job.


So when I won this audition (which had a regular number of people at it, for once! :P) it felt totally natural-- as if there is such a thing as a career path, and this was the logical next step in mine. I didn't freak out. I just did what I had learned in Gabe Radford's audition seminar, way back in NYOC 2011, to do in the event of a successful audition, and what I had practiced twice before-- smile, say thank you, and shake hands with your new colleagues.

Realistically, my A+ audition advice of "just make sure to show up to really sparsely populated auditions!" isn't exactly practical for the vast majority. Especially those that play instruments more popular than the bassoon, and people who aren't Canadians with the benefit of national auditions. SO while you can't control the second part-- "sparsely populated auditions"-- you can control the first. JUST MAKE SURE TO SHOW UP. How many people could have snatched my first two, crucial jobs out from under me if they had bothered to try? Honestly, probably a lot. They just didn't.

So there, that's my audition advice. JUST GO. Even if you think you suck, even if you're not sure you want the job, even if one of your keys starts making a weird buzzing sound two days before that might have been all in your head (*raises hand*), even if your Tchaik 6 reeds develops a crack the day before (*raises hand again*), even if you have to fly back the day of the audition to be at an 8 AM madrigal-learning session the next day (*bangs head against desk*), even if you have to fly to the audition the morning of (actually not me, but MAJOR kudos to one hugely determined candidate at the audition last week for getting up at 3 AM after a gig the night before to fly across the country and play an audition.) JUST GO.


And now, a world premiere

The thing about playing in a symphony orchestra, which fact is so obvious as to barely even need stating, is that often you're playing music written a long time ago. Something I do often, especially while playing music that I'm somewhat in awe of, is to imagine the circumstances and feelings of the person who must have played the part I am playing for the first time. Some are fairly mysterious; but some pieces allow for a decent amount of extrapolation just based on the context of the piece. It's safe to assume, for instance, that the bassoonist playing in the orchestra at La Scala for the first performance of La Gazza Ladra was feeling something in between annoyance and panic, seeing as, according to legend, the overture was only completed in time for the performance when the producer locked Rossini in a room and forced him to write, handing pages out the window to the copyists. (I know I certainly was the time that I had to play the principal part of that on ten minutes' notice.)

Others are more mysterious, but intriguing. Consider the bassoon solo in Shostakovich's 9th symphony: 


The 9th symphony is, for the most part, a light and cheerful work, with the bassoon solo as the glaring exception to the mood of the piece. In the Bulletin of  the Moscow State Philharmonic for 1945, Shostakovich is quoted mentioning (and complimenting) the bassoonist by name: one Vorobyov. How did Vorobyov feel, in the hanging moments of silence before the beginning of the fourth movement began, knowing that he was about to play not only probably the biggest orchestral solo of his life (there are, indeed, very few bigger orchestral solos available)  but one that-- at least in the interpretation of most modern bassoonists-- carries dangerous political undertones? David McGill, in his "Orchestral Excerpts for Bassoon" CD, ascribes the text "Free-dom!" to the first two notes of the solo, and describes later motifs as "fooling the authorities" and "a strong undercurrent of pointed sarcasm."  Stephane Levesque, when giving a short class on his interpretation of the piece when I was at McGill, described his imagination of an individual alternately speaking out against injustice, then being cowed at the dangers of doing so and retreating. 

It's difficult to imagine that this interpretation hadn't occurred to Vorobyov. Was the thinking about totalitarianism and dissidence, as he took a breath for that first F? Or was he only thinking about the hope that his embouchure wouldn't tire before the end of the movement?

This line of enquiry is a preamble, basically, to the point that it's easy for modern musicians to imagine that we have lost something that previous generations once had. The vast majority of modern musicians, if asked who their favourite composer is, will name someone whose music they will never premiere, for obvious reasons. When mainstream orchestral musicians do give a premiere, often we're not too happy about it. There are two possible reasons for this. The first is a kind of time-based quality bias: if "good" music is music that has stood the test of time, then every generation is going to end up premiering a relatively large proportion of total garbage, of which only the cream of the crop will ever be heard by subsequent generations. The second possible explanation is that music has simply gotten weirder and less fun to play over the past hundred years. I will leave the merits of that theory up to people who have the energy for spirited debates about the essence of contemporary music. 

The point is-- it is a rare and unusual thing, to give a premiere which makes you think, "this must be how it felt to play [other piece that I like] for the first time." To play music that is a) good, b) situated unmistakeably in the sound world of the present day, and c) likely to receive repeat performances and become part of an actual body of repertoire, is a very unusual thing.  

I had the opportunity to play such a piece the other night. The piece was Ecstasy by Christos Hatzis, with text composed and performed by Sarah Slean. If these names sound familiar together, it's because Ecstasy is a companion piece to the first collaboration between Hatzis and Slean, Lamento. I actually had the opportunity to play Lamento twice,  first with the Niagara Symphony and then with Thunder Bay, and it is a piece with an enormous emotional impact and an incredible musical inventiveness. You can watch the premiere of that piece, with Symphony Nova Scotia, on CBC:

The TBSO commissioned Ecstasy as a kind of counterpoint to Lamento, as the names would suggest. They also commissioned another piece from Hatzis, which they will perform in October 2016.

Although it would be rude of me to say I hope to be there-- since my being there would require someone else's getting sick-- the impact of Hatzis' music, and the experience of being the first person to get a part, hear it in the context of the whole, and be present for the creation of something both new and lasting, is almost enough to make me want to say it.  

Some athletic pursuits

Around nine months ago, I went into the University of Toronto Strength and Conditioning Centre during the Women's-only hours, and used 20 seconds of courage to ask the woman beside me how to adjust the supports on the squat rack. 

That day I managed-- barely-- to squat an empty barbell, bench press a 30 lb EZ-bar while lying on the ground, and do something resembling a barbell row with the same. I wrote that shit down:

By January 2016, I had progressed: I could squat 95 lbs, press about half my weight, and deadlift 20 lbs more than my weight.

So I made an impulse purchase. Well, an impulse purchase I had only been waiting for ten years to make: I signed up for a gymnastics class.

I stopped doing gymnastics-- like most people-- in my teens. I was never particularly good. I did advanced recreational and interclub classes, never able to progress beyond level 4 in competitions because the kip, a foundational skill on bars, constantly eluded me. So I left with unfinished business... if nothing else, I want to get that one skill before I die. 

So, after years of saying I was going to and occasionally dropping in on open gym sessions in Montreal and Thunder Bay, I finally bit the bullet and signed up for an actual class, once a week, at Toronto Gymnastics International-- the gym that I first went to a birthday party at when I was seven years old, and stayed until I was fourteen. 

"There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered." (--Apparently Nelson Mandela? Who knows.) It turns out that six months of lifting heavy (for me) things and and intentionally eating lots of food had changed me a lot. It's noticeable when your body is more capable than you assumed it was. When, in the warmup of the first class, we were told to do a line across the floor of handstand walking, I kicked up to handstand and was surprised, a few seconds later, to find I was at the other end without ever having fallen. By the third class, I got back on the tumble track-- a kind of very long trampoline-- the most advanced tumbling line I had ever done on floor as a kid (roundoff-backhandspring-back tuck.) Most of all, my body just felt different than I expected it to-- in a good way.

Aw yiss! It's only been... um... ten years? #gymnastics #trampoline #tumbling #fitness

A video posted by Anna Norris (@nichteilen) on


So when I saw a post on titled "Call to Meet! Masters Competition in Ontario, Canada!" I clicked. ("Masters'," for those unfamiliar with athletic categories, is a euphemism for "old," not an indication of the competitors actually having "mastered" anything in particular (besides their own post-adolescent biology.)) It was clearly something I was interested in: the rules for the meet included things like, 

"Awards: As you are adults, adult awards will be given. Large bottles for 1st-3rd, smaller bottles for 4th-6th . Awards for younger adults (and those who don't like bottles) will be available. NO AWARDS CAN BE OPENED IN THE GYM! Next year's competition depends on it." 

and, although this didn't affect me this year: 

"For men and women ages 25+. Don't want to compete against young'uns?!? Don't worry; back by popular demand is “Mulligan Money!” Gymnasts ages 25-34 get one Mulligan dollar, 35-44 get two, and 45-54 get three, etc. Not enough? Buy more at the competition. All proceeds go toward Multiple Sclerosis research through MS Canada. Give these to the judges and they will “look the other way” that time that you had two dismounts on the beam, took an “extra” warm-up vault, “extended” the boundaries of the floor, needed some “help” getting above the rings, etc."

So I signed up. It turns out, a lot has changed since I last competed in gymnastics. Like, in the rules. Levels 1-5 now have compulsory routines, meaning each routine is a list of skills that you have to do (in that order, in the cases of bars and beam.) Old skills that weren't being done much when I was a kid were suddenly on-trend, like the stride circle, a bizarre faceplant-y thing with the bar in between one's legs, which I learned when I still thought that I would be able to compete different levels on different events:

Once I realized that you did, in fact, have to compete the same level on all events, I was conflicted: I wanted to compete my back tuck tumbling line on floor. That would mean competing level 5; but I didn't have the compulsory skills on any other event for level 5. (Still don't have the kip, for instance :P) So I called the meet director; he informed me that a) it was fine if I didn't have the compulsory skills, lots of other people would be in the same boat and b) since there were fewer people in level 5 than prizes, there was no point in not competing on an event just because I couldn't do it-- all that would do would give up free prize booze. 

Getting tumbling from the tumble track to the competition floor involves two upgrades: putting it on rod floor, which is a boucier type of floor, and then putting it on the spring floor, which is, well, the floor. 

I got it onto the rod floor

but was still having trouble with the real floor:

I also missed some classes as I was playing some concerts in Thunder Bay. I did what I could to practice.

Finally, in my last practice before the competition, I managed to put it on the floor with no spotter and run through my routine:

The competition was so much fun, and full of amazing people. There was a man in his sixties competing. There were two women doing the "super all-around," aka competing all 4 womens' events and then all 6 mens' events. There was a rope-climbing competition where almost everyone scampered up without even using their legs. Most of all, there were people of all ages and body types doing gymnastics, proving that this sport is for everyone. (Don't believe me on the "everyone" count? Check out Johanna Quaas at 86.)

Here are my routines. I didn't get a video of me vault, because I wasn't planning on doing it until the judges told me I could use a mini-trampoline instead of a springboard. I did land on my feet without falling over for one of my vaults, though, which I was pretty proud of considering I hadn't trained it :P

I also hadn't been planning on competing beam until the week of the competition. So my beam "routine" ended up being more of a "list of things I can still do on beam on ten minutes' practice."

Bars was kinda the level 3 compulsory routine with some added high bar stuff. 

Floor! I ended up getting 2nd out of 6 competitors on floor, woohoo! My single-minded focus on my first tumbling line meant I barely worked on the second one and ended up falling on my ass. Oh well. 

So... there ya have it, that's what I've been doing while not blogging (basically, I've been Instagramming.) Music stuff? Yes, also that too. Despite the fact that I actually started strength training in order to pass a lift test for a day job (which I eventually did, yay!) I haven't scheduled any shifts in a while as I actually have enough work to be a full-time freelance musician right now and for the next few months, which is pretty rad. 

Guess what else is rad? Skwaaaaats. Soon I'll even be able to use a real full-size plate for them :P

Just another few months and I'll be able to use real plates for my squats :P #fitness #xxfitness #nerdfitness

A video posted by Anna Norris (@nichteilen) on



Bread, circuses, and symphonies

By now, most of the people who care have heard about the accident at the Toronto Symphony Cirque de la Symphonie performance on Tuesday. For the uninformed-- and anyone who didn't see the youtube video of the incident before it was pulled down by a copyright claim (I'm sure they were reeeeal worried about the copyrighted material in that video)-- a circus performer crashed into a cellist in the middle of an act. Nobody was injured (and no instruments harmed), but it has set off some debate about the amount of acceptable risk for musical performers. (Warning: link contains Slipped Disc comments section, proceed with extreme caution :P)

The TSO has this to say for itself:

We put the safety of all artists first and foremost. Cirque has an excellent safety track record. And today a safety review was also conducted post incident and their performance was altered to ensure no future potential risk to the audience, musicians, performers or instruments.

This is a pretty disappointing statement coming from a group of people who supposedly know something about music and art. "No future potential risk" is not a thing. Ever. People make mistakes. Musicians know that; no matter how good the player, sometimes something happens that wasn't supposed to. Sometimes you go to the Toronto Symphony and someone misses a note. It's not a big deal; nobody is hurt and the sun rises the next morning. 

The acrobat made a mistake equivalent to a musician making an embarrassing cack: he misjudged, and a noticeable mistake followed. Not because he's incompetent; because he's human. Any group of people doing difficult things with their bodies is going to have this happen every so often. If you're lucky, all that results is a shaken cellist. If you're unlucky, someone dies.

The TSO statement is disingenuous because it doesn't recognize this reality. When you sign up to be an acrobat, you accept a certain amount of physical risk. Circus performers know this, and their management knows this. Cirque du Soleil, for instance, has three levels of insurance on the performers in each show: their own extensive corporate liability policy, the required liability policy of every Cirque venue, and the organization also covers life insurance for all performers. (Source) Risk exists. It's up to every individual to decide the level of risk they're comfortable with before signing on  to a risky job-- and, crucially, it's the responsibility of the employer to inform the employee of the level of risk. 

So the problem is not that an acrobat made a mistake. That's fine and normal. The problem is that the people affected by the mistake never agreed to the level of risk they were being exposed to. "Be hit by flying limbs every so often" is in the job description of an acrobat, and it is not in the job description of a cellist. Apparently, nobody on the management level of the orchestras booking this show have ever considered that mounting an acrobatic production in a space not built to accommodate acrobatics is going to involve an increased level of risk to workers who normally do not experience that particular level of risk.

Which brings us to questions of responsibility moving forward. What does the AFM think of all this? Health and safety is a traditional part of the interests of many unions, but seeing as musical venues tend not to be the sort of workplace where, for instance, WHMIS regulations apply, it's probably safe to assume they're a little rusty on that function.  And it's not exactly the kind of situation that's made provisions for in the Occupational Health and Safety Act, as far as I could tell from a casual browse of the document, which I have to say is not exactly light bedtime reading. 

Finally, it's also pretty unlikely that any orchestra would have specific enough contract language to have any sort of a basis for dealing with this kind of issue. So... should they?

Brave new world, that has such contracts in it!



Music school, freelancing, and "winning"

Here’s the thing about freelancing. 

In music school, you learn how to do auditions. You learn how to do auditions because you do a lot of them; at least one a year, maybe two, just to be ranked in your core ensembles, plus plenty of others; youth orchestras, summer festivals, big solos, professional orchestras. If you do it right, you get pretty good at auditions. You acquire an internal locus of control vis a vis auditions, and maybe even start to enjoy them. 

By the end of music school, though, you’ve acquired not just an aptitude for auditions, but some specific ideas about their outcomes. Because school auditions aren’t like other auditions. One person doesn’t win and the others walk away with nothing. One person wins, more or less, and the next few people still get something pretty good, and the rest get a place at the bottom of the totem pole. If you school experience works for you, it’s likely that you start right at the bottom, and work your way up to the top, or near the top, as you advance. It’s a real good feeling. Having a hierarchy can be scary— but it can also be comforting. For the duration of your time in music school, you can point to a list of names on the wall and say “look! This is me. This is where I fit. I am better than these people, and these other people are better than me. If I keep working, I will keep rising. Life is fair.”


The real world doesn’t work that way. First of all, obviously, that’s not how professional auditions work. The bottom 90% of candidates aren’t ranked; they’re just told to go home. The top 10% may well fall into a ranking (who got to the semis/finals/got a trial) but only one positions really matters, and it’s #1. 

Freelancing also doesn’t work like that, because not only is there no ranking, there’s no winner at all. Sure, there are people who get more gigs than other people. But how do you decide who wins? Is it the person who makes the most money? (Are they allowed to have a day job?) The person first on the sub list for the most prestigious ensemble? (Who decides what’s most prestigious? Does a symphony orchestra beat out an opera orchestra?) The person with the most students? (Are they actually a good teacher, or just enterprising?) There’s no way to decide. The ranking simply doesn’t exist. Everyone is just humans, trying to strike a balance between survival and artistic fulfillment. 

For a recent graduate of a music school with a defined system of ranking, this isn’t the relief one might think it would be. It’s like having the carpet yanked out from under your feet. Suddenly, you’re not owed anything. There’s not even anything you can do to become owed anything. And if you don’t wise up to that fact, things can get ugly. 

Instead of focusing on your own improvement, it’s easy to become subconsciously obsessed with reconstructing a ranking that never existed. Who’s in town? What gigs are they getting? Should I have gotten that gig? Wow, that person has a damn fine-lookin’ website. That person went to a better school than me, so they win over me. I once played with that person while they were having a bad day, so I win over them. Am I winning as much as I should be? How can I win more? A preoccupation with winning a nonexistent competition can be paralysing. When abstract victory is more important than concrete self-improvement, practice suffers. And when practice suffers, you guessed it… it sure don’t feel like winning.

Is this music school’s fault? Nah. The system by which most schools rank and place students in ensembles is fair, and for many people, effectively motivates improvement. It’s just one of those many ways in which school can’t, and maybe shouldn’t prepare you for the real world. 

So, folks, time to log off and go practice.

I august, you august, they august

I started the month of August feeling somewhat nervous over the fact that I had almost no gigs lined up. Fortunately, it picked up somewhat, and I've actually been pretty busy. 

On the 4th, I played a recital at the Belfountain Music Festival. Belfountain is an area in Caledon, Ontario, where violinist Zachary Ebin has put together an eclectic festival featuring professional concerts in multiple genres of music as well as a student division of Suzuki string students. It all takes place in the Melville White church, one of the few remaining pre-Victorian era timber frame churches in Ontario, which was built in 1837, in active use until 1964 and is now under restoration. I played the 2nd cello suite-- turns out it still hurts the face if you've been playing it for years, folks-- as well as Nussio's Variations on a Theme by Pergolesi, the Villa-Lobos Bachianas Brasileiras No.6 for flute and bassoon, and a Handel sonata fashioned into another flute-and-bassoon duet. 

Two days after that recital, the Belfountain Music Festival featured a string quartet concert with a professionally-led campfire sing-along out back behind the church afterwards, to give you an idea of the kinds of things going on there!

Pretty much immediately afterwards-- close enough to the recital that I didn't feel too guilty about leaving my bassoon at home and calling it "post-recital relaxation," anyway-- I attended as a delegate of the 2015 conference of the Organization of Canadian Symphony Muscians! OCSM is a conference of the American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada (AFM, aka the musicians' union) which counts as member orchestras pretty much all the major symphony orchestras in Canada and many of the full- and part-time regional ones. For the first time, the Niagara Symphony was invited to send a delegate, so I hopped in the car and drove past more windmills than I'd ever seen in my life to Windsor, Ontario, where the conference was held this year. I learned a ton about orchestra contracts, negotiating, the AFM, and the way that other orchestras in Canada do things, met some super people from all over Canada, and had a waterfront view of Detroit from my hotel for five days. Creedance Clearwater Revival was playing some sort of reunion concert in Detroit the first night I was there, and there were people lined up all along the Windsor waterfront to listen.

When I got back from Windsor, I pretty much just stayed on the road and spent a night in Kitchener before spending two days in Hamilton filling out the section for the final concert of this year's National Academy Orchestra/Brott Music Festival. (It not even that much closer, but WOW, is it ever more pleasant driving to Hamilton from Kitchener than Toronto...) We played Carmina Burana, which contains my favourite Latin drinking song ever!

I have two more one-day gigs and some private lessons to teach in Toronto before I go to the Interprovincial Music Camp to teach as a faculty assistant. 

And finally, I am moving for September! Into a slightly more expensive ($630 instead of $554-- all good prices for downtown Toronto), but disproportionately more pleasant (I anticipate), co-op house. Woo-hoo!

Toronto livin'

I've been living in Toronto for a little over two months now, and we're well into the "mostly wasps with a 60% chance of stinky garbage" phase of summer. For better or for worse, most of my gigs at this point are either outside or in churches, meaning a trip to the Salvation Army to get some less-hot black clothes is probably in order! Thus far it's been enjoyable, though, especially since some of the gigs I had in the past few weeks were at Casa Loma. Casa Loma is a large and impressive castle with equally large and impressive gardens built in the early 1900's but Sir Henry Pellatt, who as far as I can tell (mostly by reading the informational signs inside Casa Loma itself) was kind of a pompous dick. Eventually he couldn't pay his taxes and the city seized the castle, although not before it was used during World War 2 as a secret Allied research base-- the sonar equipment used to detect U-boats was developed in the attic of Casa Loma, hidden from the public (who came to the castle for weekly social dances) by nothing more than a sign that said "Under construction, we apologize for the inconvenience."

Anyway, Casa Loma has some pretty rad gardens, maintained by a whole army of gardeners, which includes a closed (and air-conditioned!) glass gazebo in which concerts are held every Tuesday. I didn't take any pictures, but fortunately for once the publicity photo is exactly correct about what it actually looks like: 

Casa Loma set up for a concert. 

Casa Loma set up for a concert. 

The music is great; we played an "Opera Hits" show, Beethoven 7, and the most recent Tuesday, a concert of mostly French Impressionism. The place is always packed-- even the Beethoven 7 concert, when it started pouring rain in the middle of the performance, people who were outside of the gazebo stayed to listen!

Tomorrow I have a different outdoor gig, at the Jackson-Triggs winery. I've played there once before, with NYOC in 2012. Jackson-Triggs has its own amphitheatre and puts on an entire summer concert series: 

On my way through wine country tomorrow, I'm also planning on stopping at a meadery to buy some mead, which I haven't been able to find in LCBOs and have been trying to for ever!

I also have some solo stuff going on; last Friday I played a kids' show of my very own, consisting of the 2nd Cello Suite and Nussio's Variations on a Theme by Pergolesi, with lots of explanations, jokes and tricks in between the movements of each. One of the teachers at the Niagara Summer Music Camp later told me that she had never seen the campers so attentive before for a single-instrument recital!

I'll be playing the same rep again, plus the Villa-Lobos Bachianas Brasileiras No. 6 (for flute and bassoon) and some Handel duets at the Belfountain Music Festival on August 4th. 

Besides all that, I also got a job at a patient transfer company-- the non-emergency ambulances that take patients between hospitals and from their homes to hospital appointments-- and as a result of the lifting requirements of the job, have finally started lifting weights for real! I have been doing the Stronglifts 5x5 program at the U of T gym. I've been meaning to learn how to lift for... like, years, so this job is the kick in the pants I need :D I start my job training at the company in a few weeks!

On a personal note... I got engaged! Here's a fuzzy laptop picture of my hand with some new bling. (Might do away with the black nail polish for the actual wedding, haha...)

Finger bling!

Finger bling!

That's all, folks. Now, I gotta go work out/warm up/make reeds/ get supplies to make some jam with the huge excess of mulberries on the trees around my house!



  • I was waitlisted for Rice. Considering I started the process resigned to the idea of not even getting past the prescreening, I feel A-OK about that!
  • I participated in my very first concerto competition! A few weeks ago I flew to Toronto for a day to play in the finals of the Orchestra Toronto concerto competition. The winner ended up being a flutist that I went to McGill with (3/4 of the finalists were McGill people, interestingly...) but I was still very happy with how I played. Because of the competition, I ended up pulling out of the opera audition I was going to do around the same time after realizing that the job sounded good in theory but would actually be extremely inconvenient in practice. Plus, I could do the competition without missing out on any services in Thunder Bay, whereas for the audition I would have lost a few days worth of pay for an audition that didn't serve my interests anyway.
  • I went to a barn dance at a farm in Neebing the other night with some symphony friends! Merrie, our principal trumpet, is also a Ceilidh dance caller, and her husband is a celtic fiddler who was playing with a guitar player visiting from Quebec.  It was awwweeesome.
  • The symphony season ends on the 3rd of May, but I am staying an extra week to play a show with my wind quintet! It will be at 3 PM on May 9th at the Foundry. The title of the show is "Music of the Americas," despite my mostly-joking suggestion of "Nothing European." Entrance is by donation.
  • I guess I technically have two symphony seasons to play the ends of-- I haven't been in St. Catharine's very much this year, but I'll be with the Niagara Symphony for the last concert of the season on May 17, in which, bizarrely, we are playing one of the same pieces that we played in my first concert in Thunder Bay-- Christos Hatzis' Lamento, sung by Sarah Slean. This will be our last concert in Sean O'Sullivan theatre at Brock-- next season, we will be moving into the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, the new PAC in downtown St. Catherine's. (FirstOntario is apparently a credit union that made a major donation, but it's kind of a snazzy name for it, isn't it?)

Signature from Mike Hope-- 2nd bassoon of the Calgary Philharmonic-- in the rental part for Hindemith's Der Schwanendreher. I added my own name and orchestra.

My favourite genre of picture, the someone-elsie. Geoff taking a selfie from the top of Mink Mountain, a popular hiking spot near Thunder Bay.

The, uh, small black specks are people taking advantage of the last viable ice-fishing weather a few weeks ago.


Things that having freedom of speech means:

  • The government can't stop you from or punish you for saying or publishing what you want. (Within reason-- no libel, hate speech, etc.)

Things that having freedom of speech does not mean:

  • Your employer has to continue employing you no matter what you choose to say.
  • Gatekeepers have to give you a platform for your ideas whether they want to or not.
  • Other (non-government) people are not allowed to tell you to shut up

(This post brought to you partly, although certainly not exclusively, by the fact that orchestras are not organizations that have any power to grant or withhold the right to free speech even if they wanted to!)

The Astronaut Wives Club & the importance of lipstick

As I sit here on a Greyhound bus contemplating catching up with the most recent episodes of Marvel's Agent Carter, I am reminded of an interesting trend across various forms of narrative media: a lot of the stories told about women-as-protagonists are about women who are able to take on traditionally masculine roles. A lot of the time, when we read books or watch TV shows or movies about women, we're in board because we are absorbing the story of women who are able to do the same things men did, or better things in similar arenas, despite the handicap of massive prejudice against them. This is great! These stories are really important and awesome. (I also just finished the sixth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and expect to have devoured the whole show my the end of March, HELP.) They're inspiring because flying in the face of convention is difficult, and women succeeding in traditionally masculine arenas are doing something difficult successfully. But what the single-minded focus on those stories neglects is that women who successfully carry out traditionally feminine roles also accomplish someting difficult, something just as important and worthy of being remembered. Which flies in the face of several millennia's worth of accepted wisdom about what kinds of stories, especially historical stories, are interesting and valuable. Which brings me to the topic of this post: The Astronaut Wives Club, by Lily Koppel, which I downloaded from the Toronto Public Library Overdrive site to read on my many planes and buses during this week off from the TBSO.

Let's get this out of the way: I'm not a space nerd like some people are space nerds. I like space. I've read Wikipedia pages. I borrowed Chris Hadfield's book. I coughed up the dough for an Uber out to the Johnson Space Centre when I was in Houston, and got teary-eyed at a speech of George W. Bush's for the first and hopefully last time in my life (they played a recording of some memorial speech of his when the tour stopped in the middle of the field planted with trees for dead astronauts.) But, y'know, I didn't buy the t-shirt, I don't run out and get any new space-related book as soon as it's released, and a lot of the information in this book that was new to me probably wouldn't have been new to someone for whom knowledge about America's space exploration is a more important hobby.

That said, it seems like a lot of people read this book expecting new information about the actual space program, or the astronauts, or something. Those people are dumb. This book isn't about astronauts, and it isn't about space. It's about women on Earth, and how being a woman on Earth can take just as much out of you as being an astronaut in space. And these women had enough of being manufactured personas during their time as 1950s-acceptable "Perfect Responsible American Wives"; they don't need to be transformed yet again into 2015-acceptable "Strong Women."

And that seems to be pretty much where the backlash is coming from. This is a book that refuses to alter its subjects to be palatable to the modern reader. Thus, when I ventured into the wild world of internet reviews to see what people were saying about the book on Goodreads and Amazon, I found mostly things like this:

 How I wanted to love this book. I'm a big space nerd and have read lots about the astronauts. So this seemed like a natural fit: the familiar story but told from the other side. And there was some of that, yes, but unfortunately too much of the book was just one slightly or not-so-slightly humorous anecdote after the other and descriptions of dresses and shoes.

And this particularly nasty one:

How to write a book about the space program that's far less compelling than the one Tom Wolfe wrote on the same subject, in five easy steps.

1) First, make sure to eliminate everything that's interesting about space, and the politics involved in exploring it. The space race was an insane endeavor. Astronauts faced death when they got in those capsules; some of them actually died. Americans became obsessed with nationalist astro-gazing, but in the background buzzed the constant (and not unsubstantiated) fear that Russia would blow us the fuck up. Ignore all of that. Instead, focus on people's hair.

2) Second, write like a middling high school sophomore. It's best if you channel said sophomore as if he had gotten spectacularly high and only then remembered he had to write something (imagine that, by this point, he's three bowls in and not having an easy time getting his neurons to fire appropriately).

3) Organization, schmorganization. Ramble about whatever comes to mind!

4) Provide no information on the historical context, except to mention that, by the first Mercury launch, pink lipstick was out and red lipstick was in.

5) Don't attempt to humanize your subjects by providing well-researched biographical information. Instead, just find out what they were wearing at the time. That's much easier.

This is nonfiction for the kind of workaday philistines who get their book recommendations from People magazine. The Astronaut Wive's Club is sure to please that demographic: it has a pretty cover, and is a great choice for the type of person who spends their evenings watching The Real Housewives of Orange County while writing inane Facebook posts in which they bemoan their perceived lack of reading time.

Well, ouch. Usually if you want to hear the word "philistines" used in a non-Biblical context, you're going to have to take some undergraduate literature seminars.

It's not that none of the criticisms of the book are valid. Koppel insists on touching on every single one of the wives from Mercury through the end of Apollo, which is a lot of people to keep track of. However, some of them were definitely more vivid than others-- Annie Glenn, who eventually overcame her debilitating stutter, Betty Grissom, who publicly took on NASA and their manufacturer after her husband's death in a ground test for Apollo 1, Rene Carpenter, who ended up with a media presence that eclipsed her husband's when she wrote the syndicated column "A Woman Still" in the Houston Chronicle and hosted TV shows Nine in the Morning and Everywoman, and Trudy Cooper, herself a pilot-- so yes, mostly the Mercury wives got the most attention, and perhaps the book would have been better focusing primarily on them.

However, the complaints about the focus on unimportant things like hair and lipstick are spectacularly missing the point. The whole point is that this book is that it is  not about "everything that's interesting about space, and the politics involved in exploring it." That's not the story being told, because the political story of the time is the mens' story, and it's one that has been told before-- how on earth this reviewer come to be under the impression that this book is about the same subject as Tom Wolfe's? It's not.  The purpose of this book is the acknowledgement  that the hair and lipstick and pictures and publicity that made up the world that these women inhabited hold actual meaning.  Take the story of how "by the first Mercury launch, pink lipstick was out and red lipstick was in." Sure, in itself that piece of information isn't particularly interesting. That's not what that section of the book is about, though. The real story of the pink vs. red lipstick is this: the week after the front cover of Life Magazine featured the seven Mercury astronauts, it featured the seven wives attached to them. This was the wives' introduction to America; they had a responsibility, placed on them by NASA and by their husbands, to represent themselves as the perfect all-American women. The image that would be placed on the cover of the magazine meant a lot-- it had to be a statement of not only who they were, but who all of the wives of America should be. If you are a woman, a lot of your power to be understood within a particular identity comes from how you look. And even if you choose to delude yourself into thinking that this is not still the case today (and you would be deluding yourself), it certainly was in 1959. And in 1959, lipstick-wise, pink was in; not just due to a random whim of fashion, but because the particular pink the wives chose to all wear for the cover photo was the signature colour of the First Lady, Mamie Eisenhower. The choice to wear pink lipstick was the choice to present themselves as sturdy, responsible, and respectable. When they got their first glance at the cover of the actual magazine, though, the ladies were horrified: their lips were red! The editors of Life had decided that Mamie Pink was too old-fashioned and wanted these, the women living on the bleeding edge of the Space Age, to usher in a new era of bold fashion. So, they darkened the hue of the lipstick in the photo to red. It was the beginning of a time in each woman's life during which she was the human behind an intensely manufactured image.

So, Goodreads reviewers, don't try to tell me that lipstick isn't an important part of the story. The ladies knew it was important, the editors at Life knew it was important, and America knew it was important.

 And, if you'd like to read something with a refreshing respect for the stories of women operating within historically feminine boundaries, you can get the book from your library or... okay, this is 2015, you know how to buy a book on the internet, nobody needs me to actually link to where you can buy this book from. It is also, apparently, being turned into a 10-episode TV series by ABC, which I will be watching for.