Stories from a Bay Window
I dedicate this to my students and their families, to the Church of Christ Scientist, Los Altos and to all freelance musicians.
"How are you?
"How was your week?"
I suspected having this kind of greeting from my students, given the circumstances. We were now a month into quarantine and we were all trying to figure out what was happening. As someone who lived abroad and experienced precarious situations, usually driven by political unrest, I had some experience with stressful, unforeseen events, but never anything remotely close to a pandemic. I also knew that my precious young students hadn't either. I expected to see the stress and anxiety in their faces, but actually witnessing their distress was heartbreaking. They looked shellshocked, as if the giant rug of their safe, every day lives had been pulled from under their feet, violently. I kept looking back to those scary moments I had as a teenager abroad and how they had taught me to remain calm under pressure, and hoped to pass this on to them. My studio was now going virtual and picking the correct app for our remote work was crucial. My goal was to create as similar a situation as what we had during our in-person lessons in terms of sound. But equally important to me was picking the right spot in my apartment for our work. That happy spot where they would, hopefully, look out to and forget our current state for the duration of the lesson. That spot became my kitchen. A room with lots of natural light and a bay window with all of my hanging air plants, bonsais and pottery. It had the effect I hoped for, a sudden smile amid the stress, and the wondering eye past me to my happy corner.
I had moved to this apartment, in the Sundale neighborhood of Fremont, in November of 2018. It was a separate one bedroom unit on the second floor of a large house, with a private entrance and porch. I loved it. It had wooden floors, lots of light, a nice walk-in closet, decent kitchen, dining area and a great view of the beautiful garden. A garden full of exotic plants, trees, shrubs and plenty of fruit trees that we could eat from. The unobstructed view also extended to the rest of the neighborhood, and beyond. Since it faced west, it came with beautiful sunsets and a clear view of the night sky. It was a truly special place. Moreover, the rent was perfect, which was a godsend to a freelance musician like myself. Silicon Valley rents were ridiculously high and rising; a constant reminder that this area was not designed for someone like me. This was my latest attempt of keeping my cost of living down, a wise decision given what was looming ahead. As a non-techie living in Silicon Valley, one gets used to living in perpetual survival mode. This mode often becomes a sport. The sport of chasing the ideal subsidized apartment, the gas station with the lowest prices, the family-owned markets with reasonable food prices, cheap, quality eats when one is too busy to cook, and the usual navigating around the many other things that Californians pay a lot more for. Freelance musicians like myself get none of the perks or protections others have, making one feel quite vulnerable. That vulnerability can often lead to places we try to avoid, but somehow find ourselves in. One of those places is the dreaded Tunnel of Doom. That place artists often find themselves in when major life events, like career choices, are questioned and challenged. That place one hopes to cross successfully to the other side and remain unscathed after all has been "reassessed." Entry to the tunnel is usually triggered by some critical event deemed unfair and before you know it, you have put yourself on neutral and are being pulled into the tunnel by the Force of Doom. And it usually starts something like, "Why did I pick this career? What was I thinking? Did I really need to invest so much on my education? Imagine where I'd be if had I picked marketing! Marketing would've been a great choice for me in this Valley. I would have a good salary, great benefits, stock options. I would be able to afford my own place, travel for work. Travel for leisure! I would have payed sick days, payed vacation..." And on and on it goes until you find yourself deeper in that tunnel. And just when you thought you arrived at that middle point where there is absolutely no light, you realize you're not quite there yet. You need to go deeper..."How important is my work in the grand scheme of things? How necessary is my work, compared to other professions? How valuable is my work? Is it too late for me to switch careers?" Ah, yes, NOW we've arrived at the darkest place. That point where you only have two choices, to stay stuck there in the gloom and doom, or to fight your way out. While I usually
succeeded in making it to the other side in one piece—for the most part—it took a pandemic to address all of the other questions and doubts that often plague musicians. I thought I was finished. Little did I know that some of my best work was ahead of me.
As we entered quarantine, I sent an email to all of my students. Studio was going virtual, we were going to use FaceTime and Zoom, and I also sent suggestions on how to set up spaces at home for virtual lessons. I had no idea what the response would be. I prayed for the best and braced for the worst. Parents and students could’ve easily left as a result of an ambiguous future. They didn’t. All students but one stayed. There are no words that can possibly describe how I felt. Both gratitude and shock fall short. I sat at the foot of my bed shaking and thanking God. Thanking Him for the people around me. The families in my studio and their appreciation for everything we had built. I prayed for God's presence to make Its way to our work, and off we went. Our voice lessons became the path to constancy, to joy, to healing, to more diligent practice, to many laughs, and to tremendous vocal growth, leading to beautiful virtual recitals. Studio grew as new virtual students came in, some whom I helped get into college musical theatre, and whom I’ve yet to teach in person. Our community was thriving. Parents thanked me for keeping their children singing. I thanked them for staying on. Students shared how much our weekly lessons meant to them. How much our work helped them cope with all that was happening. I wanted to cry. Cry for them. Cry for all experiencing tough times. Cry for me. For all the lessons that this pandemic was teaching me. And as if this enormous gift wasn’t enough, the Church of Christ Scientist in Los Altos, where I was, and still am, a soloist, decided to continue to pay their musicians during quarantine. We received an email expressing their appreciation and wish to take care of us during such a time. Then, as soon as the church was allowed, we were brought in to perform for their virtual services. Members listening remotely were craving live music and I was blessed to sing for a loving congregation at a time when we all needed music most. The words gratitude, shock and elation fall short. Not only was I staying afloat, I was also helping my son do the same after he lost it all. Here we were, going through one of the toughest periods in human history, yet the Tunnel of Doom was nowhere in sight.
How important is my work? How valuable is my work? How necessary is my work? We all have a place in this world. We all have something to contribute. I’m convinced that there’s an order up above, where Heaven decides how many doctors, engineers, musicians, lawyers, artists, cooks, electricians, mathematicians, teachers, nurses, etc., it plans to send to the world so that we can keep spinning. Listen to your inner voice. Do what you love. Do what you were sent to do, and do it well. May you never enter your tunnel of doom ever again.