I’m Not a Concert Violinist

I’m not a concert violinist. I don’t imagine anyone ever dreamed I would be. I have neither the talent nor the drive. I began taking violin lessons even before I turned three. (May have been a touch young to be entrusted witviolin-cape-e1332888959391h an instrument as precious as a violin….!) There was a bristol board foot map for me in those early days. Along with stickers on my bow and violin neck to direct my squeaking Mississippi Hotdog rhythms. I remember that we took time every practice, every lesson to rehearse the process from rest position, to playing position, back to rest position, and into a bow. We imitated rhythms and kept our eyes peeled for the teacher’s nodding breath to start.  And on the turn table of our old record player the Suzuki records would be placed so that from Twinkle, Twinkle to the Bach Double, the family listened to the first four books of the Suzuki repertoire over and over again.

I’m somewhat ashamed to say I haven’t held a violin in years. Some might say it’s a decade worth of lessons down the drain. But to be honest, I really disliked a lot of the work that surrounded learning to play the violin. I dreaded the nightly at-home practices and had a special anxiety about the bi-weekly group lessons. When I chose to quit the violin, I really meant to quit it – forever. (We make these sort of desperate declarations when we’re 12!) I’d been in negotiation with my parents for several years when they finally relented. The deal I struck involved sticking with piano, even while I gave up the violin. I remember that my mom wanted me to be the one to tell my teacher. I happened to have had one of those amazing John Keating-esque teachers who, more than wanting to pass on the skills of violin playing, wanted what was best for his students. I’m sure I was nervous, I’m certain I’d have preferred not looking him in the face and telling him I was walking away from the violin, but somehow I survived it. I don’t remember much of that conversation, to be honest. But I remember how I felt.

I felt relief. I felt unburdened. I felt space open up inside me.

The story didn’t suddenly change. And I don’t regret that adolescent decision. I’m still not a concert violinist. Nor a concert pianist.  

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Three years ago I stood in front of an intimidating panel of academics and defended my doctoral thesis. Yes, I was nervous and yes, it could have gone desperately wrong. But I had a decade worth of monthly violin and piano recitals and annual concerts and private exams to draw on. I’d learned what it’s like to stand in front of a crowd prepared and ready for the task. I’d also learned (rather painfully so!)  what it’s like to stand in front of a crowd unprepared and anything but ready for the task. Digging in for weeks and smoothing out the double stop sections of a Seitz concerto gave me a map for making sure I was in the prepared category. I’d acquired the discipline to make sure I could play a passage perfectly five times in a row before moving on to the next section. I’d learned to keep playing right through a song, on concert day, from start to finish even with sweaty hands that I wasn’t sure would stay on the spot they landed.  Strategies, habits, endurance – a gift from the decade of violin lessons that got me through the rather cruel process of completing a PhD.

And more than that, more than the strategies and habits is the gift of making music itself.

Five years ago we moved into our suburban house. My parents gifted me with a piano. Exactly the same make and vintage as the one I grew up with. My mom packed up my old piano books and sent them to me so that I’d have access to the notes on paper that my fingers still seemed to have memorized, albeit in disintegrating pieces. And those years of listening to the Suzuki records trained my ear well enough that I can transfer most of what I hear into something resembling a chord pattern. For those songs that trick me, there’s always the Sweet Moses reserve called the internet – where the chords of every song ever written can be found. Days without some time on the piano are an exception for me. Music cradles me in my most desperate, most frenetic, most worn out places.

A year ago, my son began piano lessons. I doubt he’ll be a concert pianist either. But watching him walk up to the front of the Beaurepaire United Church, pull out the bench of the Steinway grand, and nail his first Ode to Joy literally brought tears to my eyes. This shy boy who finds the words “new”, “just try” and “change” rather terrifying, feels at home in front of a piano – even if that piano happens to be in front of a few extra people. He finds there the same respite from the world that his momma does.

To Monica who introduced me to the violin and enticed me to practice with smelly stickers, thank you.
To Binny who moved me out of the Twinkle repertoire and into Lightly Row and Long Ago, thank you.
To TJ who taught me how to play the violin for real and who made some incredibly hard moments in my life so much better than they could have been, thank you.
To Mrs. Winkler who saw me through from my first piano notes to my rebellious quitting right before my final RCM exam, thank you. 
And to my parents who fought to keep my love of music burning, thank you. 

Time Travel: Osla Seaborne Clouston

I have a five and seven year old. We talk about super powers. Quite a bit actually. They’re a little more creative than I am when it comes to thinking about what super power we’d like to have.  I’m boring. I always pick the same thing – time travel. There are so many dead people I’d like to meet. Near the top of my list would be Osla Clouston.


From left to right: Annie Easton Clouston, Marjorie Clouston, Osla Clouston, Edward Seaborne Clouston. Photograph from the Marjorie Howard Futcher Albums Collection, Osler Library of the History of Medicine, McGill University

Osla Seaborne Clouston was the sister of Marjory Meredith Clouston. That’s where the description of Osla has to start because everything I know about Osla, through her diaries and letters and paintings and photographs, revolves around her relationship with Marjory or “Daw” as she was known to Osla. Osla and Marjory were almost always together. They had been since birth. Osla was the temperamental sister, Marjory was the even-keeled one. Osla was the older one, Marjory was the baby of the family. Osla had a flair for the dramatic, Marjory indulged it. Osla lived with one foot in reality and the other entrenched in a complex imaginary world. Marjory was one of the few people invited into both worlds. They shared secrets and friends and schemes and memories.

Clouston sisters

Both girls were coddled and spoiled by their father, Edward Seaborne Clouston. “Ned” as he was known to the girls and all who were close to him, was one of Montreal’s most powerful men. Of rather humble origins, the son of a Hudson’s Bay Trader, Ned had climbed the ranks of the the Bank of Montreal until he sat as the Vice-President alongside the bank’s president, George Alexander Drummond.  Many years earlier, Ned had met Annie Easton in Brockville, Ontario where he was stationed with the bank for a spell. I know absolutely nothing about their courtship except for the fact that it came to an end when they were married in November 1878.  I suspect that Annie was a relatively shy woman. I wonder if I think that because she was slight in stature and private in nature. Though she performed the matriarchal duties of elite social life, she never sought out the spotlight, nor did she pursue a front line role in philanthropic or cultural societies. She had several very close friends and her visitors’ books and family photographs indicate that she spent much time surrounded by these trusted friends. Within the traditional confines of her class (i.e. having a nanny and other staff), Annie kept her daughters very close to her – planning trips and outings for the girls and welcoming them into her own bed when nightmares terrified the girls out of theirs. There is little correspondence between Annie and her daughters because she was nearly always with them.  It is clear that both girls adored their mother.


The Cloustons and the Allans at Boisbriant, Senneville Photograph from the Marjorie Howard Futcher Albums Collection, Osler Library of the History of Medicine, McGill University

Though she had every advantage of the era offered to her, Osla still lived a difficult and complicated life. She had perpetual health problems that plagued both her body and her mind. In her diaries she records the constant stream of doctors’ visits and new health regimen suggestions – weeks without reading, sitting in dark rooms, trips to warmer climates, headaches that never quite went away despite medications, and perhaps most disconcerting to her, extreme mood shifts that left her feeling confused and frustrated. She had a dark complexion, physical evidence of the power of DNA.  And she seemed to prefer the company of women to men – with her father, Ned, and Jimmy Paterson (was he in love with her?) an old family friend being the exceptions.


Osla Seaborne Clouston at Boisbriant, 1902 Photograph from the Marjorie Howard Futcher Albums Collection, Osler Library of the History of Medicine, McGill University

Osla and Marjory spent the winter of 1904-1905 in Europe.  Social networks connected them across the Atlantic so that these young, accomplished women had access to elite social circles and the corresponding active social schedules that accompanied privileged life abroad. They returned to Montreal in early June 1905 so that Osla could be a bridesmaid in her friend’s wedding. In the lead-up to the wedding, Lady Allan hosted a celebratory dinner for the wedding party at her house, Ravenscrag,  on June 2, 1905.  Marjory and Osla attended the party just up the hill from their Peel street house.  Osla never made it home that night. On the way out the door, Osla dropped dead.  She was nearly 26 years old.  The newspapers reported the cause of death as a heart attack. The cemetery recorded it as a brain tumor. Without an autopsy, we’ll likely never know the exact cause. Whatever the cause, Marjory was left without her best friend and other half. Annie and Ned had to face that nightmare world in which they’d outlived their child.

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4 June 1904, New York Times

I wish I could meet Osla. I wish I could feel what it was like to be in her presence, where any moment there could be an open door into a world of imagination. I wish I could watch her with Marjory, the intimacy shared only by closest sisters. I realize that I’m completely destroying my reputation as an objective observer of history. I’ve confided my emotional connection to those I’ve written about. And last week when I drove by the old Clouston estate, I confess I imagined what it must have been like to lie out on the grass at the family’s summer mansion in Senneville. Time travel.


Boisbriant today


monkeybars2I distinctly remember my confidence that day. It never once crossed my mind that I wouldn’t be successful. I’d done hundreds of back hip circles in gymnastics – why should it be any different on the metal monkey bars at school??  I was ten or eleven – I didn’t always believe in the people around me but I mostly believed in myself. I pulled my body up to the bar, surrounded by a few friends, and went for it. The next thing I knew, my nose was smashed into the hard sand beneath me and my head was starting to register an impact. I have no idea how it happened, what mistake I made, but I did understand very clearly that I was literally lying smack on my face, body in full lay out form. I’m probably pretty lucky all I got was a bloody nose. The strongest memory I have from that day is the surprise I felt at my failure.

Many people will know that my computer was stolen out of my car this past March. It was traumatic for all kinds of reasons – I felt angry and frustrated and a little freaked out that, along with my computer, my running shoes and undergarments were also lifted, though not my passport sitting in the CD holder.  I went through a whole cycle of reactions, not the least of which was panic that my whole personal world (I write a LOT on my computer and the vast majority of it would qualify as personal!) was in someone else’s hands.

What I was not worried about was my work.

As I was going through the PhD years, I heard story after story of computer crashes, people losing their research in house fires, archives closing, files being corrupted, and yes, laptops being stolen. And I was careful. Very careful. I saved everything everywhere. I’m even old enough to say in the early days I used floppy disks. Then CDs. Then memory sticks. I emailed copies. I saved documents on various computers across Canada and the United States. I was careful. When I discovered Dropbox, it felt like I could exhale a little. Dropbox felt like the answer to these problems. Of course, if Dropbox failed, I’d always have my own computer copies.

So though I panicked about my personal writing, I felt certain my work was safely stored in Dropbox. I didn’t think twice about it. I just got right back into teaching, waiting for the end of term when I could return to the final edits of the first draft of my manuscript. Yes, the one I’d promised to send the publisher in June.

On June 11, I opened my computer to begin one last read-through of the manuscript before I sent it to some friendly readers. That specific Dropbox account was empty. I searched every where. I drove into school to see if I had downloaded anything on my desktop there, I scoured through every email account I have, I checked random old memory sticks, I begged for help from Dropbox – they helped me try to sync the files from the stolen laptop. Two days of frantic panic. Two days of not being able to speak without crying. Two days of replaying everything over and over. Two days until I could admit that my book was gone.

There I was again, my nose smashed into the hard sand beneath me and my head starting to register an impact. No idea what mistake I’d made or how it had happened.

That was four weeks ago. Truth is I’m not sure I’ve yet screwed the courage together to stand up from the ground. I’m guessing my eyes would still be smeared with tears and dirt and my nose would be bleeding if the metaphor could come to life. I haven’t decided yet what happens next – if I start again or if I release the dream. It could go either way.

I have started to believe, though, that it’s just a book. That my life is so rich and full and honest, that I don’t need any book to feel valued or worthy. As academics we can get caught up in the publish or perish cycle that we forget that we have a choice. My stolen laptop has handed that decision to me on a silver platter – what I do with this gift, I still don’t know. I’m just trying to hold onto the fact that failure, that a face plant in the hard sand of life, has reminded me that choice should never be taken for granted.