Sunday, September 11, 2011

Artist, Musician & Mother

June 27, 2011
My First Day of Work

It’s official. Today was my first day as a full-time working mother. Sam and I got up at the same time, ate breakfast, showered, got L ready, and we all faced the day as a family. I can’t tell you how many positive changes I already feel are happening to our family as a result of my working. I am overwhelmed by the positivity of my experience today, what I learned about not only the work I will be doing, but myself, Sam’s life, and the potential of our family.

At Church yesterday I sat in the single’s ward sacrament meeting alone as a result of—can you guess?—work. I now have more work on my hands than I can handle. Although I told my boss at the clothing store on Saturday about my new job and to phase me out, I still have a few weeks of two overlapping jobs, as well as my responsibilities towards my home and family. So we had one of those seasonal mandatory employee meetings, which are always on a Sunday morning, so I missed sacrament meeting. Mallory, L, and Sam went home after our ward’s meetings, and I stayed.

I feel like I’ve been so busy and occupied during church, taking care of L and nursing him during Sunday school, paying attention to him during sacrament meeting, and worrying about my lesson in the third hour, I just hardly pay attention or get anything out of church these days. I haven’t had much time to study the scriptures, although I have still been reading and praying regularly. Sometimes I feel like I am doing all I can do, and other times I feel like I could be doing more and living more faithfully.

With all the confusion in making my recent decision to apply, interview, and go for this new job, I was surprised to feel a strong impression as I was sitting in the very corner of the back row of the singles ward that it was okay; I’m doing the right thing. It was that warm feeling, like a knowing smile, that He was giving me something I have long waited for, needed, and deserve. I can’t describe what that “something” is. Maybe it’s an opportunity to prove myself, overcome idleness, use my skills, embrace a dream, stimulate my intellect, be myself, use my talents, or quench my thirst for learning. Maybe it’s all of that.

I don’t believe that developing personally and being a good mother are mutually exclusive, and that’s also part of the feeling that it is okay that I do this for myself; somehow my family will be blessed as a result. It’s as if my strong desires to fit the mold, especially the mold of a “good” LDS woman, can be let go. I can be myself, recognizing that just because I am a Mormon woman doesn’t mean the Lord has no specific plan and purpose for me.

I believe I am an unusual person with exceptional gifts. I don’t believe God would give me such great powers and talents to tease me, like setting a cake before me and telling me I can’t eat it, or giving me a pile of presents that I can’t open. I honestly feel like the servant in the parable who has been given a talent, but thinking he couldn’t use it, he buried it. I’ve been burying my talents in jobs at McDonalds, hours of sleeping in, the couch cushions of idleness on my sofa, and the internet.

I dug them up today. Something strange happened when I was driving home from my first day of work, listening again to the Fleet Fox’s Helplessness Blues. I was singing, “If I had an orchard, I’d work till I’m sore,” and this feeling of great joy and passion swelled inside me; I couldn’t believe how perfect for me this job is and the dreams it inspires. I have found my orchard: my opportunity to work and exercise my mind at full capactity. I have felt underutilized for so long. I have known that I am not only capable of doing more, but I must to feel whole, to be whole.

A friend of mine wrote a commentary in response to the blog post I wrote, “Do You Regret Majoring in Music?” She said, “Some days, I don't miss playing at all. But some days, it aches so much that I cry, and I remember that a part of me is dead. Some days, it feels like no one can ever really know me again, because Musician Rachel has disappeared, and she's the only Rachel that really ever had anything interesting to say.”

That epitomizes how I’ve felt in the past three years. I graduated from the music school and left my job repairing string instruments and my busy life as a performer to enter a world void of art where I couldn’t find a way to let out the artistic soul within myself. The past three years have been filled with other beautiful dreams of love and family, and a little art and music on the side. But something was missing. Rachel pinned down the sentiment perfectly. I’ve felt like a very important part of me has been dead . . .

. . . and today it came alive again. It filled me with joy as I came home, even happier to see my family and embrace my child and share with them all I learned today. I couldn’t stop talking, I couldn’t keep my excitement from them. I couldn’t resist sharing with them my newfound joy and knowledge.

Today, I felt again the feeling of violin polish on my fingertips, sore thumbs from turning tuning pegs, the purse of my lips whistling an A440 to tune strings to pitch. And more—the smell of wood, sawdust in my nose, the scratch of a pencil, the scritch scratch of sandpaper. Pen on paper, filling pages with notes. Studying standard measurements in thousandths and luthier vocabulary, writing down tricks and tips and new knowledge. Hearing a viola concerto in the background, saying, “Bartok?” and being right—a guessing game that’s meaningless to non-classical-music nerds.

Years ago when I worked in the BYU instrument office I was surrounded with a similar energy. The energy of solutions and polishes bottled on shelves, gadgets in little drawers, tools hanging on pegboards on the wall, carpet across the counter on which to lay the instruments. There is something that vibrates from a workshop: a powerful call to create, mend, and craft. I have always enjoyed the artistry of creation, and even more specifically, woodwork + music + painting + handiwork.

It occurred to me today that only one student of the 30,000+ students on campus, only one person at a time gets the opportunity to learn a few luthier skills and work on the school’s violins, violas, cellos, basses, autoharps, and the like. One person. If you’re at BYU, you have a 1 in 30,000 of being that person at any given time. I’m not a statistician, so that number might really be, literally, 1 in a million depending on the factors at hand.

I was fortunate enough to not only be that one person for a couple years, but to LOVE being that person. What an amazing opportunity. I regret that while I had that opportunity I was kind of immature and sometimes irresponsible—but I was also overwhelmed by everything else going on at the time, namely, the demands of being student, a church member, and a girlfriend/fiancée with a life to plan.

But when it came to working on the instruments, I could do certain tasks for hours and hours and hours on end. I remember being down in the basement scrubbing basses with polish and alcohol, planing fingerboards, gluing seams and tightening clamps. I could do it for hours on end and into the night even, listening to music and using my hands. Precision handiwork has always been one of my greatest talents and one of my greatest creative outlets.

I’d talk with my bass professor about my interest in becoming a luthier. I looked into the Peter Prier Violin School in Salt Lake City. It’s very expensive, the tuition, tools, and supplies. I was warned that it is a challenging niche market to succeed in; you could go to luthier school and not be able to sell your instruments and break even.

I brought this up at work today because I somehow had concluded in my mind that one couldn’t be a successful luthier without some kind of luthier training. But because luthier work is so similar to the arts (it is a true artform, if I’ve ever seen any), it’s not a matter of your training or certifications, it’s simply about the quality of what you produce.

For example, having a music degree doesn’t mean you’re a good performer or musician. You don’t have to have a degree to become a sought-after musician, you win competitions and make a name for yourself through the quality of your playing. When it comes down to it, it doesn’t matter where or with whom you studied, it’s the art you produce, your ambition, and your actual performance that takes you places.

And then it occurred to me that even my bass is made by a local Utahn who decided one day to make a bass for his son. I think he made planes before—little private planes—and decided to try making a bass. And he just kept making them, and people started buying them, and now they are some of the best basses out there—he sells them around the world. My bass, now that I’m out of Utah, is always complemented for its beauty, sound, playability, and setup when other bassists see or play it. It is a truly beautiful instrument.

Today we talked about the “pie,” or the market of violins. Somehow, it can be quantified into so many millions of dollars, and our violins are so much of that market. It’s the same in the luthier world: there is a certain market for luthier skills and handmade instruments, and why shouldn’t I go into that market? Right now the good luthiers in the world are aging, old men. Who will take their places when they retire and pass away? Why not me?

Today I was so inspired by what I learned. Today I got back on the path I began a few years ago. It’s the unique experience I had to dabble in luthier work at the Instrument Office that was a key factor in qualifying me for this job. With the knowledge and experience I can gain now on a professional level, this is really the next step to take me to the next level of expertise. Before, I was a college student, experimenting with rudimentary principles of instrument repair. But it’s like I’m playing with the big kids now.

I haven’t even told you the specifics of what I learned today. So, so much. I’m learning to set up violins and do finish work on them: how to string them properly, sand them, cut down and notch bridges, even out the pressure of the strings on the violin, buff out scratches and spots on the varnish, stain the inside of the f-holes with black varnish, remove and secure the tailpiece, sand down the nut, adjust the string height (action), and use so many tools I’ve never seen before. I took so many notes and was extremely impressed by the speed, precision, and knowledge of my “teacher.”

He told me I couldn’t be afraid. He said I would break, scratch, and ruin many a violin, and so had he, and it’s just part of the learning experience. I’ve always viewed violins as so delicate, especially because I play the bass; I can sit on my bass and run it into walls, like it’s a boat or a large piece of furniture. But violins have been built for hundreds of years in a certain form because that form is strong enough to withstand great force. The strings alone apply something like 60 pounds of pressure on the face of the violin, so I can’t be afraid to use more force, use more pressure, use the strength of my hands, polish with more elbow grease.

I used to be scared to work on my own instrument or take apart a violin, leaving it up to an experienced luthier to do the “dangerous” work—risky tasks involving varnish or filling holes or removing and replacing parts. But now I am to be the professional. I am the one who will be taking things apart, filing down and replace bridges, perfecting flaws in the varnish, and learning the true and professional skills of a luthier.

I am so, so thrilled.

I look forward to experimenting more in the future as I gain more confidence and knowhow in the next year or two. When I feel confident, I could then try assembling a violin from a kit, and then I could learn to carve the plates myself. I’m hoping I can take home one of the defective violins we can’t sell so I can dissect it and experiment and practice my technique.

I’m excited to keep learning. I know it will take months and even years to develop these skills, and tomorrow is another day to improve and learn. It is an incredible feeling to be learning again. I feel as though I should be paying to study this art form. I feel like an intern or an apprentice, and yet, I am there because I am needed there. There is so much work to be done.

It’s interesting how finding the perfect job isn’t as a result of one’s search efforts and convenience. You can’t graduate with just any degree and expect a window of opportunity suited to your specific skillset and circumstances to open at your command. I’ve been looking for three years for some kind of opportunity to use my skills, which include my specific artistry, musicianship, and intellect. I couldn’t just graduate and expect a luthier position to open up on the spot for me. It took many steps and the opening of numerous doors of opportunity to bring this to pass. Our move here, the colleagues I’ve met performing locally. If I hadn’t agreed to play that unpaid gig a few weeks ago, I wouldn’t have run into Dot again and she wouldn’t have mentioned this luthier job. The connection wouldn’t have been made. It’s simply unreal, almost serendipitous how this came to pass.

I really feel that Heavenly Father has designed this opportunity for me as part of my life plan. He’s allowing me to be the multi-faceted woman I am, someone who wants so desperately to have a family and also use my talents and be involved in my community in a meaningful way.

This will be a challenge and a new twist in the story of our growing family. But somehow, it feels that it is meant to be. And somehow, my work makes me very, very happy, like the missing piece of the puzzle that has come into place.

I worried that I would have to choose between being a mother and being myself. Or being a Mormon or a wife or a musician or a full-time worker or an artist and being myself. But I think there is a way.

And as it turns out, all of those roles are part of who I am, and none can be neglected. I shouldn’t have to choose this OR that. I am this AND that, which is hard to wrap my brain around. But when I don’t wrap my brain around all of what I am, my brain unravels, and I am not whole.

More to come. Tomorrow is another day, and I am excited to learn, do, and become more.

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