On Secrets

I want to give you the full picture I promised.

You have to understand that the full picture isn’t pretty, and does not seem conducive with making money, or receiving more support from the general public. But, I think it’s important to tell the truth somewhere. And since I can’t tell it on social media (I lose followers, shed likes, and lose engagement if my posts are not sunny and hopeful and perfect), I will share it with you here.

Let me back up and set the scene. I’m lying on an ugly couch in my beautiful home, cozy in a big, hooded sweatshirt from the University of Rochester, with a hot water bottle and my cat curled up at my feet. I am safe. I am panicking. There are too many people I have not called back, too many emails I have ignored and let slip into the dank muck of internet memory, too many songs I have not yet recorded, and too many opportunities I have been unable to pay attention to. I am panicking because I am not enough. Or rather, I believe I am not enough.

Two competing ideals vie for attention in my mind:

  1. The artistic freedom I possess in my life makes the “suffering” worthwhile.
  2. I am supposed to be living the dream.

Here it is in a nutshell: my innate musical talent is a gift, and thus I am encouraged to work hard to share it with other people. I practice piano and voice, create arrangements in rehearsals with my band, promote my shows online, haul my keyboard and gear to small bars, give all of my raw energy and passion to performing with my band, collect a couple hundred bucks at the end of the night, distribute the money between band members, and finally drive home, depleted, to start over the next day. I also record my songs, collaborate with audio engineers, book future shows, and maintain a Patreon community.

This is fine. It works for someone who has more tolerance than me and who gets energy from being out. I am very sensitive to noise, though, as well as socializing and being out late at night. Being out depletes my energy.

Then there’s the “making a living” part, which tends to be important for staying alive. I spend 20-30 hours a week making my music career work, not including the hours I spend teaching. Due to my sensitive nervous system, I can play about 3 live shows a month, and leave with $50-$100 bucks in my pocket. I make about $160 a month from my patrons on Patreon. With this income, at the current New York minimum wage of $13.20 per hour, I get paid for only 8 hours of work each week.

Eight. Out of thirty. At minimum wage.

So. It’s becoming clear to me that I’m doing community service when I’m working on my music. Okay. That’s fine. Community service is wonderful. The question is, is it strengthening me or slowly killing me? Is it my fault? The eternal question for everything challenging in our lives.

I don’t have an answer, and don’t think the answer is truly important, but I can at least start to think it through.

Mostly, I just want to be alone and quiet. That desire makes me feel unloveable and broken, and it also makes me feel like a failure of a musician. What musician wants to be alone and quiet most of the time? Living the life of a musician, I am almost never alone, and quiet is not the goal, to say the least. I am rehearsing with my band, or creating relationships online with my fans, or performing for a crowd at a bar who is half listening, half talking, and half numbing the stress of daily life.

These necessary, day-to-day tasks push me far past my limit. I’m so far past my limit that I can’t bring myself to call the people I love back, respond to supportive messages from friends, clean my office properly, or consider new opportunities. I’m at a standstill, trapped in the commitments I’ve already made, but unable to function properly. This is all obvious to me. I can write it out and nod my head and go “yes, I am burnt out.” But it also seems absolutely ludicrous. It’s ridiculous to me that I have such a low tolerance for stimulation, for other people’s experiences, for being out in the world. It seems impossible. I must be capable of more. I just have to bully myself into being capable of more. At least that’s what I tell myself.

We always have to answer to someone, right? I answer to my audience. And until recently, I loved doing it. I reveled in their joy, their excitement. I absorbed their energy and called it mine. But now, when I go onstage, I notice a huge disconnect between how I’m feeling on the inside and how I present to my audience on the outside. I can never go onstage and use my audience for comfort. I can’t go on and say “today has been really fucking difficult and I need some love.” They use me for comfort, not the other way around; that’s how the agreement works. The person onstage provides a respite for the people offstage. I am vulnerable, soft, exhausted in front of my audience. I try to be myself. I try to be open. I hold so much space for them. I bleed myself dry in front of a crowd of people for a couple of hours. The problem is, I cannot hold the same space for myself. At least not at the dizzying rate it would take to counteract the depletion of resources caused by performing. If I can’t love myself, or give myself the space I need to thrive, then the rest means absolutely nothing.

My life force, or energy, or whatever you want to call it, is at an all-time low, and still I push myself to play one more show, to make one more Instagram post, to keep expanding my business. That’s where I’m at, in this precious moment on my ugly couch. That’s the truth. Is this what I’m working for?

I thought I was doing all of this to build a sustainable music career. Simple. If I could gain enough financial and physical support from my fans, then I could relax a little bit and my days would be like a well-oiled machine, rather than the scrabbling rat parade they are now. I work super hard in the present so that I can relax a bit in the future. Tour the world, play big stages, make steady money, hire a team of people to book my shows, run my social media accounts, and market my music. Focus only on the music, not on all the stuff surrounding it.

But.

It turns out I want to be cozy at home with my cats instead of touring the world with my band. So why am I really doing all of this?

Because I am terrified of failing. I’m terrified of not being enough. I’m terrified of letting go.

I have so many questions. As usual.

Why do I try to expand when I can’t yet handle the work I’m currently doing? Why am I trying to build this ‘strong foundation’ when I don’t want, or don’t think I can handle, the life of a touring musician? Is not wanting the same thing as not being able to? Is there a way to do this without martyring myself? Is there a way to do ANYTHING without martyring myself? My therapist tells me there is. She says I need to stop doing third grade work when I’m still in second grade (a clever reference to me skipping second grade as a kid) so that I can succeed instead of drown.

It’s true that I am drowning. In my own ambition. I am trapped in my own skewed sense of self and responsibility.

I’m not supposed to be telling anybody this. I’m supposed to keep up a rehearsed front, in which I am always excited and grateful to be doing what I’m doing, in which I’m always proud of my work, where I consistently advocate for myself with a smile on my face and a spring in my step. I’m exhausted from all the springing and the stepping. I don’t want to advocate for myself anymore. I don’t have the capacity to do it. I just don’t.

I’m actually sick right now, came down with a bad cold. I’ve been sick for days, but I refused to let myself rest until today. I had too many things to do, too many tasks to complete, too many people to answer to.

Why?

Because I can’t fail. But I can’t keep going like this, either.

On Driftwood

This morning my grandma and I woke up in the darkness at 6am to shoot a music video.

We wouldn’t have done this, except we were walking along a remote beach last week, and came across this abandoned homestead made of driftwood. There once was a community of people living here, my grandma said: I used to see them when I walked my dog down here years ago. In place of the colorful tents and long-haired men that once nestled into the sand, only a driftwood castle remained. They built this massive, angular structure, the center of their village, the gathering place. They tied emblems to the ends of the bone-dry branches: old Nikes, beautiful glass bottles, buoys, and strips of colorful ribbon. They painted a few branches with vibrant blues, yellows, and pinks, penning all-seeing eyes and names of past lovers. They put up a plaque for someone named “Red” who died there in 2009. There were clear outlines of different rooms, like the Aztec ruins in New Mexico.

When we first came across the driftwood complex, I felt like I was in Peter Pan’s wonderland. The place had magic. I felt so inspired. I casually mentioned how great it would be to shoot a music video there, and my grandma said, why not? We should do it.

I don’t think many people can say that their grandma was the videographer for their music video. I’m feeling really blessed to be in this position. My grandma happens to be a really masterful photographer, so she’s accustomed to being behind the camera, and was really excited about collaborating on this project with me. And I’m accustomed to being in front of it – it’s part of my job as a professional musician. I especially love shooting music videos where I’m interacting with nature – I shot one on an iPhone camera last fall, and made one with Lilac Milk last winter.

So this morning we drove out to the beach for sunrise and shot the first footage for the new music video for my song Meteor. In the castle on the sand.

On Teaching

I don’t often get to talk about my teaching, even though it is arguably the most important thing I do. People usually ask what shows I’m playing next, and how the album recording is coming along, but they don’t really ask me how my 15-year old student is doing on her new composition, or if my 9-year old has learned how to play minor scales yet. I guess teaching piano isn’t as glamorous as getting dressed up and rocking out onstage. But glitz isn’t everything. I think teaching a really inspiring piano lesson to just one student can be as impactful as performing for a big crowd.

When I was 19, I volunteered for a community music school in Montréal to teach free music lessons to kids in underserved boroughs outside of the city. I was fresh out of teaching piano for most of my teen years at Summer Sonatina Piano Camp, plus a couple years of private teaching out of my parents’ house in Vermont, and I was so excited to meet all of my new students. It turned out that we didn’t have enough keyboards for more than one weekly private piano lesson. So I had a single student. Their name (changed here for privacy) was Sam.

The first thing I remember about Sam was their shoulders, which they held slightly slumped forward at all times, as if trying to shrink away from something. From the way they observed me, and the little remarks they made, I could tell they were strong and intelligent, and as soon as we started lessons that intuition was confirmed. We set up our little 76-key keyboard in an empty classroom in their middle school, right in front of the chalkboard by the door. The classroom was messy, and totally ill-suited for a piano lesson, but we jumped right in anyway.

Sam had no musical experience, except for playing around on a little keyboard they had at their house. I showed them how to place their hands on the keyboard, how to keep their fingers strong while they played, and where middle C was. They absorbed everything so quickly, and so completely. I had honestly never taught a student before who could master concepts that fast. It was incredibly fun for me, and Sam was eager to play whatever pieces I brought in for them. We learned chords, scales, arpeggios, and were playing stuff hands together way sooner than I thought someone could. I think one of the last pieces I assigned was Sonatina in C by Clementi, which I usually don’t assign until I’ve been working with a student for at least a couple of years.

I remember one day, we had just sat down at the keyboard, and Sam noticed my earrings. “Why are you wearing mismatched earrings?” they asked me. I felt my earrings, trying to remember which ones I put on that morning, and they were indeed mismatching. It was something I did a lot back then, in defiance of expectations mostly, and partly simply to show people that I was a badass. I smiled. I said, “I’m wearing them because we can do whatever the hell we want. Who says earrings have to match? It’s a silly rule.” They gaped at me, then laughed. I know that message stuck with them.

I know because as the semester progressed, they started sitting down at the piano as if they belonged there. And not just a belonging at the piano. A belonging in the space they inhabited. In the world. Their shoulders weren’t slumped anymore – they sat upright, ready, alert, believing in themselves. In the beginning, they would call themselves stupid or lazy in almost every lesson. And every time, I would tell them that they were smart, hardworking, and capable. Because it was fucking true.

The music was just an avenue for me to help them find confidence in themselves. It was proof that they could excel at something. It was proof that the school system that put them in the “stupid people math classes,” as Sam would call them, was just plain wrong. They slowly realized that they had the power to do whatever the hell they want.

That’s why piano lessons are so fucking awesome.

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On Body Image

I’m a female musician. That means that in addition to being an incredible musician, I have to be beautiful and toned to be respected. When male hosts introduce me before I come onstage, they often say “the beautiful and talented Siena,” as if somehow saying that I’m beautiful is an adequate introduction to my music. The fact that I’m beautiful actually has nothing at all to do with my music, yet it’s an unspoken requirement that I must stay beautiful to get noticed.

My male counterparts can go out with scruffy hair, unshaven faces, potbellies, and outfits that look like they’ve been slept in. I’ve seen it. Too many times. They can look as ridiculous as they want, and people just focus on the quality of the music they’re playing. But if a female musician goes out with even the hint of a muffin-top, people wonder if she’s really serious about her craft. People start to give unsolicited advice about her weight, about her work ethic, about how much time she’s spending with her family, and about her character. They talk about these things instead of the music she’s creating and putting out into the world.

Yes, there are female artists like Billie Eilish, Lizzo, and Kelly Clarkson who are actively pushing back against the scrutiny that female performers are under about our bodies. Is it enough to make me relax and “let my body go?” No. Plus, I’m speaking as a white woman: I can’t even begin to speak to the much harsher scrutiny of Black female musicians.

So why is it like this? Where does this pressure come from? Let’s take Women’s Health Magazine as just a small example of the cultural prevalence of scrutinizing women’s bodies. First of all, “health” is in the title, but this publication focuses mostly on diet and weight loss. It equates health with being super thin and toned. This is bullshit. Health is not the perfect body. Health is not obese, either. Health is somewhere in between. Health has nothing whatsoever to do with how we appear, past a certain threshhold (obviously someone with a grey and clammy complexion isn’t doing too well).

In an article about Lady Gaga’s body in her 2017 Super Bowl HalfTime performance, Women’s Health Mag tried to claim that people shouldn’t (and generally don’t) scrutinize the bodies of female performers. The magazine paints a utopian portrait of a world that doesn’t care how a woman looks. This is just simply false. You can read Fox’s report on the actual comments made on Twitter about Gaga’s body. Everyone, including women, scrutinize women’s bodies. I do it, you do it. We all do it. Some see an imperfect female body and say “it’s too bad she let herself go.” Some just subconsciously respect her a little less. They think she doesn’t deserve their respect because she doesn’t respect herself enough to starve herself and work out for hours each day.

Even WHILE Women’s Health Mag describes this fantasy world where society is beyond criticizing women’s bodies, they display other shit that reveals quite the opposite. Literally on the same page. Here’s a smattering of other stuff you’ll encounter as you scroll through this article:
1) a video explaining “Grocery Shopping for a Healthy Lifestyle,” which dictates how to to avoid tempting bakery items that are sure to “derail your diet” by carefully planning your route in a grocery store, all while depicting extremely thin women picking up fruits, vegetables and, of course, Grape Nuts
2) the “Workout Advice” section at the bottom of the page, which boasts results like “visibly toned abs” and “sculpted arms”
3) the “Must-Have Fall Athleisure Styles” section, showing a sporty woman looking alluringly at the camera

Clearly, Women’s Health Mag knows that women are CONSTANTLY under the scrutiny of the public. They not only know it, but they are actually making a shit-ton of money off of that reality. Despite reporting in another article that “when people (feel) bad about their bodies, they (are) more likely to experience…a cluster of health issues,” the magazine proceeds to make women feel bad about their bodies throughout their website. Here’s the cherry on top: down at the bottom of the screen in small letters, you can click a link that reads “PEOPLE WITH THIS TRAIT HAVE SMALLER HIPS AND BELLIES.” This ‘enticing’ (and shaming) headline leads to a page that displays an ad for “Belly Rehab” and plenty of “How to Lose Weight” articles. So much for us living in a world where shaming Lady Gaga for having stomach flab is outrageous, blasphemous, and “unheard of.” The haters are here to stay, folks.

I’m not sure how to navigate this world. I’m not ready yet to give up the patriarchal idea I’ve been brainwashed with: that I have to look “good” (aka not flabby) to be taken seriously in the music world as a female musician.

Two Truths

Trigger warning: abuse and body image issues.

As I read these two journal entries I wrote 6 years ago, I am reminded of how we can hold so many truths within ourselves at once. How we can be fully in our power, and fully outside of it at the same time. I am especially reminded of the corrosive effect of emotional and physical abuse on a person’s sense of Self and self-worth. How, after consistently being told that one is not hurting enough for the sake of others, even the most vibrant of humans can be diminished to a flickering gloom. When this abuse is paired with sexual violence and constant comparisons to other women in the form of forwarded Victoria Secret ads and pointed remarks, it is very difficult to find a way out of the murk. Add to this the “tortured genius” myth (if a man is an artistic genius, his abuse of others is forgiven – eg Picasso, Woody Allen, James Brown, etc.), and fuck. No wonder I have PTSD, anxiety & depression, and am struggling against dark forces that I wasn’t able to conquer five years ago.

But I can unlearn, relearn, remember, and start sharing my story.

June 21, 2015

In Dosso, Italy. Feel that I have been moody and unpleasant to be around. Feel that I am confining myself in what other people think people should do. Feel that I am literally judging myself for paying attention to these problems because “everyone has them,” which I have translated to “are not important.”

Feel un-stationary and without a purpose, a tumbling rock: not even a floating dandelion seed, because at least he has his mission. Feel deprived of my home, the grass, the lakes, the essence of myself. I am depriving myself of myself. School in the city, travel to Boston, back to school in the city in the fall.

I dislike myself right now.

É molto importante that I regain consciousness: this level of being, this earthy existence, this core of myself.

Feel anxious on each street because I look at other women and only compare myself to them: every inch of skin, each stitch in their clothing, the tightness of their jeans around their thighs. “God, I wish I had bought that style of pant instead of these.” The drape of her wet bikini over her butt: “I should have gotten the string kind instead of the style I have.”

The length of her shirt, the fabric the color her skin her lipstick her hair her knees I wonder how they compare to my knees I am beautiful so hot but look at what I could do with myself. Look how much more beautiful I could look if I just bought her shirt and those shoes and her jacket. Why can’t I wear a blazer over jeans and look clean and pretty and simple like all of them. Why. Why not.

I hate myself.

I hate myself for thinking this way. But I am always thinking this way. How can I improve. How can I look FOR HIM. For him.

He wants a preppy, classy girl.”

He likes workout clothing.”

He wants someone who does not look like me.

Then again. I don’t give a fuck what he wants. I know, rationally, that I am SO INCREDIBLY ATTRACTIVE. I am ideal for many, many people, men and women. I know damn well that there is no man or woman who is “too good” for me, but I am worried that he does not want my look.

I am sick of seeing the gap between the women he admires and lusts after, and me. Thin, clean women. Women who spend hours and hours on their makeup and hair each day. Women that really care about what they look like, and market themselves so that they will be liked, loved, and fought for.

I am not naturally like that.

I am trying so hard, and it sucks. I don’t like the anxiety, never feeling like I am living up to his standards. Non è possible.

I feel horrible. Maybe it’s not that I don’t love him right now, it’s just that I don’t love myself. I need to get back to the music, Vermont, and away from all these FUCKING CITIES.




June 23. 2015
A stream of consciousness:

commitment

determination

passion

necessity

survival

love

passion

creativity

pain

pain

frustration

challenge

success

passion

dedication

form

happiness

truth

truth

relationships

strength

personality

talent

loss

loss

channeling

alone

growth

messed up

improvement

necessity

honesty

truth

difficulty

pain

tight

creativity

I am escaping fragility. I have been actively avoiding the truth – that I cannot thrive without passion, waves of frustration that I can skillfully overcome. I cannot thrive without improving, working on something tangible, mobile, crazy, almost uncontrollable.

I have not lost that from myself. I have just been ignoring it in order to test out other options. I can see now that those options are not going to satisfy me. They will not allow me to carefully balance myself out. I must be creating.

I must be creating.

This is something that everyone around me has known or recognized when they saw me play piano, or write, but which I had to realize for myself when the time came. There is no other time or moment apart from now. They were all right.

I have greatness in me from past lives, and from this life. I have the ability to command, to move people gracefully, to inspire deep hope. I must not deny myself these qualities by hiding them away because they are more intense, and make less sense, than other machine-symbolic-manageable qualities I see in other people.

Mine are not manageable, and that is exactly-precisely-extensively why I need to bring them to the forefront. So that I can contribute something to the world.

I will resolve every day to never lose sight of them again. I resolve to forget how I have pushed them aside these past five years. I will focus only on what the pushing-away has taught me, and how it is the most important thing I’ve ever had to learn. I will, every day, come to know anew why I am doing the things I am doing, and what is the “right” and challenging path.

I will come to know anew why I am great inside, and how I can be more great.

Greatness ≠ control

Greatness = the ability to know yourself well enough to manifest your understanding into a positive contribution to the world


I have always known this. I forgot through high school. I forgot through intimacy with people who did not understand this truth, who did not grasp the power of my talent, understanding, and healing abilities. I may have lost touch with my healing power, but it is not lost. It will never be lost now.

Nothing is going to fall into place easily. Nothing will ever fit together, and if something does, it is only for a fleeting moment. My purpose in this life is not to fit everything together in order to be happy, but to allow chaos to give me peace, relief, power, knowledge, and focus. To allow passion to be my stability.

This is the truth and I will do it.

I must not settle for anything less.

All this time, I have been settling for the easier road, the least resistance, the social status, the smooth normalcy. That will never be enough for me. Home is a state of mind. A state of being. I will never feel at home if I settle for no passion. I can’t.

As soon as I get home I will start playing a Beethoven sonata, and will bring back the Bartok and the Liszt. I will begin a Brahms intermezzo, and maybe a Chopin prelude. And I will learn a Schumann or Debussy.

I have two months still until school. I once learned a piece in two months, then won third place in a competition. I can get to that place again if I watch my posture, do exercises, use passion, and remember that pain and exhaustion will only make me stronger.

Now I understand why he does not need physical touch and love like I do. His passion is invested in his music and writing, and that is how it needs to be for him to make his contribution. People will not be touched because he held his girlfriend in college when she was sad. People will be moved by his music, his words, his ability to capture a thousand feelings into one moment.

They will need him for that. He must not be needed in any other way, just how I cannot be needed in any other way until the right time.

It’s going to be hard, but I’ll choose the right path, not the result. The auditions are in March. I’m not giving up on myself.


Skills.

Let’s be real. A global pandemic is not the best for becoming a master of a skill. The underlying anxiety caused by tiny daily decisions like “should I go to the grocery store to buy milk and eggs and risk getting ill and dying” and “I won’t be able to wash my hands until I get home but I need to run multiple errands to save on gas” exhausts my brain and body. The constant transitioning online, offline, online, offline, to stay afloat as an entrepreneur feels like trying to catch a particularly quick chicken. Running, clucking, spreading your hands out in front of you and hoping for the best.

When I can’t make plans for the future, and I truly understand that I don’t have control of anything, it’s hard to aim to master a skill like I usually do. I practice piano, but what am I practicing for? I rehearse with my band, but what shows am I rehearsing for? What tour am I prepping for? I’m saving money to move to a new city, but when will I be able to safely visit the cities I might move to? “Promoting myself” begins to feel like pushing useless art on people. I can’t reach them by performing live, right in front of them, with the sound reverberating around the room, all breathing together and feeling together. So.

I’ve developed the following skills:

Knowing which size Tupperware will work best for leftover pasta, as opposed to leftover stir fry.

Cuddling with my kitten.

Telling friends that I love them, that they are beautiful.

Training morning glory vines to climb up my porch railings.

Clearing out clutter in my house (okay, maybe not every week, but DEFINITELY more than twice a year).

Giving small gifts to neighbors, friends, family.

Giving my partner long, bear hugs.

Noticing signs that the season is changing.

Staring out the screen door at the garden, green, alive with sun, feeling the flyaways around my face moving in the breeze.

Walking at night through the neighborhood, feeling like I’m back in middle school, telling each other all our secrets.

Concocting dank dinners that take me hours to plan, prepare, and execute.

Being me.