This blog is a part of the NYC Arts in Education Roundtable’s new blog series, “Teaching Artists Speak Out: Blogs from Quarantine.” As schools remain closed, we’ve invited some “Teaching Artists of the Roundtable” to help us curate a series of blog posts written for and by NYC teaching artists. We’ll be posting new blogs each Tuesday and Thursday for the next several weeks. To view other blogs in the series, please click here.
My grandfather (who was already quite sick before the virus arrived in the states) went into hospice care in his home in early March, before the stay-at-home orders were put in place, so I decided to take a trip to the suburbs of Chicago to say goodbye to him and to visit with family. I didn’t realize that my planned trip of five days would turn into a month-long trip, with little to no idea of when I would be able to return to my apartment—my life—in Brooklyn.
I went over to his house, sang to him with my sister, and visited with family on the evening of March 11th. The next morning, I learned that he had passed away in his sleep. We planned to hold funeral services the following weekend but had to cancel due to the restrictions on public gatherings. Now my grandfather is sitting on our dining room table, cremated, silently reminding us of the impact he had on our lives.
I’m not sure if any of us have processed it. I wish I could hug and comfort my family members who took care of him until his day of passing, but, unfortunately, hugging is not really an option in our culture anymore. So, we just take each day as it comes, do our best to remember that death ultimately is a part of life, and try to stay focused on our priorities.
Social distancing. Hand sanitizer. Business closures. Unemployment. Stay-at-home orders. Quarantine. Pandemic.
All of this terminology has become such a large part of our everyday vocabulary, yet I still find it difficult to comprehend that all of this is actually happening.
Whether we work on the frontlines or from home, it is safe to say that this virus has affected all of our lives in some way. My mom still goes to work as a nurse administrator at a hospital just outside of the city and is required to wear a mask all day. My dad still drives downtown every day to go to work at a small law office; two of his coworkers recently got sick with what they think is the coronavirus, but my dad still goes to work because he is 65 and is worried he may not have a job after the pandemic ends. My sister works from home but is worried about losing her job due to increased layoffs. I just finished graduate school and was in the process of interviewing for jobs in NYC, but now I am unsure of my next steps toward future employment in the arts. This pandemic is now a part of our reality, and as much as I wish it weren’t, I must accept it.
I recognize that I am much more fortunate than most during these times; I have a loving family whom I can stay with outside of NYC and will be receiving financial support from them until I can find some sort of remote work. If it weren’t for them, I’m not sure how I would be able to pay my rent for my apartment in NYC and put food in my stomach. I’m very grateful to have this time with my family, and I certainly don’t take that time for granted.
Still, I would be lying if I said that I didn’t miss the solitude I usually have access to in my apartment, and to the artistic community that I am a part of in NYC. For me, my practice as an artist is a personal one and is often done in solitude when I am not performing or collaborating with others. I would spend hours in a practice room if I could, writing songs and practicing music and monologues, all of which usually involves a lot of self-acceptance, weird vocal exercises, and silly faces and tongue shape examinations in the mirror. Although I have a piano here in my parents’ house and can isolate myself in my childhood bedroom to do some writing, I can’t deny that I have had to make some adjustments to my routines and artistic goals as a result of my new living situation.
When it comes to boundaries, I used to be a doormat. It wasn’t until I started following emotionally intelligent trailblazers such as Brené Brown and Elizabeth Gilbert that I began to see boundaries as essential to any relationship, especially my relationship with myself.
Here are a few of the ways in which I have tried to set healthy routines and boundaries around my artistic practice while living with my family. Every day is certainly not the same, and no matter what, I try to be kind to myself as I navigate my new living situation. I also know that every artist’s at-home situation is going to be different, so not all of these ideas will work for everyone. Regardless, I try to keep these ideas in mind as I tackle each day:
- I try to let my family members know about my schedule. If I want to spend an hour (or more) undisturbed in my room to do some writing, I will let them know ahead of time so that they don’t assume that something is wrong or that I am ignoring them. I also will let them know when I plan to practice the piano and/or sing, as I will inevitably be heard by everyone in the house, no matter what room they are in. And on that *note*…
- I try to set and stick to a schedule for myself. I won’t lie—this took me about a week or so to get used to, as I’m used to having a different schedule every day in NYC. For me, this schedule always starts with a yoga and meditation session (I even wear ear plugs so I can try to tap into my peace even while my sister’s dog is wildly barking downstairs). I also only check in on the news in the late afternoon and again later in the evening, after I’ve spent some quality time on my projects. And, at the end of each day, I’ve started to have solo dance parties and literally shake off all of the energy I don’t need to hold onto anymore.
- I try to nest into my working space. The more I can feel at home away from my home in NYC, the more vulnerable I can be with myself in my artistic practice. I’ve even considered putting up inspirational quotes on my walls in my bedroom, just how I have done in my room in NYC, so that I can remember that no matter where I go, my passion for my art is always with me.
- I try to tap into other artistic disciplines when I feel stuck in my own. Part of the reason why I enjoy my little dance parties is so that I can get out of my head and into my body, which is something that really helps me let my music compositional ideas flow through me instead of building up inside of my head.
- I try to remind myself that my artistic practice is my own, no matter what others may think. It can be easy to let a loved one’s comment or opinion of your artistic practice get on your nerves, especially if you’re not used to having an audience tuned into your practice session. I couldn’t tell you the number of times someone in my family has said, “Oh, why don’t you sing something for us?” when I just wanted to practice in peace.
- I try to stay in touch with my other artsy friends. Seriously, I have never been more grateful for technology. Between virtually watching a play with two of my actor friends, to participating in a Zoom chat with my fellow choir members, it really helps to share ideas and struggles with those in my artistic community.
- I try to set mantras to live by each day to lift my spirits. I am a huge fan of personal mantras, especially as it relates to my artistic practice. For me, my practice as an artist requires me to be very vulnerable with myself. If I feel that the people in my space don’t respect or understand that, I internally coach myself through my mantras so I can stay focused and not let my insecurities distract me from practicing.
- When in doubt, I try to stay resourceful and open-minded. As much as I would love to belt my heart out during my practice sessions, my sister works from home and is on calls for most of the day. Therefore, I have started to educate myself more on music history and vocal pedagogy topics through YouTube videos and documentaries on Netflix. Even if I can’t practice in all of the ways I would like to, I can at least educate myself more in my artistic discipline.
It has taken some time, but I do think that I have been able to garner a lot of respect from my family members regarding my artistic lifestyle. Because I am the only working artist in my household, it can be challenging to explain what I do and why I do it. However, my family really does support me and has given me space to practice when I ask for it.
In some households, this might not be the case, and therefore boundaries may not be respected. If this is the case for you, past experience has shown me that bargaining can actually be quite useful. Proposing ideas such as, “I will walk the dog later if we can keep the news off or on mute while I practice the piano for 30 minutes” allows both parties to feel respected and cared for.
Additionally, if you are struggling to find some quiet space in your current quarantine location (depending on what restrictions currently reside in your area), perhaps it is possible for you to go on a brainstorming walk outside, or even listen to some music to circulate your thoughts. At times, even just being in a different room from others for a few minutes can help establish a sense of personal space, so that you can check in with yourself and your energy levels.
Ultimately, I’m trying to see this time as an opportunity to dive deeper into how I approach my art form, because I’ve had no choice but to get creative with it. And, who knows: perhaps by sharing our artistic practices with those in our households, we may find that we even grow closer to them, or inspire them to get in touch with their artistic sides as well. We could all use a bit more art in our lives these days, anyway.
Lauren Extrom (she/her/hers) is a practicing artist, arts administrator, yogi, and aspiring teaching artist. Though she considers herself a dancer and a storyteller, she tends to identify mostly as a vocalist/musician/composer/lyricist. She received her BA in Music and American Studies from Boston University, and she recently received her MA in Performing Arts Administration from NYU. When not practicing social distancing, she resides in NYC and sings as a solo cabaret vocalist, as well as a back-up vocalist in an indie rock band. She also travels to Boston to rehearse with a non-profit choir, VOICES 21C. Lauren is currently working on a few video editing projects for her friends, and is also orchestrating a musical album, which she hopes to release later this year.