How Esmé Patterson Found Meaning During the Pandemic

Lauren Miller
Esmé Patterson has spent the pandemic teaching music.
Denver musician Esmé Patterson released her fourth LP, There Will Come Soft Rains, in March 2020. The record was three years in the making, crafted to perfection and produced by Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley of the band Tennis. Patterson, a former Paper Bird singer turned solo indie-pop artist, planned to use the new project to boost her career. With media coverage in the works and a tour planned, her 2020 looked hopeful.

But days after the project dropped, the live-music industry shut down concerts in response to COVID-19, and Patterson's hopes of hitting the road were dashed. In what should have been a stunning year, she was stuck inside, trying to stay safe from the virus.

“It was an emotional freefall for me," she recalls. "How would I have a sense of purpose and continue to connect with people and help people?”

Searching for work and meaning in life, she decided to see if her fans would be interested in becoming her pupils. She billed her services over social media and set up virtual one-on-one singing and songwriting lessons, offering workshops on a sliding scale or for free.

“Performing and writing has been my purpose for most of my adult life, and feeling the vacuum created by that disappearing — this [mentoring] has rushed in at a moment of inspiration and absolutely filled that void for me,” Patterson says.

At first she was unsure whether she'd be any good at working with students, and feared that giving lessons meant she was giving up on being a creator. But she remembered and eventually embraced a phrase she learned from martial arts instructor Ely Matson at Denver Kung Fu: “You teach to learn."

“I am lucky enough to be working with so many different people in capacities of mentorship and songwriting guidance and voice coaching, people of all ages and genders,” says Patterson. “One of my students is a sixteen-year-old girl in foster care, and she blows my mind. Another is a trans man who has written an album about their transition.”

During her lessons, she attempts to create an atmosphere that is judgment-free, allowing her trainees to become more comfortable with their talents and themselves.

“With songwriting, it's more important to be in touch with your own vulnerability and being able to trust yourself, which makes that work easier,” Patterson says. “As you get older, you calcify in one direction. People with less experience are scared, but they need a little bit of encouragement, and if that's something I can provide by saying ‘I believe in you. You can do it’ — sometimes that’s enough.”

One of her students, Syndi MacPherson, a 21-year-old singer-songwriter from Columbia, Tennessee, who goes by the stage name Syd., told Westword in an email that meeting with Patterson throughout the fall helped her develop the courage to release her debut EP, MORNINGSIDE (Porch Sessions).

“She took me on as one of her students and pretty fluidly gave me a personal question-and-answer session with a focus on finding my voice,” MacPherson relates. “She also helped me with the mentality behind performing.”

MacPherson was confident in her abilities but was seeking guidance for a show she was playing during a crowded brunch time, and Patterson offered advice based on her own experiences on stage.

“Nobody taught me what to say in between songs," Patterson says. "These are things as a songwriter I had to learn on my own."

During their Zoom meetings, MacPherson was invited to ask questions about any topic she was curious about, from finding her voice as a songwriter to tips on performing. She says Patterson was easygoing and accessible. It was Patterson's vulnerability and authenticity that helped her gain confidence.

“She’s instilled in me lots of little mantras that guide me through each day in the unpredictable world of music,” MacPherson says.

Patterson has mentored more than thirty students since July 2020. She's focused on providing a helpful, safe and productive learning environment during her lessons.

“Some of my students are fourteen-year-olds, sixteen-year-olds, forty-year-olds, and everyone is working on the same kinds of things in different ways," she says. "It's so fascinating for me to see how these different concepts express in different people in different parts of their lives." No matter their age, there's one thing everyone is working on: being vulnerable.

Patterson is not only enjoying her newfound occupation as a mentor; she's also gaining new inspiration in her own creative endeavors.

“I've learned so much by teaching. When you've done something a lot for a long time, you lose touch with the foundation, and you need to return to the basics," she says. "It's been a gift to me to turn back to the basics with singing and songwriting, to remember how I got started."

In the beginning of the pandemic, when she was first quarantining, she found herself in a songwriting rut, but her mentorship role has given her a sense of “renewed inspiration and almost childlike wonder when approaching writing again," Patterson says.

“I honestly feel like talking with my students has helped me,” she adds. “Remaining curious has helped me to keep innovating and helped me understand that you can never arrive at the end of these processes, that there is always more to learn.”

Patterson has plans to expand beyond her one-on-one mentoring by holding songwriting workshops for groups. And when touring begins again, she plans to continue to meet weekly with her students. “It's constantly amazing to me how rewarding it is," she says.

So when will Patterson return to the stage and hit the road?

"At first I was totally bereft and grieving not being able to tour, and now I’m enjoying staying put, honestly,” she says. "I’m not going to be doing it again until it's completely safe. ... I care about people, and I would never want to endanger anyone by encouraging them to come to my show.”

For more, go to Esmé Patterson's website.