Time flies when you're having fun!

I began teaching 50 years ago, in 1972. Back then, I was an eager nineteen-year-old, with aspirations of musical stardom, visions of recording contracts, and an addiction to the wonderful world of sound called "music". 

Today, the addiction continues, however, my desire for personal adulation has been replaced with much appreciation for the thousands of students I have had the privilege to work with, and a deep gratitude for all they have taught me.

Following is my small way of paying homage to all who graced my life with their creativity, dedication, friendship, loyalty, and often, "really good excuses".

50 observations on life in my music studio

1  The rule of 1950's piano law 

My musical education was deeply rooted in the traditional values of the day. Back then, things were different - we wore uniforms in school, the "strap" was an accepted tool to help teachers keep us inline, we had to say "please and thank you", and we were told not to speak until we were spoken to.

I began piano lessons at age six. There was no parental involvement - just me and my teacher, Mrs. "R", a master multi-tasker, who managed to teach me while simultaneously preparing supper for her family. I can still smell the fried liver and onions, she was perpetually preparing. I can also feel the sting of the wooden ruler she brandished, as she took time out from her chef duties to smack me for making a mistake.

Needless to say, I did not enjoy my piano lessons. I was pretty certain my dear mother, Olive had some degree of affection for me, so I thought if she saw Mrs. "R" attacking me with that ruler, she would come to my aid and the evil lessons would be terminated. After much pleading, mom watched a lesson. Imagine my shock when she did not react to the finger whacking.

My in-home practice sessions were solitary ones, consisting with me in the bassment, with the piano. More shock was in order, when, the next day, my mother, armed with her own ruler, vigorously attacked my mistakes with her own whacks!

2   Get that Grade VIII!

I grew up in a small town in northern Quebec, the only boy in town who studied piano, until I was ten years old, when my little brother started.

Much teasing from my peers brought much stress and tears, adding to my profound distaste for this torture. When I begged my parents to allow me to quit, they refused, telling me that I had to pass a Royal Conservatory Grade VIII examination, before they would consider granting me my wish. I found out later in life that the "Get your Grade VIII" axiom was not peculiar to me - indeed, it was a popular mantra. chanted by parents across Canada.

Back then, to most people, there was only one "real" kind of music and that was classical. Pop and jazz were viewed upon as invalid, insignificant, and most-often, taboo. There was also on old wive's tale, that, if one completed a Royal Conservatory Grade VIII, one could teach. Nothing could be further from the truth.

What I find ironic, is that today, in 2022, many people, including music educators continue to use the "Get you Grade VIII" axiom as their standard of musical education.

3   Snatch the pebble from my hand

Jump forward to 1972. Having moved to Saskatoon in 1968, I was pursuing advanced piano studies with a local teacher, whose strengths were sitting in his kitchen sipping on a coffee while I struggled through scales in an adjoining studio, continuously lecturing me, and bathing me in negative energy. This was nothing new to me, as these practices were common amongst other teachers I had studied with. In fact, at the time, I admired this man so much, I gladly paid him for five hours of lessons each week. This was a huge financial burden for a nineteen-year-old, with a new wife, and a family on the way.

One day at lessons, my teacher, Mr. "T", announced to me that he felt I was ready to begin my teaching career under his tutelage. I was so thrilled, so empowered, so overjoyed! The Master had given "grasshopper" the go-ahead! Could I ever snatch that pebble from his hands?

4   The "Jesus" lecture

And so it began.....

I ran a small ad in the newspaper and eagerly accepted my first couple of students in my own studio. I wanted so much to be the best teacher possible, and made a concerted effort to channel my Master's teaching methods through me to my students.

My teacher, Mr. "T", gave me a book about the utilization of negative reinforcement in motivating students and told me to read it. It was chalked full of great ideas like making students crave compliments by offering minimal praise every few weeks. Then came the "Jesus" lecture.

At my next lesson, in a hushed voice, Mr. "T" divulged his secret, making him one of the best teachers he knew. His key? It was simply elevating his status to that of a powerful "Jesus" figure in the eyes of his students. His goal was to make them crave praise, to cower in his presence, to revel in his words, and above all, to worship him like a god. I was slightly confused by this, as this man was certainly not a "Jesus" figure to me, nor to any of other students of his I was familiar with. This was when I began experiencing a twinge of doubt about his teaching philosophy.

5   The bubble bursts

It was a Thursday. My teacher, Mr. "T", had changed my lesson to noon hour that day. There was a lesson in progress when I arrived, so I sat quietly in the waiting room. There was no music drifting out of the studio, rather loud shouting. I listened with glee as Mr. "T" tore a verbal strip up and down whoever was in there with him. I wondered if it was one of the senior students I knew. I could hardly wait to see who the victim was!

The barrage continued for another ten minutes or so - then silence. When the door finally opened, a sweet little girl, aged six or seven, with cute little pigtails emerged. She was crying her eyes out. My heart sank.

At that moment, I knew this was not for me. I left this man's studio shortly thereafter. There had to be a better way to teach.

6   Humiliation & realization

So there I was.....

The ego is a funny thing. In my mind, I was an "artist", a "free-spirited bohemian", a "creative force to be reckoned with"..... until.....

I had an interest in jazz and was invited to jam with some very good musicians I knew. They were self-schooled, and illiterate when it came to reading music. I had training and technique. I entered that jam session exuding confidence - I left, feeling utterly humiliated and deflated. These "musical heathens" played circles around me. They were prolific improvisors, completely at ease in a musical world based on spontaneity, interaction and reaction. I was a "putz" who could play Beethoven, if the music was placed in front of me and I practiced it for six months.

The realization that I still had a very long way to go to become the musician and teacher I wanted to be soon set in. In fact, I was so depressed about my musical capabilities, that I came very close to quitting it all and pursuing a career in potash mining.