Monday, December 17, 2007

Piano 101: Ancient History

My mother is a piano teacher, so we've always had lots of piano music in the house. I remember sitting on the floor at her feet under the keybed of her old "Chopin" upright piano while she played. When I was old enough to reach the keys I started plunking out stuff myself. With my mother's help I began to make my way through the lesson books. This informal arrangement lasted for maybe five years, I'm guessing. I had stumbled my way to about a grade 5 level in the Royal Conservatory of Music (Toronto) grading system. We decided that if I wanted to "do it right", I needed a teacher. So at ten years old I began formal lessons with Edith Orton, a great Ottawa teacher.

Mrs. Orton guided me through the Royal Conservatory examinations until RCM grade 10. Along the way she encouraged me to perform in recitals and compete at the Ottawa Music Festival and the Canadian Music Competition. My repertoire was mostly from the RCM examniation syllabi, but also included, importantly, concerti for piano and orchestra. My orchestra was my mother, playing the orchestra parts arranged for second piano. As I advanced through the grades, Mrs. Orton also stressed the importance of occasional lessons with other teachers. I had the opportunity to meet with Jean-Paul Sevilla, Andrew Tunis and Douglas Voice, all three at the University of Ottawa at the time. But more than anyone else, Edith Orton taught me music, and I'm forever indebted to her for it.

After grade 10, Mrs. Orton decided I would benefit more by getting a new teacher. The obvious best fit was Douglas Voice at UofO. I think I must have been about 17 years old and probably starting grade 12 at High School. (High School in Ontario at the time went to grade 13). My two years of lessons with Douglas Voice prepared me for the ultimate Royal Conservatory exam: the Associateship Diploma in Piano Performance. Creative planning of my High School course schedule over the years allowed me to finish grade 13 spending only a half day at school. The other half I could spend practicing.

My lessons with Douglas were completely different from previous lessons. We would often spend our time discussing issues of interpretation or experimenting with different sounds and techniques to decide what might work for a given piece. I took the Associateship exam in the Spring of 1986, the same time I graduated from High School. I thank Douglas for bringing me to the "next level" of performance, and for introducing me to an incredible new world in the piano repertoire -- in particular the Spanish piano works of Granados, Albeniz and Ginastera.

After High School I had a bit of a premature mid-life crisis. I had always assumed I would find some kind of career in music. When I realized I didn't want to get a BMus, it became obvious that my options were pretty limited. I panicked. I got into computers. During the musical winter of my computer studies, I did manage to spend one semester at the piano, fulfilling a Humanities credit by doing a juried recital course in piano performance. It gave me the opportunity to study once more with Douglas Voice, one-on-one for the semester. We remained good friends, but that would be the last time we studied music together. Douglas succumbed to cancer in 1998. I wish I could play for him one more time.


  1. Kenneth,
    I am finally getting around to commenting on your blog, which I have been reading all along.
    I passed your sentiments along to Edith and she was very touched. I wish I could do the same to Douglas. I really miss him.
    Love, Mom

  2. Kenneth,
    Thank you for posting this part of your life's story. Whenever I spoke to others about my sister, Betty Jo, and her far-away family, I would simply say that "my nephew, Kenneth is an accomplished pianist". Somehow, I also had the impression that you might have a career in music.

    I loved reading about Betty Jo, Edith Orton and Douglas Voice and the roles they played in your growth as a musician. I admired your determination and creativity in achieving your goals during your high school years. I regret that in all that time, I never heard you play.

    Though I have forever missed the skill, strength and spirit of your "Ancient" years, I DO expect to hear you perform in current times. I look forward to that!
    Lots of love, Louise

  3. @BJ
    I shudder to think of how things might have turned out differently if that crucial period with Edith had gone poorly.

    And you've probably seen this, but Verna Jacobson's tribute to Douglas is online:

    I have lots of great memories of Douglas. But the most amazing thing is how reading his penciled-in notes on my music after all this time is like hearing him speak again. An instruction like "be suave" is so Douglas.

  4. @Louise
    No big deal on missing ancient performances. With all this new-fangled technology, you'll be able to listen from your home in Scotland!