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".
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!
And so it goes......
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.
And so it goes......
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?
And so it goes......
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.
And so it goes.....
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.
And so it goes.....
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.
And so it goes.....
I soon realized I that after decades of lessons and practicing, I still had much to learn. My years of study had provided me with strong technique, an appreciation for the works of the Masters, and the ability to interpret a score, but I still couldn't play the piano.
Way back then, I had what I consider to be my "Musical Epiphany". It was a simple one. When learning any language, one must learn the vocabulary, then to speak it, and read it and finally, to write it. Music is often referred to as the "Language of Sound". If this is true, then the same axiom must apply to it. Like so many others, my studies provided me with a vocabulary limited in scope, the ability to read it, sort of write it, and to "recite" rather than speak it.
And so what I consider to be my true musical education began..... and so it goes.....
I purchased a tuneable cassette deck, allowing me to synchronize the speed of the playback with the tuning of my piano, and the sasg began. I spent countless hours in my studio playing song excerpts repeatedly, sometime merely a bar or two at a time, until I could come close to what the performer was playing. My first attempt was a song called "lucky Southern", by Keith Jarrett. This first attempt at ear development took months.
At the same time, I began working with a group of excellent musicians, all prolific improvisors. When we weren't performing in local night clubs, we were jamming in my studio, using something called the "Real Book", full of hundreds of charts as our bible.
Slowly, but surely, I started feeling more comfortable when being called upon to improvise, but my hands still shook and butterflies danced a frenzied tango in my stomach.
And so it goes.....
Saturday mornings, at 9:00 am, I taught the cutest little blond haired eight-year old girl. She was demure, extremely polite, and a wonderful student.
One Saturday, I awoke very late, coming home very late from performing in a night club the night before. I bounded out of the sack, at about 8:50 am, and bounded downstairs, clad only in my "skivvies', to open up my studio for this little girl. I ran through the hallway, connecting the back door to my studio entrance, into the studio, turned on the lights, and exited with the intention of quickly getting dressed.
A HUGE OOPS!!!!!!
To my surprise, when I opened the door to exit the studio, there she was! Someone had left the back door unlocked, and that little princess had the ill fortune of seeing me, standing in front of her, in my blue briefs.
And so it goes.....
I Continued to teach, employing a combination of my traditional training, as well as searching for new ways to overcome what I perceived to be the limitations of the "old school" music education practices. At that time, I really had no idea of how to proceed. I just knew that there had to be a way to provide my students with the skills to be able to create their own music, as well as "recite" pieces from the printed score.
I was teaching a family of three sisters, whose mother had been instrumental in starting the Suzuki string program in Saskatoon. This lady was familiar with my experiments, and suggested I explore Dr. Suzuki's new, somewhat controversial, and very revolutionary ideas about early childhood musical education. I began reading anything an everything I could find about this man and his teaching. The more I explored his philosophy, the more convinced I became it was something worth looking into further.
This method was based on the premise that contrary to existing traditional views, it was possible and desirable for musical education to begin at a very early age, hence the title of one of his books "Ability Development from Age Zero". Also, vital to its success, was the involvement of parents, both at the lesson and in the at-home practice sessions. Most importantly, (for me), it encouraged the building of a strong, POSITIVE, learning environment, treating each child as an individual. Much different than how I, and so many other people had been taught.
And so it goes.....
I knew that just reading about Dr. Suzuki's philosophies would not provide me with the tools to work with my students. The only answer was to actually study with people well-versed in this radical new method. Being a broke musician, with a new family, there was no way I could go to the source in Japan. I discovered that there was going to be a Suzuki "Institute", hosted by the University of Alberta, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, offering lessons for teachers with Suzuki Master Teachers. So, off to Edmonton I went, to partake in this two week learning opportunity.
The campus was alive, with students and teachers from across North America, who had gathered to play, learn and grow together. Children, decked out in their finest headphones, listening to recordings of their repertoire were everywhere. All of the string instruments, as well as the piano were represented. I had registered for classes focusing on Books One and Two Suzuki Piano.
The first week centered primarily around the study of the "Twinkles", four little exercises, with a ton of substance. Through these, students as young as three are provided with the elements of concentration, body balance, posture, proper use of the hand, finger strength, dexterity, tone, building of the ear, and much more. Those not comprehending the full value, importance and intricacies of these seemingly simple little ditties could easily underestimate their power.
And so I Twinkled.....
That first Suzuki Institute in Edmonton, was the beginning of a long journey of musical self-discovery, not only from a performance and teaching perspective, but most-importantly, from a philosophical stand point. It soon became clear to me that the Suzuki Method was truly not merely a "method". Rather, It was centered around a powerful new philosophy of musical education, based on development of the individual, a strong bond between student, parent and teacher, positive reinforcement, a nurturing environment, and natural learning through something Dr. Suzuki called "Mother Tongue Learning.
In order to teach in this way, a deep understanding of the philosophy was paramount, and the only way to attain this was to go to the source, which was Dr. Suzuki, and for pianists. Mrs. Haruko Kataoka, creator of the Suzuki Piano Method. Both came to North America from time to time and I did my best to travel to learn from them whenever they were teaching in Canada.
Musical education in Canada, (particularly the piano), had been enshrined in the Conservatory system for decades. Canada was so entrenched in this approach, that even considering this somewhat controversial Mother Tongue Method could be viewed a musically sacrilegious. Traditional Musical Education and Mother Tongue were exact opposites, "Yin and Yang", an eastern "upstart" philosophy versus the status quo. East meets west.
There was much yet to be learned. And so it goes.....
When it comes to completely understanding the ins and outs of the Suzuki Method, North Americans faced one major barrier, and that was language. Dr. Suzuki, Mrs. Kataoka, and their Master Teachers spoke very little English. Granted, there was much to be learned just by observing them teach. When working with students, they spoke more with their instruments rather than words, but when it came to answering questions or giving lectures, there was definitely a problem.
Dr. Suzuki's books on his philosophy were translated into English. They provided much insight into the origin and foundation of the method, but there had been no literature created pertaining to exactly how to implement it from a practical perspective. Therefore, the best way to gain deeper insight into this new way of teaching was through observation.
Like so many other teachers from across North America, I spent countless hours watching Suzuki Master Teachers working with students of all ages. Often, no sooner than I thought I had a revelation, things would once again be as clear as mud. It was frustrating back then, but now, I realize how valuable it actually was.
And so it went.....
I don't anymore, but back then, I smoked cigarettes. So did Dr. Suzuki. The majority of people at those Suzuki gatherings did not. Dr. Suzuki and I would often frequent the same designated smoking areas. At first we would just nod our heads to each other, as we puffed away. Soon, verbal greetings replaced the nods, finally evolving into actual conversations. Dr. Suzuki's English was not good, but we did manage to share our thoughts to some degree.
I can still recall the extreme exhilaration I experienced the first time Dr. Suzuki walked over to me and began to speak, and I vividly remember the first thing he said to me.
"It says on my cigarette package that smoking is dangerous to your health. I have been smoking since I was a young boy and now I am an old man, who has smoked many cigarettes. I think they are mistaken. Smoking is good for your health!"
And so it we continued to puff away.....
The last time Dr. Suzuki and I "lit up" together, I asked him this question.
"How did you come up with all the new ways of approaching the way we teach children?"
Dr. Suzuki exhaled a large puff of smoke from his smelly Japanese cigarette and replied, "Each morning, when I wake up, I try to think of new ways to approach different teaching issues I have recognized. When I get an idea, I try it out on my students. If it works, I keep it. If it fails, it is rejected. Music is a living thing, always progressing, continually changing, mirroring life. Our teaching also must live. If we don't recognize what is good and what is bad in the way we teach, then we will never become better teachers, and our students will suffer."
These words have remained with me for years, and I have done my utmost to follow them. They have become my "mantra".
And so it goes.....
Dr. Suzuki has to be one of the most warm, gentle, caring people I have been fortunate enough to encounter in my years on this planet. His energy was infectious, punctuated by a perpetual radiant smile, and a genuine interest in all he met.
Dr. Suzuki's deep love and respect for children was always obvious. His face would light up when he saw all children and he always took the time to greet them, and give them a loving pat on the head. He taught in a very gentle way, always praising the good, never dwelling on the bad.
His love of life, belief in mankind's potential, recognition of the true abilities of young children, and deep humility translated into a wonderful new and innovative approach to teaching, based on something unique to musical education - a strong, powerful philosophy. Die hard traditionalists were quick to reject these new ideas, but those who were open and objective enough to embrace them soon discovered how powerful they really are.
Starting lessons at a vert young age, teaching to the child, (not filling time), teaching in small, attainable steps, involving parents in the lesson and in-home studies, maintaining a strong learning environment, positive reinforcement, and individual growth are just a sampling of Dr. Suzuki's approach.
And so it goes.....
A couple of years after my last encounter with Dr. Suzuki, a family I taught accompanied their father on a business trip to Japan. They decided to travel to Matsomuto, Japan, to observe Dr. Suzuki teaching in his home studio. The Master taught in a large room, filled with mothers, babies, children and prospective teachers. During a break, he approached the visitors from Canada, to welcome them. He inquired as to where they were from and asked who their teacher was. When they replied with my name, he told them he remembered me and asked if it was possible to return to the studio the next day, as he wanted to give them something to deliver to me.
The next afternoon, he presented them with a simply gorgeous drawing on elegant rice paper of his view of the mountains from his bedroom window, accompanied by hand-drawn Japanese calligraphy, and English translation. It read, "Man is the product of his environment". He asked them to deliver it to me.
What an amazing man! To remember a few fleeting conversations with some crazy Canadian a few years ago, and to take the time out of a very busy schedule to create that amazing image, is truly a testament to this giant of a man.
And so it goes.....
In Japan, Teacher Training in Suzuki Method was through the ancient Sensei/Student tradition. So, if you went to the Suzuki Institute in Matsomuto, Japan to study, there was no curriculum, no "how-to" texts, no set class hours, no written exams, and no defined length of time until graduation. Instead, prospective teachers were required to observe their Master Teacher, have lessons at the Master's discretion, practice, and work on individual growth. Graduation would only take place when the Sensei felt the student was ready.
The Sensei/Student relationship is probably the most comprehensive and effective way to produce the best results. Not based on "book learning", rather self-reflection, and personal development, optimal growth is achieved. However, understandably, this type of learning did pose many obstacles for westerners. So, good Master Teachers were few and far-between. To address this problem in North America, someone, somewhere arbitrarily bestowed the status of Master Teacher on a number of North American teachers who had not studied in Japan. Many added there own "twists" to the philosophy, thus creating inconsistencies and often, confusion.
In my mind, it was vital to find a Master Teacher who best adhered to Dr. Suzuki's values and principles in their purest sense.
And so my search began....
In the 1970's, I taught a trio of sisters, some of the cutest, sweetest, most polite students I have ever worked with. Theu came for lessons on Saturday mornings.
One day, out of the blue, the second oldest little girl asked me a question. I can't recall what the question was, but I do vividly recall that before she asked it, she addressed me as "Mrs. Pianowitch". This was her best attempt at "Mr. Hrynewich". Cute, eh?
In the ensuing weeks, her slightly embarrassed mother valiantly tried to teach her daughter how to say my name, but to no avail. Mrs. Pianowitch did not mind. She thought it was awesome!
The things we remember.....
In the early days of my teaching career, each Friday, I traveled to a small town about an hour away from Saskatoon, where I taught students during school hours, on a "rinky-tinky" piano, in the library.
There was one particular little girl who had me completely perplexed. She was very bright, and at the lesson, learned with relative ease, but when she returned the following week, she would never be able to play anything. She assured me she practiced every day, and even came to tears, as I gently queried her about her home studies. She insisted the school piano was the problem. It was a clunker, but other students did not have the same difficulty, so I was perplexed.
I did not want to get this little girls into trouble, but finally, I decided to address the situation with her mother. What I learned, brought me to tears. The family could not afford to buy their daughter a piano, but they desperately wanted her to have piano lessons. So mom lovingly crafted a full sized keyboard out of cardboard, hoping it would suffice. When I informed her it wasn't working, she broke down.
It was a long shot, but the only option I could think of was to see if we could find a piano she could use in town. Fortunately, we did locate one. In fact, the kind lady owner generously gave the little girl the piano, saying she no longer needed it. I can still see the delight on that cute little face whe we told her!
The things we remember.....
Some of my early student recitals were held at the old Saskatoon Public Library auditorium, which featured comfortable seating, a beautiful Yamaha C6 grand, and a very high stage, accessed by stairs on either side.
I would remain on the stage, to make appropriate adjustments to the chair and footstool for each performer. While they played, I would stand quietly to the side, making sure they were able to get down from the bench easily after their performance.
One little four year old gentleman was very "energetic" by nature. When it was his turn to perform, he ran down the isle like an Olympic sprinter and bounded up the stairs, heading straight for that piano. I stopped him, reminded him to bow to the audience, and tried to get him to focus before he began to play. His fingers flew through the song, and before I could reach him to help him get off the high bench, he bounded towards the front of the stage where there were no stairs. I did some bounding as well, reaching him just as he was about to step into the abyss in front of the stage. He was almost in mid-air when I managed to grab him, to the delight of the audience.
The things we remember.....
As I made the transition from being a traditional music teacher into a practitioner of the Suzuki philosophy, it became more and more apparent that studying with those more knowledgeable than I in this new way of teaching was paramount. Finances and family commitments prohibited me from going to Japan to study at the source. Although Dr. Suzuki and Mrs. Kataoka did travel to North America from time to time, it was obvious, I needed to find a mentor from North America. My criteria was simple - to find a Master Teacher who best embodied the philosophy, but most importantly, Dr. Suzuki's positivity, respect and love for children, and gentle, reassuring teaching etiquette.
Each summer, I traveled to various Suzuki Institutes across North America, studying with a number of Master Teachers. I also started the Saskatoon Suzuki Piano Teachers Association, as well as the Saskatoon Suzuki Piano Parents Association. Through these, we began bringing Master Teachers to Saskatoon to work with local teachers and students. The majority of these teachers, although great musicians, and experience with the method, strayed somewhat from the teachings of the source. Eventually, however, I was fortunate enough to begin find a teacher from the United States who was true to the philosophy.
For reasons I will divulge in a subsequent post, I will not refer to this Master Teacher by name.
My studies began.....
My mentor was a fantastic teacher! She had spent extensive time in Japan, studying both with Dr. Suzuki and Mrs. Kataoka and was a firm believer in staying true to the source. More importantly, she had such a gentle, positive, respectful, loving approach when working with students and parents. She provided me with much inspiration and motivation.
Initially, I followed my mentor, as she taught at various Suzuki Institutes. Eventually, I managed to persuade her to come to Saskatoon to work with me and my students on a regular basis. This "grandmotherly", nurturing, perpetually positive lady quickly captured the hearts of my students and parents. Her visits were always eagerly anticipated.
Life was good! I felt so blessed to be able to work with my mentor, and studied with her for over half a decade.
Then it happened.....
My mentor was a devout member of a worldwide religious denomination I had heard of, but was unfamiliar with. In the years I studied with her, this was never an issue, as she rarely referred to her affiliation. However, this changed.
The last time she was in Saskatoon, she initiated a conversation about my religious beliefs. Coming as a complete surprise, I clumsily attempted to answer her questions, all the while feeling very uncomfortable and somewhat intimidated. The theological "grilling" ended with her giving me a video to watch with my wife and a local phone number to call after we had viewed it.
I went home, and sat down with Velda, my spouse to view the video. After jus a few minutes, it was obvious the doctrine presented in it was not for us. It began with an in-depth narrative on how women should be subservient to their husbands. The video was shelved.
A few weeks later, I received a phone call from my mentor. Her usual warm, motherly demeanor was replaced by a chilling, business-like coldness. She was furious that we had not watched the video or contacted the person whose number she had provided. After hearing my explanation, she abruptly informed me that she could not work with me or my students anymore and terminated our conversation.
I was heart-broken.....