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  • Writer's pictureKamara Hennessey

Kamara Hennessey: January 2022 / Blog

In the Ultimate Music Teachers’ Facebook page, Glory St. Germain posed the question “What experiences have shaped you to become the teacher you are today?” As a music educator with over 20 years of having the opportunity to serve students - as young as 5 years old to semi-retired and retired seniors - I have often struggled with the perception of whether I am as good as/a better teacher than many of my colleagues in that educational field. In my earlier years of teaching, I would often compare myself with those educators who defined their success by having had students who achieved their music diploma as young as 11 - 16 years, or year after year produced scholarship winners in music festivals or exams. Therefore, when my students did not measure up to that standard of excellence, I felt I was not as good/great a teacher.

Over the years I tend to have attracted (and still do) students who would be defined as “average” or have cognitive challenges that would perhaps be diagnosed as “exceptional” learners. In all of my academic pursuits, no matter how diligent I worked at the subject matter, excelling in the percentage marks that would place me in the category “… with distinction” always eluded me. However, in spite of that I continued to persevere; not give up! With empathy, that same intent has since been transferred over to my students; not to easily write them or myself off that I am not up to facilitating the required learning process.

There is some truth to the axiom that with advancing age comes wisdom. The true testament to that I believe is the life experiences that challenge us the most as we continue through our destined personal path where we either get derailed or encounter a fork in the road that becomes the impetus to decide what are the “wise” choices one must make in order to not stagnate. In the process of pursuing those choices - whether they turn out to be good, bad, or indifferent - it allowed for becoming more intuitive/perceptive; hence, listen closely to that inner voice that guides one in how to proceed in the learning/teaching environment. One can only hope that when striving to present a musical concept by taking different approaches, the desired result to understanding it is achieved for the student.

The lyrics in the song “…by our pupils we’ll be taught”, from the timeless classic movie The King and I, express how in the course of getting to know our younger students, in particular, on a more personal level over time, they put their subconscious faith and trust in us as their teacher to ensure that they feel more musically empowered by recognizing their unique abilities through the learning process.

Jeff Sabo, Professional Development Coordinator at the Lotus Centre for Special Music Education, in his Using a Strengths-Based Approach Sept 27, 2021 / Blog states:

  • “It is true, there are many other activities out there, and I don’t think we should force everyone to take music lessons regardless of their level of interest. But actually, isn’t everyone made for music learning in some capacity? Isn’t there more to music learning than just reaching a certain level of achievement? If so, then equipping students of all abilities to enjoy music making and reach their own full potential has a great deal of value. In order to do that though, we need to see every student as capable of music learning in their own way.”

Qualified with a B.Mus. (Hon) degree, and other recognizable music certifications, I am still following my quest to “becoming a good teacher”. I have come to realize that in the pursuit of never-ending professional development (NEPD) the more I learn, the less I know. Therefore, I continue to tunnel/mine through to find the nuggets of wisdom from some expert music educators who have discoursed on the “been there, done that” issues. Through a positive mental attitude (PMA) they subsequently keep reinventing and diversifying themselves. Opening up myself into the growth mindset arena has allowed for flexibility in exploring resources that one trusts can best fit the needs of the learner and teacher in a significant and impactful way.

By default, a student and teacher learn from each other when staying engaged through collaborative efforts. In that setting “ah-ha” teachable moments often arise. Although I appreciate that pursuing graded level examinations through well-established examination boards is a great way to set goals for students who are capable, I have learned not to become fixated by that objective to measure progress and success. I had a student who took piano lessons with me from the age of 8 to 16 years. When I evaluated that Kelly was competent enough in her technical and musical skills to consider taking the RCM graded exams - Elementary (Levels 1-4) - she was not receptive to pursuing that goal. As she matured, her interest in repertoire was that of country music; her favourite artist was Reba McEntire. There was a song on a CD that she wanted to learn. The score that her mom purchased and was brought in at one of Kelly’s lesson sessions was at the Late Intermediate level. Counting the basic beats and feeling the pulses within rhythmic phrases still challenged Kelly. I knew I had my work cut out for me as she insisted on playing that piece. Without objecting it gave me the opportunity to use that piece as an example to find and compare the many musical elements in it that are found in an examination’s “classical” repertoire that Kelly had an aversion to exploring. Not a diehard fan of country and western music, I came to appreciate that stylistic/genre piece as we learned it together. A strategic practice approach at each weekly lesson helped Kelly to implement these into her home practice routine in order to achieve a musically expressive and fluent performance. Eventually, I also was able (not with the characteristic McEntire ‘country twang’) to sing the lyrics to the given melody as I played it on the piano! Although I did not have a longer student-teacher relationship with Kelly, I knew that her reading and technical skills were adequate enough for her to be accepted to play the keyboards in her high school band with confidence. She was also proud to state that she was often assigned to play the Xylophone.

As part of registering a potential student for weekly music lessons, an interview is scheduled with the parent(s). This meeting helps me to determine if I am the best fit for a student’s learning needs based on expectations expressed by the parent with respect to their child’s rate of progress that is reflective of their age and overall development. In mid-September 2019 I accepted a young adult student. His mother was referred to me by an ORMTA H/H colleague. The family had relocated to our city. Mom shared pertinent information regarding her son’s health history. At 7 months her son was diagnosed with neuroblastoma and had surgery to remove a tumor in his brain. It subsequently resulted in Opsoclonus-Myoclonus (weakening of the eye muscles for proper tracking). Follow-up chemo treatments severely affected normal development in gross and fine motor skills. Fortunately, his hearing remained intact, but, a weakening of tongue muscles brought on speech impediment; therefore, forming/pronouncing words was challenging for him in his growing years.

At 18 years old, Aaron (for privacy purposes, not his real name) was evaluated as cognitively functioning at that of an average 8-10 years old child in his reading and writing skills (dysgraphia). Although mom had her son enrolled in classes and speech therapy - post-high school - to meet his “exceptional” learning needs, the specialist/neurologist - on reading the conclusive research done on the subject matter - suggested that music lessons will also help. Mom’s search for music educators at a convenient location within the parameters of the city her family resided in previous years resulted in “rejections”. As mom and I engaged in conversation, I heard and saw the desperation in her voice and eyes and a “plea” for help. Feeling quite sympathetic, I decided to accept that student with the idea that I can learn a lot from him. Aaron would perhaps open a door to discovering how well I can adapt to him as a teacher by thinking and implementing outside the box …

I am not qualified with a certification in the area of ‘special music education”. However, when I am presented with a challenge, I search out resources where they can lead me to make an informed decision on how to proceed. Mom stated that Aaron liked playing on his older brother’s drum set, and this indicated that there was some musicality that I can draw out from him through rhythmic activities. We both agreed that her son’s progress through music lessons will be quite slow. She assured me that she had come to terms with that reality when it comes to his son’s learning abilities along with his other challenges, but she is not giving up; therefore, neither would I for both their sakes. As long as mom was prepared to stay at each lesson session to help me through her son’s identifiable needs, from a music therapy perspective, I was prepared to see where this journey would take us. That involved literally taking a hands-on approach to Aaron’s physical deficits. i.e. for his own comfort level, and mines as well, with my guidance I had mom assist her son with hands and arm movements - as required over the keyboard (exploring the groups of two and three black keys by landing on clusters, and lifting as far as they could go the appropriate fingers separately to match) - and on different parts of his body - head, shoulders, knees, etc - as applied to learning a song like “Twinkle, Twinkle …” from the Piano Adventures Pre-Reading level. For that movement activity, when comfortable, I also had Aaron hold a 2lbs weight in each hand as I mirrored how it was to be done. Instead of singing the words, “La, La” turned out to be a more effective phonetic sounding out of the melody to help with pitch placement around tongue movement. To aid in strengthening Aaron’s fingers, in our search we found a tool that was available on the Amazon shopping website. This firm rubber tool is designed with three holes - one in the middle to hold a pencil and two on either side of it to place the index and third fingers, with a loop underneath to hook the thumb through was ideal. Each week on his attendance sheet I encouraged Aaron to practice writing the letters in his initials or those in his first name. For him that was no easy task; but, he/we persevered! The feedback from mom at one of the lessons was that Aaron was beginning to button his own shirt without her help. For the three of us, that was a measurable success indeed! Mom attributed this to all the activities employed so far that were slowly increasing the strength in the hand, arm, and finger muscles; but, there was still a very, very long way to go… I was also made aware of the fact that Aaron must have IVIG infusions once a month due to being immune-compromised. That session could result in fever and lethargy; therefore, he could miss attending his scheduled lesson for that week; and this did occur as predicted; hence, broke the routine.

The COVID-19 pandemic that caused the world into lockdown effective March 13, 2020, gave us no choice but to cancel weekly sessions with Aaron. As a working mom who had to transition to the online format at home to keep herself fully employed she would not have been able to assist me if we felt that the virtual platform could still service her son’s development in his unique special needs. The upsurge in the variants in 2021 and 2022 has created further disruptions and uncertainties for how long this raging war against being entrapped by the C-19 “invisible” beast will end. Therefore, in this scenario, special needs children like Aaron are left under-serviced by not having access to activities that can help them to lead a “normal” and meaningful life in the longer term.

For many middle-class and lower-income families, the pandemic has left them economically compromised where spending priorities have taken a major shift pertaining to wants over basic needs. Awareness and concerns expressed by health care providers in witnessing an increase in mental angst - brought on by further school closures and social isolations from their peers for students in elementary, high schools, colleges, universities, other - has become another plague to cope with; that also has had a negative effect on the family dynamics in the home setting.

I tip my hat off to those music educators who have managed since March 2020 - without interruption - to maintain an online presence for families, who requested it, to keep up with private studio lessons in addition to their child/children (“held captive” at home) to participate in the virtual classroom sessions. For many couples with younger children who ended up working from their home trenches, they battled with virtual fatigue while trying to balance/solve the work-school-family lifestyle equation. It’s a scenario I continue to see in my son’s family.

In looking back to my time spent with Aaron and his mom for only 21 weeks in the fall-winter 2019-2020 term, I realized how it allowed me to find ways to be more creative. Often in the pre-planned lesson when a “lightbulb” flicked on, I found myself having to unexpectedly change the activity, and at that moment it became experimental and workable. I was left gratified that we three have had a very successful therapeutic music session that day. Through that experience, I can truly declare I did become a good and effective teacher/music educator (“therapist”) who felt so Divinely gifted to have been given, in that short term, an opportunity to bring hope, and perhaps some sense of mental and emotional stability, to a mom and her son each time we connected in my aesthetically pleasing home studio environment.

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  • Writer's pictureKamara Hennessey

Since June is dedicated as Pride month, this takes me back to many years ago when I had the pleasure of teaching a young student who came to my home studio. Kevin was 7/8 years old when his mom decided to register him in piano lessons. I knew mom before as Kevin’s one and only older sister, Penny and my son attended the same elementary and high schools. Kevin was a lovely boy; very quiet, soft spoken; shy most of the time. At the weekly lesson he listened well and followed through with instructions. Although Kevin musical progress was on the average side, he was quite creative when it came to drawing and art as his mom often remarked. Unfortunately, Kevin lost his enthusiasm for keeping up with piano lessons and maintaining a consistent practice routine at home. I was quite disappointed when his parents made the decision to discontinue with that after school activity. I also felt responsible in my “failure” as his piano teacher that I could not keep Kevin’s interest up in a music education.

About a couple of years after the death of her husband, mom contacted me again and expressed interest in taking up piano lessons for herself. She felt it was time to make good use of the keyboard as her three children (2 teenagers and 1 young adult) were not interested in playing that instrument. Brenda and I became good friends in many ways. By having that newly acquired status ‘widow’ layered on to her profile, she now felt we shared something in common as kindred spirits in that respect; and her children can relate to my son in what it felt like to lose a father through death.

Kevin’s sister planned to get married in summer, 2006. Brenda suggested me, and with daughter’s approval, I was asked if I would play the keyboards for the ceremony and at the cocktail hour of the reception. The event was to be held in the beautiful outdoor garden setting of The Ancaster Old Mill Inn. I felt quite honoured to be asked and took a lot of pleasure collaborating with the bride-to-be and mom in the programming of the music for the ceremony. The parents favourite pieces, “The Prayer” and the theme song from “On Golden Pond” were chosen respectively for the Processional as Brenda escorted her daughter up the aisle.

In Brenda’s initial telephone call to ask if I would play the piano at her daughter’s wedding, her statement after that request was: “But, I must warn you of something and hope that you are OK with this.” “Er/um” followed by a short pause “Kevin is gay and his partner will be the MC for the reception”. Needless to say, I was not in the least bit shocked by this news. In his youthful years when I interacted with Kevin in the teacher-student relationship, I intuited that there was something different about Kevin; but, at the time as the saying goes I could not “put my finger on it”. I assured Brenda her son’s sexual orientation had no bearing on me playing in the upcoming celebratory event. Shortly after that call, Brenda invited me to tea at her home; she felt the need to talk about her son, Kevin.

Her story based on this son’s sexual orientation/lifestyle was quite insightful. In his later years in high school Kevin finally worked up the courage to inform his family that he was Gay. Brenda and her oldest son were not in the least fazed by this declaration. However, his sister, Penny could not come to terms with that fact, and as a result, for a few years her relationship with that brother became estranged; she would not speak to, or of that brother to her friends. As a young adult Kevin was in an intimate relationship, and introduced his partner to the family. His sister could not accept her brother’s partner as “one of the family”. Her mother and older brother could not convince her otherwise. They realized that Penny would need to reconcile with that issue at some point in her life.

It was in the many months leading up to Penny’s big day when she realized the importance and value of family, and finally found peace within herself to accept her young brother and his partner for who they were. Communication and good will were once more restored between those two siblings. At the wedding reception, Brenda introduced me to Kevin’s partner, the MC. From Brenda’s story I already knew of her son’s partner’s personality and career - quite intelligent, humorous in a non-offensive manner, outspoken, gregarious, extrovert; dresses a little more colourful, a children’s entertainer (puppetry/puppet master), and a producer/filming of children’s educational shows with TVO. Quite a contrast to Kevin’s own quiet/introspective conservative personality; and yet, they complimented each other quite nicely as a couple!

At the reception, while other couples were on the dance floor and his partner stayed engaged in his MC duties, Kevin came over to my table and sat beside me; joining in a glass of wine. We got into a very interesting conversation where Kevin felt at ease to open up to my inquiries. He shared what life was after he discontinued with piano lessons, his feelings around his father’s death while he was still attending high school, his sister’s initial response to his “coming out”, and him meeting the love of his life during his university years. I often speculated that if his father was alive then, he would have been like his daughter; having a difficult time perhaps accepting his son’s “abnormal” sexuality.

Being the creative and artistic person that he was, Kevin pursued Architecture as a profession. If memory serve me well I think he said that he went on to pursue postgraduate studies in an MBA program. There was pride and passion in his voice when Kevin spoke of his work as an Architect designing buildings, and his working knowledge of infrastructure and aesthetics that are involved in the construction process of residential and commercial structures. He referred to names of well know Architects whose works inspired him; one being the famous Frank Lloyd Wright. Kevin, like me, was drawn into that Architect’s vision and ingenuity in how he integrated architecture into nature as was realized in his masterpiece “Falling Waters”. I said to him that I had seen a documentary on that particular building. We both agreed it was an iconic and timeless work of structural art. I realized that for Kevin, architecture was not just a profession, but more of a vocation. Sitting beside me was a handsome, confident young man in whose company, for a short time, I thoroughly enjoyed being with on such a special evening. That evening I could not have asked for a better companion to spend some quality time in stimulating conversation that appealed to my own sense of aesthetic and passion.

Together with Kevin’s immediate and extended families, and friends it was indeed a privilege to be amongst those celebrating the beginnings of a new life for his sister and his brother-in-law. In that moment I acknowledged and celebrated Kevin too for his creativity, dedication, and drive as he contributed in the designing out of so much beauty to make this world a better place to live in. One could not overlook also Kevin’s partner valuable contribution to society in his particular work in the entertainment industry, and with it an education that focus on morals and positive human values presented to parents and children through the medium of Television.

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I came across a Facebook post of a cute photo of the toddler with a captioned comment: “Never

too young to start learning piano ... how old were you?”

On reflection, I did not start formal piano lessons until I was 14. Never learned any other instruments in my youth. My mom, a designated RN, on her meagre monthly salary, invested in an old upright honky-tonk sounding piano when I was 9 / 10 years old at the time. I also speculated my mom was not aware that the piano housed a nest of termites when she purchased it from whoever! Placed against a wall in our home’s enclosed gallery/sunroom, I was perpetually sweeping away grains of wood dust that lay along the edges of the piano. My older sister (who also took piano lessons) when exposed to dust this would incite an asthmatic flare up; so, she was spared that chore!

There were times when I practiced scales / chords / repertoire / studies for exams, I envisioned the outer case crumbling which would result in exposing the inner workings of the piano. Humid tropical condition had a significant effect on the hairline cracked soundboard and loose pins; hence the instrument could not hold the tuning for too long. Strings would often break when the tuner adjusted some notes to the required pitches! How I managed to pass my ear test in the graded exams was remarkable! Due to worn down hammers, the instrument’s overall sound was quite bright / harsh. Because of my love for music, I adapted / resigned to practice with diligence in spite of those setbacks.

Before taking formal lessons I would pick out tunes that I heard on the radio and put some notes in the LH that sounded quite OK; not knowing then that I was technically and musically "harmonizing" the melody on the keyboard. Mr. Woodruff, the only reputable piano tuner on the Island that my mom trusted, was always so kind to show me his own process of writing out a melody. “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” was the song Mr. W. alway played when he was finished tuning the piano. I would observe his leaping waltzing left hand, and marvel at him playing three or four notes at the same time along with the melody.

Recommended by Woodruff, my mom contacted a piano teacher who travelled to her students’ homes. Mrs. Claxton, started me on the Laila Fletcher ABC and beginner John Thomson methods. As a teenager I felt so self conscious in lacking musical skills as a beginner while listening to those much younger students performing at higher levels at Mrs. C's piano recitals. However, after completing the beginner levels, I was groomed each year to quickly prepare for the Associated Board of The Royal Schools of Music and Trinity College of Music London (U.K.) syllabus exams in practical and theory Grade I - VIII.

When I came to Canada in 1977 I decided to continue with piano studies. In an Ad. that I came across in the community paper I finally found a piano teacher who lived about a five minutes drive from my home. As advised by her, I was to focus once again on preparing for RCM practical VIII-Grade 11 exams. I redid the advanced RCM Rudiments in order to be awarded the level 8 certificate, as it was required as a theory prerequisite. My piano teacher subsequently recommended another teacher who would prepare me for the RCM Grade III and IV Harmony and History, Counterpoint exams.

It is often remarked “Life begins at 40”; and how that was for me in pondering ...! My ten year old daughter, Martha-Ann’s death on January 2,1994 was a profound experience that was life altering. Losing her was the catalyst to mobilized me to pursue tertiary studies. Being away from a school institutional environment for over twenty years I felt so inadequate pursuing academics in that early middle-age decade of my life. As it was offered in the Humanities, I redirect my music education by enrolling in a B.Mus.(Hon) program in the department of The School of Arts, Drama, Music (SADM) at McMaster University in 1995. My theory teacher, Francine - an alumnus of McMaster University, and Masters in Musicology degree from University of British Columbia - had faith and confidence in me that I can do the undergraduate music program. Since I was quite involved volunteering as a Facilitator for moms’ bereavement support groups program at Bereaved Families of Ontario, Burlington/Hamilton, my university journey ended up to be part time studies for eight years. Throughout the semesters, I realized in all those decades of private piano studies how limited I was in repertoire exposure (selected in the Graded Syllabus that I was examined and evaluated on).

In the Woodwinds Methods Course I was inspired by those young university students (with high school band experience) when they performed their own composed/arranged pieces. After graduating in 2003 I decided to pursue saxophone lessons. Wind Instructor, Buddy Aquilina (Jazz Musician, Berklee graduate, Arranger/Composer, Director of "Aquilina Quintet”) at Long & McQuade, Burlington location, accepted me as his student. I persevered with Buddy for 12 years. He opened all of my senses and soul into the jazz genre and styles. After 4 years of studies, Buddy literally "dared" me to join a community band. With no prior band experience, the idea of me performing in a large group with adult musicians (more skillful and experienced professionals and amateurs) was intimidating; hence I felt not ready to move into that kind of environment. But, I eventually bit the bullet and took up that personal challenge and joined the Burlington Concert Band (BCB) in 2008. To this day I look forward to going to Monday evenings rehearsals in preparations for planned concerts throughout the year. What I have personally gained the most in a large ensemble, and continues to be, is a nurturing of five areas of development - Membership, Influences, Feelings, Differences, Productivity. These were areas Glory St. Germain highlighted in the Corporative Learning Theory model / “master key” in the Ultimate Music Theory Certification Course (UMTCC) that I invested in 2013. Having pursed the Ultimate Music ‘Elite’ Educator’s program, my never ending professional development (NEPD) has also expanded my networking opportunities on the global platform.

A year after joining the BCB I took on additional responsibilities as an Executive Member; I am currently the Past President. This platform has also helped me to become a more effective and affective leader from within; in turn provided me with a sense of positive empowerment and confidence to build on “Team Leadership” with my musical colleagues.

I am always learning and growing along side with my young and mature piano students when we collaborate at the lesson sessions. Teachable moments become apparent at times when a musical concept can be used as an analogy to other life’s experiences. In her book 101 Ideas for Piano Group Class: Building an Inclusive Music Community for Students of All Ages and Abilities; Chapter 3 Pg. 19, Dr. Mary Ann Froehlich states: “We are music educators first, and piano teachers second.” In my “ageless” educational pursuits, that is my prime objective/directive!

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