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  • Writer's pictureKamara Hennessey

MUSIC EDUCATION IS AGELESS: A journey of re-discovery of self

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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