Sebok's Garden Centre

I was zipping my kid over to camp near Lake Huron this past August , when my gardener’s eye caught sight of a white hydrangea by an old square red brick farmhouse, in a yard of trees. Slowing, I saw a sign above red geraniums on a small market store to one side of the property: “Sebok’s”. Thinks I to myself, we have to get to camp, but I am going to stop into that store on my way back. Alone, I step out of the sunny yard into the dim store. I make out a large man behind a counter. Me: Hi there, I’m just wondering, do you know how this store got the name Sebok? Sebok: (grinning) Cause that’s my family name! SEE-bock! Me: Oh, you don’t say Sebok? Sebok: Around here we say Seebock! Me: So…it’s not a Hungarian name? Sebok: We are Hungarian. My sister knows all the relations in Hungary! She writes letters! Me: Well, I stopped because I know one too, Gyorgy Sebok, he was my piano teacher. He was a very famous gentleman, he was a concert pianist.               Sebok: Yep, it’s an odd name. There’s a movie star Sebok, too! But there aren’t many Seboks. Let’s see (counts), there’s three including me here, a few more out to Pilkington, then a few more Stateside. Lots of relations in Hungary. Me: Let me find you his picture (google-imaging Sebok on my phone). Here. You see? There are lots of pictures of him. Do you think he looks like a Sebok? Sebok: (looks through for a bit,...

Your Friendly Neighbourhood Concert Pianist

As someone raised in Canada’s smallest province, Prince Edward Island, the locavore movement isn’t any big departure for me. I’m a professor of piano at Wilfrid Laurier University now, which makes me an Ontario public servant. For me, that’s the big departure. Getting the job felt sort of like winning a small lottery later in life. When I was hired, at age 36, I finally bought my first piano, and took care of some family stuff. And kept on working, like coaching Beethoven concerti and remembering to freeze the rhubarb before the frost. I remember the first piano trio concert of my life, at age 13 in PEI. We were one act in a community talent show that took place one Saturday in a packed community hall blue with cigarette smoke. As we stood behind the beige curtains on a small stage, we listened to the act before us, a chicken caller. This means, a man who does chicken calls. He got way more enthusiastic applause than the polite clapping that was our lot. Now I think maybe that was the moment when I permanently lost any sense of entitlement that being a talented youngster might otherwise have bestowed. That island upbringing was really good for disabusing anyone of entitlement. In such a small place with so much snow and ice, with only a few ferries to the mainland, there just wasn’t any room for it. If there was any remaining conceit left in me, there were always my Mennonite relatives and Presbyterian congregation to make it clear to me that any musical gift wasn’t about becoming an “artiste”...

Ten Tips for Piano Practising

So many big articles on piano practising. I don’t have time to write those! A few tips I actually use: Count how many pages in the piece, know the average number of pages you can learn in a session, and book off enough slots in your agenda to ensure learning them. if people ask you for this time, say “I’m not available”. Compare tempi of each section. Identify all similar phrases/ sections and learn them back to back memorizing and starring each slight difference. Don’t write in most finger numbers, just make shapes around groups. Learn the harmony, rhythm, and left hand. Right hand last. Star top corner of the most difficult pages. Don’t have a technique warmup, but instead, learn those pages in creative ways that mine them for musical meaning. Do not bring screens to practise room. Set a time when you’re allowed to check them. Know what you’ll wear to perform, and try practising while wearing it. Take out a book about the life and times of the work – especially if you’re not the soloist and the soloist isn’t inspiring you. Know for your own sake what this is about. Compare editions using IMSLP. Take a day off at least once a week. To say, don’t indulge in unnecessary playthroughs and repetitions while angsting about your playing, is not on my list because it is not a tip but a preliminary axiom, like remembering to...

Look What I Found!

Here’s a story for those editing recordings. This summer, I finally got around to push-mowing the lawn strip between the sidewalk and street. I worry when I neglect that strip, since it affects peoples’ appreciation of the street. When I got it done, I withdrew to survey my work from the verandah. There I noticed I’d missed one tiny patch. Isn’t that always the way. Just then, a dad walked by, with his small son trailing some way behind. The little fellow stopped at my patch, kneeled down, and picked the one unruly clover blossom sticking up from it. With a face full of wonder he gazed at the small flower. Then he went running to his dad, “LOOK WHAT I...

A Pianist's Memory From Prince Edward Island

When I was very young, I once spent a summer afternoon with an old lady, in her old summer house in PEI. She said she knew Rachmaninoff very well, and was his cousin. I wasn’t quite sure whether to believe it. She wrote her name for me and said I should call her in New York. I kept that slip of paper in my wallet for many years. I wanted to call, but never did. The name read “Kyriena Siloti”. Now I know that she was the daughter of Alexander...

Back To Ontario, Back To School

How to divide one’s time. How, how. How to silence that rebel poet slurping up a red sea urchin, yelling STOP to the world and standing arms flung on a wide beach praying for no bombs, no children dead, praying for kids, my kid and yours and that kid pounding at the gates of one’s lungs? Stop and watch seagulls. Choose battles, save...