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” but rather about community service. I accompanied choirs, orchestras, talent shows, and generally was called upon to make myself useful as well as ornamental.

As an adolescent, I did wonder how my musical aptitude might play out in a bigger setting. The piano prodigy from Quebec, Louis Lortie, was my age and he was already on TV. I went to the public library and listened to a record of Serkin playing Beethoven. True confession: I felt that, as ridiculous as it would seem to ever say so, well – um, I could do that. You know when you just know that you can do something? I just knew I could (then, anyway). But I’d never dare say so.

When I was 14, my piano teacher, Frances Gray, took my to Montreal to audition for a Canada Council grant. Serkin was playing Beethoven Concerto No. 5 at Place des Arts, and she bought us tickets. This was the first time I’d heard a concert pianist live. An elderly Serkin struggled a bit in the first two movements,then emerged radiant, absolutely triumphant, on a tremendous effortless high, in the finale. My teacher brought me backstage to meet him. Flushed with success, he came over to me right away, past the groups of adults, and warmly shook my hand. My teacher told me I was a piano student and was about to play a big audition. Serkin looked me straight in the eye and said, in a seriously impressive tone, “Remember this. You know better how to play than they do.” I felt such a strong rush of spirit from him, as though during his performance he had found some ineffable truth, transcended age and career, and wanted to share that with a child. 

And then I went home again, to my upright Heintzman, to pick the wild cranberries by the PEI shore with my dad, sister, and brother. 

5 Comments

  1. Congrats Heather…how exciting for us to be able to read your writing…so fun! Phylis from FB and Ottawa

    • My first ever blog comment! Thank you Phyllis, yup it is fun.

  2. Heather, what a lovely piece about your childhood reminiscences as a developing pianist. You are a very accomplished writer as well, obviously. Kudos to you for blogging. I wouldn’t dare try it. Best wishes going forward. Your latest fan who looks forward one day to hear you, with my daughter, in concert.

    • Thank you Carol – coming from you that means a lot. I’d be happy if you made a blog, and be very interested to read it. Take care, H

  3. This is my favourite: “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… any musical gift wasn’t about becoming an “artiste” but rather about community service. I accompanied choirs, orchestras, talent shows, and generally was called upon to make myself useful as well as ornamental.” I think I am learning something meaningful here…