Lifelong Lessons from Great Music Teachers

Mrs. Ginzburg loved highlighters. They are pretty popular in my studio too. Credit: Rhona-Mae Arca

Mrs. Ginzburg loved highlighters. They are pretty popular in my studio too. Credit: Rhona-Mae Arca

My last piano teacher passed away one year ago this week. Thinking of Irina sparked memories of all my music teachers. I thought I would pay tribute to Irina as well as to all the people who helped shape me as a musician.  

Lynn Eamer was a stern woman who terrified me. Mrs. Eamer taught me the importance of learning how to read. In my second year of piano, she discovered that I still hadn’t learned how to read notes (I was playing solely by ear). I still have the 100 lines she made me write of all the letter names.

When we moved, I studied with a woman named Margaret Fraser. I only studied with her for a year. She loaned me a Reader’s Digest songbook, which for some odd reason, was never returned to her. I still use it when I play at gigs. Margaret wanted me to more relaxed. I played at either one extreme or the other (tense versus relaxed and sloppy).

Elizabeth Mahaffy had the challenge of teaching me as a pre-teen and teen. She was very sympathetic to the woes of teenaged angst. Elizabeth told me weekly to "listen to what you're playing" and taught me having a compassionate ear is very important.

Elinor Lawson taught me for four years at the University of Lethbridge. I completed my B.A. in Music and my Gr. 10 piano with her. Elinor is an incredible accompanist with perfect pitch.

She taught me many things: how to make the most of my practice time when I had a repetitive strain injury, how to analyze my music to improve my memory, a few cheats to play through sections designed for larger hands and developed my inner ear. Many of the skills she taught me to practice efficiently were simple time and project management skills that I’ve applied successfully to other areas in my life.

My last full-time teacher was Irina Ginzburg, whom I studied with for three-and-a-half years. She was a vivacious spirit who demanded technical precision and overflowing passion. Our best was not her best. She didn’t just want her students to play well; she wanted us to play excellently. She once told me to drill one trouble spot until I got it right 11 times out of 10 so that I could get it perfectly 10 times out of 10 on stage.

Mrs. G taught me to channel all my frustrations from work into my music, helped me put an end to uncontrollable performance jitters and encouraged me to teach. She saw me through to my Royal Conservatory associateship diploma in piano performance. It was a bumpy road but we were both satisfied with the end result.

Sometimes, I catch myself saying something that one of my teachers said or doing something the exact same way. Not surprising since now I am teaching and performing. Sometimes, their words float into my mind in non-musical situations.

I suppose that’s the greatest tribute to them – the fact that even now – I continue to apply what they taught me.

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