YAPPA BABA: Those were the Ukrainian words, hand-drawn in large letters on the front of the card. Translation: OLD WOMAN.
Me, an old lady? It was my birthday, you see, and I was turning the grand old age of…23. In the moment, I laughed. On further reflection I realized—it’s true!
Old souls…wise beyond their years and a delight to teach.
Old souls…drawn to the study of complex things to better understand their complex selves.
Old souls…calm and serene, exhibiting a certain steadiness that allows for deep expression; an expression of timelessness.
Diamonds in the Rough
With students who are old souls, one begins to realize that everything is already there. Teaching is simply an uncovering; a joining up of the dots here or a technical clarification there. The foundational artistry is a force in its own right, simmering beneath the fingers, anticipating release.
I remember ROBERT’s tone quality. His sound on the saxophone was warm, even and pure. It was sophisticated in its simplicity. This was a tone quality other players could only dream about, it was that good. And it was just there. It was his sound. Combined with his unhurried approach to rhythm, the overall effect was stunning: Every note in its place, beautifully expressed.
He was very young, 11 or 12 years old, not yet a teenager, and we were working on the Brazileira, the third movement of Darius Milhaud’s Scaramouche. I had picked up the idea of placing oneself in a scene before performing from Angela Hawaleshka; the goal being to generate images that would help convey the spirit of the music.
“So,” I asked Robert.
“What’s going on here? What does this first run remind you of?”
Robert replied: “A peacock opening its feathers.”
Youppi! My teaching cup runneth over. I had a serious case of Freudenfreude for the rest of the week. And my colleagues were well-impressed when I relayed the anecdote at quartet practice.
ANDREA was a sponge for complexity. We covered a lot of repertoire, including the Denisov Sonate. Fresh off of completing my Masters, I found this piece a bit intimidating. Andrea—still in high school—approached it with an open mind and a fearless attitude.
She could always be counted on to deliver. Once we were doing a little live TV spot for Global Television. Before the performance I was excited and flustered. Andrea’s behaviour contrasted sharply with my own. She was unflappable. Exuding an intriguing blend of modesty and confidence, she kept everyone around her calm. Her competency gave me the the space to focus on my own performance.
So it was no surprise when I learned years later that she had saved a man’s life. Picture it: A busy restaurant, a patron in distress. Who had the presence of mind to cut through the chaos, employing her medical training and the on-site defibrillator? The stakes couldn’t have be higher, and Andrea gave a life-saving performance!
Once we were discussing articulation, those notes that are marked both tenuto and staccato. Are tenuto and staccato possible at the same time? What to make of this mismatch? Andrea had the answer—it was like an insect landing on a leaf and then springing back into the air.
And then there was DARREN. We were playing duets at a little event celebrating culture days at a local community centre. The audience was…pretty much non-existent. But the experience was unforgettable. Darren followed my phrasing so expertly, with such nuance and sensitivity, that I almost passed out. Recognition did come in the form of some claps from a passing janitor who was pushing a dolly down the hallway. Hey—I’ll take it!
Darren’s commitment to excellence encouraged me to up my game. Every single week for years, I thought about and prepared for his lesson. We started playing at 9:00 am on Saturday mornings and kept at it until lunchtime. After, I was both completely drained and completely renewed. Oh the joys of making music!
As a player, Darren had a wonderful ability to hold the attention of the listener. His dynamic range was massive. He was a master of the minutiae, able to to express the subtlest of details. He had an innate ability to convey the intimacy of second movements. In pieces like the Decruck Sonate (Andante/Noël) or the Creston Sonata (With Tranquility), the pacing and control he demonstrated could make one weep.
But he could also turn-it-on and turn-it-up like the time he set off fireworks with a sparkling Brazileira to a packed house at the local music festival. When the audience gave him a standing ovation and shouts of BRAVO, this teacher was glowing from the inside-out.
Working with JEREMY was the treat of a lifetime. At first, standing across from each other, learning scales using the me-play-you-play method, we probably both wondered: Is this going anywhere? For the first two years I’d say his practice habits were a bit lacklustre, even though I could tell he enjoyed the lesson process.
Then the pilot light began to flare. What happened next was a case study in the adage, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Jeremy took ownership of the process, demonstrating so much initiative that I had to ask him to practise less. And it wasn’t just the callused thumbs. I began to suspect he was suffering from a saxistential crisis and reminded him that even Olympic athletes needed breaks and tapered their training before big events.
Jeremy was a very well-rounded player, and understood how physical training improved stamina. He enjoyed stretching and pushing his own limits through The Notes of Easy Emission (Marcel Josse) exercise. These hard skills allowed for a deeply felt and sincerely presented version of D’Indy’s Choral varié. It was all very Mauricio Fuks: The acquired technique allowed him to convey great emotion. And he was no slouch. When offered a choice between two pieces, he would often select the more challenging composition. He put in the time and effort to make Koechlin’s Étude No. 8 (all accidentals, no key signatures) sparkle and flow.
Mature beyond his years, I watched Jeremy accept personal responsibility and become the master of his own success. Whether it was winning the first chair in jazz band at school or scoring what must have been the highest mark in Canada that year for his RCM level 8 saxophone exam, he was a teenager possessed in the best possible way. He had the passion. He had the work ethic.
I’m Nothing Without You
Teachers need teachers. Who better than the person standing to your left, holding a saxophone? Salutations and congratulations to Robert, Andrea, Darren, Jeremy and all the other old souls I’ve had the pleasure of teaching. Today on October 5th, 2023 for UNESCO World Teachers’ Day I salute YOU for sharing your insight, ideas and enthusiasm. It’s the vital interplay between student and teacher that allows both to advance and improve. Learning to see through your eyes has been one of my greatest pleasures. I’m so glad we had the chance to grow together!