In which I Introduce the Love of My Life

In school, I clearly should have paid more attention in math class. Someone commented on my last post about the 800 cello lessons I had taught. Since I actually wrote the number 8000, am a stickler for detail, and, indeed, pride myself on not making these sorts of mistakes- except in math it turns out…oh pride…and falls…keep reading…

So, let’s start over, class. Feel free to check the [retired] teacher’s work. Please! You may use your calculators-you’ll need them…

The fewest cello students I ever taught, in any one year, was 5. I clearly recall the meticulous detail in a note to myself, written as I nervously prepare to teach my very first lesson ever, in the fall of 1977:
“1) Show Donald the bow and talk about how to hold it. Have him make his fingers into bunny ears or other animal-Donald chooses!”
(I don’t remember which one he decided on.)

That first year, 5 lessons a week for a thirty-six week teaching year would be…um…wait for this, 180. 180 lessons private lessons taught.

I had not really planned to be a music teacher. I wanted to play in an orchestra. I fell in love with the cello early, at age 6. I am taken to a Toronto Symphony Young People’s Concert at Toronto’s iconic Massey Hall where a friend of the family, a cellist, is on stage, playing in the orchestra.
Inexplicably, I am utterly smitten with the cello. From then on, whenever I am asked the tired old question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, I tell people that I am going to play the cello like my Uncle Vaughan. My parents, older, bridge playing heavy drinkers with no background or interest in classical music, pay no attention. Even “Uncle” Vaughan, to whom I am not close, is not really interested.

However, the Toronto public school system has an amazingly comprehensive strings program. At the end of grade four, age 10, I am invited by the school principal to join the violin orchestra. True to my instrument already, even though I have never even touched a cello, I refuse outright, haughtily telling the principal: “No thank you. I’d rather play the cello”. Since students are allowed to begin in the strings program only in grade five, it is this year or never. Cello, less commonly chosen, is offered only every other year, and it is the wrong year. My parents are annoyed with me. It is prestigious to be asked and they are avid lovers of a bargain, if not of classical music. They see the chance both to get a deal, and to satisfy my inexplicable, irritating, “hoity toity” obsession with the cello at no cost to themselves. The school will supply an instrument, weekly group lessons, and even an in-school string orchestra. All free, until the end of high school. My mother actually makes an effort on my behalf and speaks to the principal. It is the fall of 1959. I am now a cello player.

In 1968, when I choose music as my major in university, my mother says, “I blame John McDougall”, who is my beloved high school music teacher. She is serious. My parents push strongly for me to quit school after grade ten and become a secretary. They never come to a single one of the several concerts a year that I organize and lead for my students. When I become pregnant with my third child, my father says, “I hope you are planning to forget this cello teaching nonsense and stay at home where you belong”. It is 1981, and I am in my fourth year of cello teaching, with 27 private students. They never come around. In 1996, I play the Faure ‘Elegie’ at my mother’s funeral. My father squirms and “wishes the hell I’d shut up”, sotto voce to my two children sitting with him. Aged 25 and 15, both accomplished violinists, they are horrified.

The cello has been my solace, my livelihood, and my synchronistic entree, one way or another, into every major relationship and event of my life.

However, this post is about my math skills, or lack thereof. In year two, 12 students a week come through my door in my own fledgling program. As well, that same year I am asked, by a Suzuki School in a neighbouring city, to teach 10 beginners. Suzuki cello is in its infancy in North America. We do not yet have published books of the standardized repertoire for cello instruction, just mimeographed copies, passed from teacher to teacher. (Remember those? We would inhale the smell of those still damp sheets in school, presumably killing off many brain cells…aha! This must explain the math issue!) Actual published Suzuki cello books appear one at time, at such a glacial pace that my own son (who I teach myself for ten years) is always a book or two beyond the latest published volume.

Year three: I am thrilled-22 students at home that September! I ask for a year’s commitment at a time, and this becomes a permanent policy. I give up the second school to concentrate on my own program, which includes violin as well, taught by my best friend. We now have a growing ‘school’.

As the years pass, my studio seldom numbers fewer than 20. Some years I am well over 30, and one year I have a bumper crop of 42!

It is a demanding job, physically and emotionally, and the hours are peculiar. Not a morning person, I teach as early as 7:00 AM and as late as 9:00 PM, Monday to Friday. After school and early evening times are in highest demand, plus a couple of lunch hours each week. Parents do pull some children out of class for their weekly private lesson, but more recently this largely stops as parenting mores change. Group classes on Saturday mornings take a chunk from every weekend, September through June. I work for thirty seven years when nearly everyone else is off. That part does become very old…..Where was I?

Oh yeah, math! So, it seems that, based on an approximate average of twenty-five lessons a year, with the average teaching year thirty-three weeks long….excuse me, getting a calculator…….

25 students a week for 33 weeks is 825 lessons a year. Multiply this by 37 years…..
Wait for it…30,525 lessons.
Thirty thousand, five hundred twenty-five.
30,525 give or take.

Thirty. Thousand. Lessons.

Really?!?
This time I have checked the math, again and again. Truly, I have never thought about this before. I guess I was too busy teaching.

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6 thoughts on “In which I Introduce the Love of My Life

  1. Hey Jo-Anne! You still sound like you-even after 50 years!
    I can’t imagine how you suffered with your parents. Of course I was sort of intrigued by them. Your mother smoked!! And they played cards which was thought of as evil in both my parents’ homes. And your mom was direct. You sure knew where she really stood about things unlike mine that lived up in a religious stratosphere somewhere! We had such opposite family problems. Unless I played like Heifetz they weren’t interested in any concert I was in. Even when I was given money to buy my first violin I was told that God told someone to give it to me for that purpose. I can still feel the hate that rushed through me. How I wished it could have been just an ordinary gift! How do you practice and perform with people telling you that God was making those decisions about you rather than your parents?

    I can’t imagine how you taught so many kids for so many years. Do you play with a group now at all? You probably never had any time for that while you were teaching!

    Thirty thousand lessons. Give or take. Precisely. Giving and taking. You must have done both well.

    • wow. I always thought your parents were so….kind. They never yelled at each other or at you! Perspective…. It is great to be in touch. Do I really sound like myself? I spent about three days working on that post, polishing it, LOL It must be the practising thing… As for the length of time I taught-I think it was partly to prove to them that I was NOT “selfish, self-centred and irresponsible” which was my mother’s favourite criticism.

      • Are you still planning on going away for a “North American tour”?
        My parents were kind but didn’t really care much about us. What parents, when they see their teenage daughters (not me, just my two younger sisters) hanging out with a gang of about 15 or so other teenagers-smoking, drinking, skipping school, having sex, wasting time, what parents offer the whole gang the use of their home basement and backyard and then set up a prayer meeting in the living room once a week to bring god into the situation? They even let the gang keep their own coffee mugs in the kitchen cupboard. I was too old for a gang and wasn’t a part of this one, but for three years there they were always in and around the house and garden, playing loud music, smoking and occupying my sisters’ lives. What about me? What of the privacy of Home? My younger brother was about two and my younger sister was around four I think. They were totally ignored but also mesmerized by the gang. I was trying to prepare for various violin related things and there were these constantly demanding gang kids in the house all the time. Never mind the prayer meetings. Speaking in tongues. Laying on of hands. Baptisms in salad bowls. Healing sessions for some of the kids and lots of talk about demons and evil spirits. My sisters and my needs were totally neglected and no one knew what we were about. I was so caught up in the fiery spiritual adventures going on weekly, that I couldn’t focus on anything down to earth. What was my life compared to these fabulous and important people?
        Oh yes, my parents were very kind.
        From another perspective I can jump up and down and remember how thrilling and adventurous it was. A playwright and theatre director, a United Church minister, the head of a Muskoka girl’s camp, a nurse, a neurosurgeon, two well-known Canadian poets, a concert pianist, a stain-glass artist (of many of Toronto’s church windows) and so many more, all sitting on our tattered living room couch, chairs, and on the floor and under the grand piano…Tuesday evenings it was and well into the later night. My father when he was young was forbidden to play with the local children and heaven only knows what my mother did aside from take ballet classes and go to school, so maybe they were making up for lost time! That’s when you and I used to babysit for the McDougalls and I’d often come home to all that. I remember the shock of the collision of the two worlds. And do you remember Nora Wales? She was a friend of mine who was taking art at Lawrence not music, and who came to a number of those meetings. She finally got hooked and started seeing visions and doing healing sessions with various people. She heard god talk to her…I lost her friendship. She was more important in my home and to my parents than I was. You may not have known about all this Jo-Anne!! One Tuesday, one of the deeply spiritual women came with a message from god. It was a list of people who were never going to die and I was on it. I think I began a kind of slide into a sort of mental illness which really undid all the efforts I was making to try to learn how to practice violin and to fit in to the lifestyle of the other musicians I met at the faculty. I kept “disappearing” when I played. I do remember sitting in the living room, playing our family recordings of Elgar’s Enigma Variations and crying over Nimrod and then playing Dvorak’s cello concerto with Rostropovitch. Oh that second movement. That’s all there was-that music, those high desperate longings, god, my evil, the boy I loved, and the violin.
        Well!!! I haven’t thought about this stuff for years. So you see how selfish I am with your blog!!

  2. Hi Joan, I admire your honesty here. I am going to reply by email as it feels more private. So check it! I did also I think message you on Facebook as well so now we are “talking” by email, blog comments, and Facebook and it gets confusing as well. Let’s settle on email, or at least we can discuss it by email.

  3. I enjoyed reading that and Joan’s response! Jo-Ann, your experience reminds me a little of my husband’s. The first concert his father ever heard him play in was when he was in second year at UVic’s School of Music. I was there and was horrified when his dad pulled out his transistor radio, plugged in his earphones and listened to ‘the game’ instead. (His mother was probably muttering under her breath about this ‘university nonsense’. 🙂

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