Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Inspirations #3

When I was preparing to go into high school in 1981 I had the choice of several optional courses that I could study in addition to the mainstream.  Given my pleasant experiences in grade school music classes and the fact that I was taking piano lessons, it seemed a natural thing to continue in that subject.  When I first stepped into the huge music room on the school's third floor and was greeted by a short woman with a round face and a friendly smile, I knew I had done the best thing.

Brenda Walsh was just 25 years old and fresh out of teacher training after being schooled in music at both McGill and Concordia universities.  Her instrumental specialties were flute and piano.  Teaching the music classes was like jumping into the deep end for her; she had taken over the position left by the retiring Ted West who had led the high school's band to provincial competitions.  However she tackled the challenge head-on, and soon earned the respect of all the students in the program with her diligence and kindness.

She quickly recognized my musical talent on both the piano and clarinet (my instrument of choice), and once I felt comfortable with performing in the junior band she allowed me to practice with the senior band as well.  This broadened my musical scope and exposed me to more difficult pieces, and I flourished under her direction.  Every concert the band played was an uplifting experience.

When I reached Grade Ten I was shocked to discover that Brenda had been replaced; apparently her lack of tenure meant that she had to accept a transfer to whichever school had an opening.  The class felt her absence keenly but I and several others remained in touch with her.  At the first opportunity I resumed my piano lessons under her tutelage; I still remember that in the entrance to her apartment she had hung the first baton that she had used to conduct the band at my high school.  I studied piano with her for several years before heavy schoolwork and personal problems obliged me to quit in 1987.

Thereafter I occasionally telephoned and wrote letters to her, and she was pleased that I chose to continue my musical education through university.  I even invited her to my wedding in 1994 but unfortunately she couldn't attend because she was going on holiday at the time.  Not long afterward I heard through a mutual friend that she had been diagnosed with a fast-spreading type of breast cancer and had only a few months to live.  Work obligations prevented me from attending a party in her honour, and I forever regretted not being able to see her once more.  She died far too young in 1995; I went to her funeral.

I think most people can say they had one or two teachers who inspired them and encouraged them to follow their own path.  Brenda Walsh was one such: always smiling and willing to nurture talent.

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