Mendelssohn and Mr. Whitten: How I Became a Musician

Today, I want to give some background about me, and how I landed in a music career. In so doing, I’m also answering the first question I put to all of my doctoral research participants. I asked 54 St. John’s musicians who regularly earn income from performance to describe their earliest memories of having music in their lives, and to trace those recollections up to the time when they began to think seriously about pursuing a career in music. I'll get to their responses to that and all of my questions in a future post soon. For now, I just want to give you some context as to my place in the research. If you’re a working musician, I invite you to share your story of your earliest memories of music and how these shaped you as a musician and as a person. If you’re not a career musician but took/take music lessons, share your experiences in learning to sing or play an instrument.

Between my sisters, Dad, and my earliest memories, I’m able to patch together a story that goes like this. I was two years old when my oldest sister started taking piano lessons at age seven. Money was tight. We were three very young kids, and Dad was not yet 30 burning the candle at both ends as a young accountant. He bought a used Mendelssohn piano from a blind piano tuner in Topsail for about $200. To us it was luxurious. My earliest memory is of piano music coming from the dining room when my sisters were practicing, or when my grandfather dropped over and played folk songs. He could never have afforded lessons and couldn’t read music, but could he ever play. Mom tells me to this day that years before taking lessons, I went to the piano whenever it was free to try and make sense of it...which I’m still trying to do.

By the time I was eight, my oldest sister stopped taking lessons, and mine began. The $200 used Mendelssohn was soon traded in for a new $600 Baldwin (1970s prices). My love for piano in those earliest days runs so deep, I remember every single detail. I remember the piano was dark brown, and there was a crack in the drywall next to it. I remember my piano teacher Clarence Whitten’s house, about the same size as ours, and his piano – also a low upright like ours – tucked in a corner of his living room. And that’s where he taught me. My lessons were around Mr. Whitten’s suppertime, so there was always a smell of fresh cooked food, and Mrs. Whitten clattering dishes in the kitchen a few feet away. There was a student before me, so my parents would drop me off a few minutes early and I’d sit on the green sofa right behind the piano bench and watch the end of the preceding lesson. 

No one made me take lessons or had to remind me to practise. I just did, and I loved it. Mr. Whitten was incredibly engaged in our lessons. He sat on the piano bench with me, demonstrating, or making up an accompaniment as I played. I remember all of his knuckles swollen with arthritis, but it didn’t seem to slow him down. He was a great player and an amazing teacher. Lessons were fun, and I left every Tuesday night feeling accomplishment and that this all had a purpose. Years later, Dad told me Mr. Whitten wasn’t a career musician. Teaching piano was something he did at night and on weekends for a little extra cash. His “real” job was as a bookkeeper for Browning Harvey, a bottling company in St. John’s.

When I was 14, our family moved to another neighbourhood only about 15 minutes away, but it meant a new piano teacher. I wished I could have stayed with Mr. Whitten, but I remember him telling my parents that he had taught me as much as he could. My new teacher, Andreas Barban, had a wide reputation as an accomplished private piano teacher, performer and recording artist. Unlike Mr. Whitten, he was a full-time musician and educator. You had to audition to be taught by him. So this was my first taste having to prove my worth as a musician. The next week I was in his studio, a far more serious environment than I was used to. He rarely smiled at me, and I don’t have any clear memory of him telling me that I played well. He was never mean. He wasn’t unpleasant. At times he was sort of funny, usually in a mildly sarcastic way that would sometimes go over the head of this teenager. But encouragement just wasn’t a thing. So the message, as I interpreted it, was that my time as a pianist had an expiry date. About a year after entering university, I stopped taking lessons. Years later, Mom told me that he phoned her quite upset that I was quitting. I wish he told me that.

Mr. Whitten was a part-time piano teacher who seemed to utterly thrive on that work. Playing along with me, laughing, making me a part of his home life. Everything was so inviting and memorable: the green sofa, the shag carpeting, the sounds and smells of his supper cooking. It’s speculative, but I can imagine that his piano teacher life was a welcome, enjoyable release from his day job. I felt a closeness to him and his work. He loved to teach and I loved being taught. After my audition, I never again saw the upstairs of Dr. Barban’s house. Our lessons were in his basement studio, darkly furnished, dimly lit, cluttered with an old record player, walls of records, books and music scores, and his window sills filled with plants that seemed to block most of what little natural light could peak through. His waiting area was a tiny space outside the closed door of his studio, with a couple of hard chairs and file cabinets. I progressed as a pianist with him. He was a fantastic musician. But there was distance and separation in our work together that left me uninspired.

I wasn’t a great university student when I was starting out. That's an understatement. Sparing you the ugly details, let’s just say that I took a very circuitous route to my eventual Bachelor of Commerce degree. Even though my grades weren’t great, and it wasn’t music, I did enjoy the social networking part. I made a bunch of new friends, and the program included three employment semesters where students were left to our own devices to land a job in a professional commerce environment. So there I was in my early 20s working for big accounting firms. I was comfortable socializing with people far more experienced and older than I was, and settled into the idea that accounting would be my career. But seven years after graduation of bouncing around from one employer to another didn’t exactly motivate me to do this for the rest of my life. But I felt I gained some important non-musical skills to help me take a shot at a music career. One conversation with my wife was all I needed to go to Memorial University’s School of Music, line up an audition, and see where that would get me. The last time I auditioned was 18 years earlier for Dr. Barban. At 32, even with no musician friends and no professional musicians in my family, it felt much more purposeful this time for some reason I can't explain. 

Six weeks later, I was accepted, quit my accounting job, and went on to earn my Masters degree, taught by the amazing Kristina Szutor. Along the way, I was picking up private students, adopting a teaching style that was shaped by my previous work experiences and, I believe, by Mr. Whitten. Alongside teaching, I recorded a few albums, performed, got lots of work accompanying choirs and MUN music students, and was working in my living room at my piano, where I belong. I wonder if my parents saw this coming when they bought the Mendelssohn and introduced me to music through an unassuming, kindly bookeeper who taught piano on the side. 

My next post will be about how and why I ended up doing a Ph.D. in sociology studying the work and lives of St. John’s musicians. Here’s a hint. It’s ultimately the result of an unexpected conversation I had with a piano student of mine and his father. I'll share that with you next time. Following that, I will tell you about a few recent conversations I have had with other musician friends and colleagues. That will be my way of introducing you to some of the key themes in my study. I hope you check back in again soon.

Thanks for stopping by.