I remember the first struggle was getting to the same level as the keyboard. I’d have to be lifted and adjusted accordingly with the middle C, my toes naturally gravitating towards the pedals, angled downward with heels halfway to the floor. A shag carpet on the split level of a bungalow that shared the intersection of Prairie Ave and Main St with Geiger’s Garage, The Kennedy Friendship Centre, and The local rink. Barbara Bruce would drive into town from her farm by neighbouring Langbank to have me colour; crayons as important to my lessons as the keyboard itself. Being able to identify the ebony from the ivory, my first alphabet consisted of only seven letters. I recall how foreign the letter ‘H’ was two years later attending preschool. Mrs. Bruce would place each of my fingertips to their own key to begin the motor development skills required for the instrument. Thumb, pointer, middle, ring, pinky. C, D, E, F, G. Confused why I wouldn’t start on ‘A’, precision would be rewarded with a sticker in the corner of the page where I just filled in the corresponding notes with a red Crayola. My first recital was a more formal replication, lifted to the piano bench by Bruce after giving her a single rose. For what was to become a long line of guides, Mrs. Bruce was the first.
In the years to follow I’d be dismissed at lunch once a week to walk across the playground, through the ball diamonds and share my lunch with Bruce at the Langbank United Church while we worked The Bastien Piano Basics series, colour coded from pink to purple, blue and green, four books to each level – Piano, Performance, Theory and Technique. The latter levels beginning a split responsibility with school work. As Bruce doubled as a substitute teacher, there would be weeks where my workload was solely her doing – and I was grateful. Time she spent in the classroom was valued by all classmates and I had years of the relationship with her on any of them. She read out-loud to us in voices, displayed an enthusiasm to the chalkboard and was animated in our engagement. Her duties to discipline displayed her humorous character more than anything, quick sharp sounds with a perked neck, never once raising her voice, using aged aphorisms that defined her in those settings: ‘Don’t dilly-dally and shilly-sally’. The following week, I’d have her back introducing triads.
My advancements led to the discussions of training through the Royal Conservatory, a much more regiment approach with system benefits, high school and university credits. And my weekly hang with Mrs. Bruce was replaced with a weekly instruction by Jeanette Cross, an initiation into musical discipline. Natural abilities that breezed me through Bruce’s requirements didn’t have feet with Cross, I learned the embarrassment of being underprepared and the demands of someone else’s time. Lessons at 11 am, in the gymnasium storage room – cold, amid stacked chairs for student assembly, tumbling matts, and an old gym horse bench. She had aided hearing, a rounded speech that accompanied and an electric heater that didn’t have enough output to limber my fingers. I would stumble through Hässler, Haydn, and Hook, my eighteenth century understudy and German arch-rivals (Understudy, a word too exaggerated for the dedication I committed, the bare minimum efforts to slowly progress.) However, outside of my frustrations for Cross’ desires of me, at nine years old, I would openly refer to her as my friend. A loyalty while privately cursing her demands.
I was never lazy, but in my preadolescence I developed a distain for structured teaching which resulted in haste. Assignments completed in a half-assed manner and a dire boredom to the majority of the curriculum. Art class held my attention, but any opportunity to be granted dismissal and I would find a way of manipulating my way into it – this mainly consisted of multiple bathroom breaks in an afternoon – a slow walk to and from, stretching out the better part of five minutes.
Following a noon-hour recess we returned to a homeroom filled with numerous vinyl covered wooden cases bearing woodwinds and brass. An attractive twenty-something with short blonde hair introduced herself as Ms. Becker encouraging us to make our way through the room, to pick up the instruments, get a feel. I gravitated towards the saxophone, its representation of what I understood as ‘cool’. Becker gave me a more personal introduction as she wound up and down the desks, said the instrument looked good on me and clarified it as an alto. Photocopies expanding the Broadview School Division Band Program were handed out to be discussed with parents, half-hour lessons once a week. Come Grade Seven, an introduction to a larger ensemble – The Division Band, junior and senior – an amalgamation with neighbouring schools; Kipling, Corning, Broadview, and Whitewood. Above all else, another weekly dismissal from class.
I liked my teachers. A sense of charm mixed with decent grades wrote me into their good books and allowed for their time to be focused on students that benefited more from the attention. However, not receiving the heed I desired, I would net it quickly – mainly through distracting classmates that were prone to diversion. Self-serving. I didn’t dislike my teachers, I disliked the process. However, as fall semesters began, more commonalities presented themselves creating special bonds that transcended their academic duties.
It was ironically my Physics/Algebra teacher with whom I connected over words. Howard Baker’s stern, take-no-shit approach to education was rooted in his passion for Thought Process – when he would goad one to ‘think it through’, the only option was to think it through. These bearings were greased through puzzles, the first ten minutes of his classes. It was Baker’s introduction of the Cryptic Crossword that sparked my love of word manipulation: A crossword puzzle in which each clue is a word puzzle in and of itself. The clue at its surface, a distraction and literally no relation to its answer but through wordplay and a series of approaches, a result to fit perfectly within the crossword grid. To me, this was magic. I awaited physics for the opportunity to have Baker guide me through words. His introduction to double-definition, containers, charades, hidden words, reversals, homophones and beyond.
Clue: very exciting, filthy habit (4-6) – the latter numbers indicating two words, first being four letters and second being six. Double-definition approach. Easy.
Clue: contented and very quiet, cutting hay (5) – more difficult. Inclusion of the word ‘cutting’ would hint to actually cut the clue up leading one to approach the riddle with the “container” method, a word within a word – in this case it’s obvious (to me) to cut the word ‘hay’. My musical background would force ‘very quiet’ to stand out as pp (pianissimo). Cut ‘hay’ up, insert ‘pp’. ha-pp-y. Happy. Another word for ‘contented’. Zing.
And so on and so forth.
I connected to Baker through wordplay.
I connected to Ms. Becker through The Tragically Hip.
I learned very quickly that the easiest way to gain credibility in a dog-eat-dog high-school social structure was to dig The Hip. Jenna Trail wore a tour shirt under overalls from the Trouble in the Henhouse release. Nathan Guilloux pounded Road Apples from his truck stereo and Buck Varjassy gave me a nod of approval, he pulled me beer and Live Between Us greeted him as my car trunk popped. For as strategic, it was organic. The Tragically Hip were as epic as their name indicated and as raw as the t-bone in a bawling heifer. The Hip had a formula of how to get their fans young and transform them into a league of credible listeners, demanders, devoutees. One’s first Hip concert was a Canadian rite of passage. I killed two birds, my first concert being the eccentric band. They swung, it was all groove, tension and release like Robbie Baker’s long locks in sync with Johnny Fay’s high hat. Fay was crack cocaine for a young listener, he’d snare you like a hare and in perfect execution Baker would axe you over the head. Gord Sinclair and Paul Langlois trading duties to vocally support their frantic frontman. One that was fearlessly local. Unapologetically artistic. Ruthlessly aberrant. Unprocessed. One that contributed as much to the fabric of a nation as he was inspired by, crafted from. Gordon Downie, was the great emancipator. As you would listen to the Spirit tear through him, you would release your own inhibitions – seeing him was a whole new level of liberation. Yet for as loud a soul as Downie displayed, each member was of equally importance.
The 1983-84 Edmonton Oilers, the 1992-93 Blue Jays, the 1998 Tragically Hip.
Gord Sinclair, Gordon Downie, Johnny Fay, Robbie Baker, Paul Langlois
From my side-stage seats at The Regina Agridome having skipped an afternoon of class, I watched Downie bleed on stage – and amidst six-thousand others, I caught the eye of Becker. She was now Mrs. Kaminski, married and six years my saxophone teacher. A weekly instruction, recitals, rehearsals and tours and only until now I discover this tie. But of course, she was among the legion that built this house. They would have had pre-drinks in some town-house on the east-side of Saskatoon, ripped down to ‘The Scuz’ on Central for a pitcher of Molson Canadian and off to Louis’ at the University to watch Gord and the boys release Up To Here. Before taking her first teaching job, she probably had her convocation and planned to hit up three of the nine Another Roadside Attraction dates in the Festival’s inaugural year – an epic roadtrip up to Edmonton, down to the Speedway in Calgary and finally the stadium show in Winnipeg. She would have eagerly anticipated their Saturday Night Live appearance in ’95 – Dan Aykroyd beaming like a father watching his son drafted by The Maple Leafs. A young Becker knowing – this shit is gonna blow up.
And me, a first-timer.
A moment that annihilated an age gap and solidified a reverence. My band teacher and I.
We might as well of slit our hands and shook.