This is the sound that changed my life. Tonight I want to tell you about the man behind that piano, his life, his impact on my life and his legacy.
John was born in Syracuse, New York in 1949. Although he has been playing the piano since age 5 he did not start formal training until he was 11. His natural talent was evident as by the time he was 14, after only three years of training, he was offered his first professional gig. Since that time he has held countless jobs as Church Organist, Choir Director, Accompanist and Teacher. John continued his musical training through university and during his stay in the United States Air Force.
During this time one could say that John’s talent may well have saved his life as his stay in the Air Force coincided with the Vietnam War. While countless young men were being sent overseas the Officers decided that John could be put to better use at home as a member of the Air Force band. They also hired him to teach piano lessons to their children.
In 1975, after the Vietnam War ended, John moved to Canada and toured through nights clubs in Niagara and Western New York with his band called “Sun.” I think he always wanted to be a rock star but deep down he knew that he was destined to teach and share his love of music with the masses. Consequently he took a job teaching piano and theory at the Ontario Conservatory of Music in 1977. Eventually he decided to open his own music school in 1993.
This is when John came into my life. I had been taking piano lessons for a couple of years, but my parents and I were unhappy with my progress and had begun looking for a new teacher. My parents had heard John play many times at local restaurants and when they found out that he had opened his own school they knew that he should be my new teacher. John agreed to take me on as one of his first students and herein began a lifelong relationship built on immense respect and a never-ending love of music.
John once told me that when he first met me he was immediately reminded of himself. His exact words were “I saw myself. I knew that you were born to do this and I knew that there was greatness in you.” It is for that reason that John not only changed my life but changed who I was to become. He didn’t teach me to be a piano player; he taught me to be a musician.
I’m 8 years old and I have enrolled in a national music competition. My plan is to compete only on the piano but John has other ideas. He talks me into joining a band that he has put together but what I don’t know is that he doesn’t want me to play the piano. He wants me to sing…and there’s a catch. All band members must compete in one solo category for whatever instrument they play in the band. We pick a song and start practicing and I quickly decide that I don’t like this singing thing. I argue and I cry and I try to quit but John never gives up. He sees something that not even I can see. My parents try to talk him out of it but he asks to be trusted…he tells them that I am more than just a pianist. Weeks later we compete and we win and furthermore, I see what John sees. I am more than just the girl at the piano. I want to learn more.
This is the first lesson that John taught me. I learned what it meant to be a musician…that a musician should always strive to be better and to learn more. From that point on John made everything accessible to me…any instrument that I wanted to learn, every song that I wanted to play or sing. Even though he was my piano teacher he wasn’t bothered by the fact that I was more interested in singing than in the piano. He just offered himself up to be my accompanist.
It was at this point that there was a clear shift in my relationship with John. I heard him tell someone once that he was honoured to be able to perform with me so often. Can you believe that? I was no one…just a kid and yet he was honoured to work with me. He didn’t think of me as just his student or some kid…we were equals in his mind. It was from this shift that I learned the next lesson: professionalism and respect.
John taught me that the most important thing that you can do as a performer is learn as much as you can because the more you understand, the more you can appreciate and if you don’t appreciate something you can’t respect it. He feels that you should respect all music and all people involved in music in any manner, but more importantly you should respect your audience and above all else you should respect yourself. You do this by being professional, by being prepared. I learned this lesson the hard way.
I am twelve years old and am once again preparing for the annual national music competition that I have attended since I was 8. This year, I have signed up to do a duet with my band mate Amanda but the competition date is quickly approaching and we still haven’t even picked a song. My parents are concerned and speak to John about my being unprepared but instead of speaking to me and telling me to get going, he looks at my parents and tells them to ‘let me crash and burn.’ Those are his exact words. He knows that you can’t force a twelve year old to practice but he also knows that I’m not like most twelve year olds. He’s right. Amanda and I drop out, but our names have already been printed in the program. John and I have become quite well-known at this competition and everyone asks me why I’m not singing even though my name is printed. I have no choice but to tell them the truth and I am mortified.
That was the first and last time that I ever went to a performance unprepared. As always, John knew exactly what needed to happen for me to learn the lessons that really matter. He had already instilled such a level of professionalism in me that he knew I would only show that level of disrespect once in my life and he knew that I would only truly understand his point if I experienced it.
From that point on I was always prepared, perhaps to the point of perfectionism and John came to expect perfection from me…at least I thought he did. But once again, he proved the wiser.
John invited me to sing at his church as he had done many times before. I always accept. I could never say no to him…he has bent over backwards to fit my schedule time and time again. I performed last night and for the first time ever John sat on the sidelines and watched me accompany myself. It went perfectly. I am about to do the same song again this morning and I’m confident after last night. Everything is moving along just fine when all of a sudden I completely forget the piano part. I have no idea what the next note is. I try to keep going, but I can’t. Suddenly my mom appears and puts the music down in front of me and I pick up where I left off and finish the song. As soon as it’s over I sit down in the pew and burst into tears… I have no idea what happened…I was ready.
After the service, a member of the congregation went up to John and asked him how he felt sitting there watching his student go through that. This man who had taught me so much and who I thought would be so angry with me looked that person in the eye and said “well, now we know she’s not God.” He had come to expect perfection because I had delivered it so many times in the past but he did not require it. He required preparedness but preparedness didn’t guarantee perfection. I was in his church, in front of his colleagues and I screwed up…he could have been disappointed but instead he taught me the single most important thing he could ever teach me: grace and humility.
He leads by example. He is the picture of all that I have just mentioned; he is a true musician, a consummate professional and he embodies grace and humility. He didn’t just teach me these things. This is what he teaches all of his students. He doesn’t care if you are the greatest pianist in the world. He just wants more people to love music and while he’s teaching you that he’ll make you a better person if you let him.
Sadly, John was diagnosed with cancer in January of 2006 and passed away on July 14th of that year. As I said (wrote) yesterday, I still miss him and wish he was here to offer some guidance.
John was one of the truly great people on this earth and he was the most talented and skilled musician that I have ever met. Though his life ended much too soon, he taught me more than I ever thought one person could. The person may be gone but the music will always live on in the hearts of his thousands of students and his own foresight to record a CD that will be with us forever. I will always have the sound that changed my life.
~if you didn’t click on the links above, I suggest…nay, insist…that you do it now. Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag and Debussy’s Clair de Lune. You’re welcome.~