D18 – Musical Inclinations

Dear J-

As if to mock the non-artistic me, I picked out “musical inclinations” as today’s topic. I happen to like music quite a bit — thanks to the piano lessons and the Royal Conservatory of Music, I have a very good grasp on music theory — but it’s questionable if the artistic side translated at all. Story of my life: learn how it works, take the mystery out of it, and thus beat it to smithereens.

My first piano teacher was a nice ex-university student named Wendy. We ran her ragged to the point where she and her husband, Sonny, fled back to Hong Kong within a year or two of us starting up lessons. I remember not having much inclination to learn, well, anything at that point, while she drilled us in scales, keys (the major key uses the same notes as the minor key a diminished third away — so the scale of C-major, C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C is related to chromatic A-minor, A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A — see, something sticks), and Italian terms (forte, vivace, andante, cantabile, allegro, pianissimo; no wonder I’ve got an untold love for the Alfa 75). Actually, I think it was because Sonny got a job out there; years afterwards, I’d see Bruce Lee publicity shots, with his half-fade aviator sunglasses and think immediately of Sonny.

Our next piano teacher made learning easy, but seemed to rely on a very simplified method — she’d number the keys using masking tape and rather than marking notes, would teach us songs by numbers (“London Bridge” would devolve to 5-6-5-4-3-4-5, 2-3-4, 3-4-5). She didn’t last long.

Ghosty Swing

I went to our last piano teacher for ten years. She was a retired professor, and one who’d actually taught Wendy — F. Gwendoline Harper. She was formidable; someone who, despite appearances, was tough as nails and made us better pianists for it. Yes, she would forget she had a pen in her hand when grabbing our arm to correct a egregiously bad habit, leaving marks on sleeves and flesh. Yes, she drove her Karmann Ghia like old people stereotypically do, on top of the dash and leaning forward by the second. She lived at home alone with her cats (close enough for us to bicycle to), until she broke her hip and moved into a home.

That was where I first learned to question directions (“Yes, the dinner — stick it in the oven to keep it warm” doesn’t mean put it, plastic tray and all, and turn the heat up to 400), where I learned to enjoy art for art’s sake (not just ’cause I was S’POSEDto), where the practice (or lack thereof) was mercilessly exposed week after week, where I actually learned some measure of self-discipline. It’s incredible, some of the things you learn when you’re not looking for them.



4 Responses to “D18 – Musical Inclinations”

  1. Eric Says:

    I am trying to learn more about F. Gwendoline Harper. I was poking around in a used bookstore a few years ago and, on a whim. actually purchased her Canadian passport from the 1940s that included her picture. That initiated my search for more information on this interesting looking woman.

    It sounds like she was amazing in her field of musical instruction. I understand that she taught a number of students, some of whom are now highly acclaimed. Each commented on her tenacity.

    Is you have any additional information regarding her life, please let me know.

    Thank you.

    • Keith Rainsley Says:

      Gwendoline Harper was an Aunt of my girlfriend when I was at University here in the UK. She and I travelled around the US by Greyhound in 1970 and we stayed with Gwendoline in Cheney for10 days in August 1970. I remember being driven in the Kharmann Ghia and I think she drove us out to see the Grand Coulee Dam.

      Could you possibly send me a scan of her passport details.


      Keith Rainsley

  2. dearJ Says:

    I knew her for roughly ten years — at first we rode our bikes over to her house where she kept cats and pianos in the basement both in good tune. We would see her on the freeway occasionally, driving a yellow Karmann Ghia in true little-old-lady style, seat scrunched up next to the steering wheel, but unflappably adept at the clutch-gas-shifter dance nonetheless.

    Later, after she’d broken her hip in a fall, she moved into an assisted-living facility; that’s where I learned the melting point of plastic (she asked me to throw her dinner into the oven to keep it warm) and that style doesn’t have to end with living in a small space. My biggest regret is that I never saw her again after graduating high school — 1992 — and heading off to school.

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