*I was going to use "trepiding" instead of "bouncing" but turns out that's not a word. Odd. I was sure it was. Maybe it's French!*
Anyways... I wanted to post one of the last assignments I had for my 201 (Writing and Reporting class). The assignment was to write a feature story on a teacher. Here it goes:
Brian Powers Smith teaches piano, voice, organ… and life
By Naila Jinnah
It’s a crowded room, full of books and plants and sheet music. It’s a hearty room, though, with a splendid black Grand Piano taking up most of the space, except for one slim corridor of walking room. Or wheeling room, if you’re Brian Powers Smith.
He’s a big man, always has been and always will be. But it’s humbling to see a bubbling man with such a big heart, and a huge voice, bogged down in a wheelchair, with big boot-like braces on both his feet.
He hasn’t always been like this. It’s cliché, but it’s true. In August 2002, Smith was diagnosed with Charcot’s foot, a complication of diabetes that causes nerve damage and leads to weakened foot bones. He had always been active, with never a moment to spare. From singing for L’Opera de Montreal and rehearsing with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, to Sunday mornings directing the church choir, and weekdays, teaching piano and voice in his NDG duplex, Smith was always busy, and that’s the way he likes it.
Now, Brian Powers Smith focuses on teaching music. He is older and only has about 10 students. But in 1960, when he was 20, Smith had close to 100 students, which is far from what his first piano teacher expected. In fact, after taking lessons for five years, Smith was told that he would never amount to anything, music wise. Fortunately, his grandmother, whose piano and love for music first inspired him to take lessons, encouraged him to stick with what he loved.
“When I was fifteen she said, ‘would you like to do music, seriously’”, recalled Smith. The answer was yes. So she bought Smith a new and better piano, a stereo system, and paid for his lessons with a teacher who believed Smith had tremendous potential as a music teacher. He went on to study piano, voice and organ, and how to teach them, earning degrees at both McGill University and the University of Toronto. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Smith’s teaching philosophy is routed in his own experiences. For instance, he would never tell a student that they had no talent.
“I, as a teacher, have no right to do that,” he explained. “They may not have a good ear, they may not have a good rhythm, but you don’t say they don’t have talent, because every student can turn around and all of a sudden pull up their socks and start working, and wow!”
“I feel that every student, whether they are five years old, or they are seventy-five –and I have students who are seventy-five and older – they all have a possibility of [producing] something,” said Smith. “You have to give everyone, young or old, a chance.”
“I’m not God. People think that I think I’m God,” he joked, “but I don’t know.”
This easy-going nature of his created a unique learning environment for Smith’s students.
“He’s the best freaking teacher I’ve ever had,” exclaimed Kristin Radtke, who has been taking piano and organ lessons with Smith for the past ten years.
“You build a personal relationship with him,” she said, explaining how even when she was on a student exchange program in Norway, she and Smith exchanged emails.
Smith has come to depend on some of his older and closer students, especially since “the falling out of the foot.”
Radtke and her family are especially close to Smith, having helped him out when the progressive deterioration of his ankles kept him bedridden for two years, forcing him to quit the Opera because he could no longer stand during performances, and confining him to a wheelchair.
“I was walking on my ankle [bones]. It was extremely painful,” Smith explained.
“My life turned around completely,” he said. “I had to give up my post as organist and go on sick leave for two years.”
“It was very difficult. People used to say to me, ‘how can you stand [not being active]’”, he recalled.
“And I would say, ‘Well, what do you want me to do? If I jump out of my bedroom window, I’ll only go down two storeys and break both legs.’”
“I love life too much to go and get terribly depressed.”
Smith’s love for music is what kept him going, and his passion is what inspires him to teach. “I love directing my choir, I get a great deal of pleasure out of that. That’s why I keep going, because I could retire if I wanted to.”
“I would rather keep going as long as a can so that I can be directing my choir. Because I can always teach, at home, until the day that I die. But I can’t always have a church choir to work with because there are all sorts of politics in churches.”
Smith knows churches very well. He is Anglican, but has played, taught and directed at the Sainte-Anne de Bellevue Union Church since he was a teenager. For him, religion and music are intertwined.
“My religion comes from the music. I can get very emotional over music. Music allows you to have sadness and joy, happiness, anger, all at the same time.”
If it hadn’t been for his personable nature, Church politics might have caused Smith to lose his post as choir director and organist several times. There was his first marriage and divorce in the 1960s, in a time when, according to the minister, “divorces happen to some people.” Smith avoided the problem with his second marriage, which was non-denominational, making the divorce process that much simpler. His next experience, a jump over the fence and out of the closet, went over without a hitch due to the affirming congregation of the United Church of Canada.
“From ’75 to ’87 [when I met my current partner], I didn’t say that much to people, but people knew.”
As far as he knows, Smith has never had any problems with parents, or students, because of his sexuality.
“You make a bond with your students,” he explains. “Most students have a very close bond with their teacher, as well as the teacher with the student.”
“I have to be very careful as a teacher. There are students who are very clingy.”
“A lot of students, they want to be hugged. But we, as teachers, pull back,” he disclosed. It’s not because I’m afraid of what I would do to a student, but [I’m afraid of] what would happen if they said something happened.”
“Most of my students are [very caring]. It’s a relationship you build up over the years.”
Apart from being like a big teddy bear, Radtke believes that Smith’s trust in his students is what sets him apart from other teachers.
“He doesn't have a 'higher-than-thou' attitude,” she explains. “He makes sure his students don't feel like they're simply [a student number], but he knows how to make you feel like he really values you as a student and as a person. And to have all of that coming at you… it's hard not to like him.”
“He takes his students’ strengths and limitations into consideration, and quite obviously cares a lot about them,” declared Radtke.
“I’m with a student a lot longer [than University professors are with theirs],” Smith commented. “People tell you their problems, and that’s part of what has to happen. And if you have to go overtime because of it, you have to go overtime.”
“As I get older, I really want to work with the people that are interesting to work with, not [because] they have great talent,” said Smith, even if he believes that some of the greatest compliments a teacher can get is his students excelling in their exams.
What really warms his heart, though, is when students that he taught a long time ago tell him that they were “very fond” of their lessons with him.
“It’s very tiring to teach,” said Smith, stressing the strain of listening to a constant flow of music that more often than not includes false notes and flat tones. “Because if I teach for four or five hours in a row, by the time [I] finish, I can just go and stretch out in the bed and vegetate, because I need to,” he laughed.
“Teaching, for me, has taught me how much more there is to learn. Because every day you teach – and I’ve been doing it for a long time – something different happens.”
Like today, for example. Mid-way through her lesson, Radtke stops being a student and becomes a friend, helping Smith with his sick cat, Orfé, named after the main character in the opera “Orfé et Euridice”. Orfé treads through the large piles of books, around the Grand Piano, and finally settles in his travelling cage, which Radtke promptly closes. She will be driving Orfé and Smith to the veterinarian. Her lesson is temporarily suspended, but it doesn’t matter.
As it always is with Brian Powers Smith, life goes on.
I got an A. :D
Speaking of grades, here's the final breakdown:
201 (Writing and Reporting) - 6 credits: A
203 (Radio News) - 3 credits: A-
309 (Principles of Editing) - 3 credits: B+
316 (Print Law and Ethics) - 3 credits: A
318 (Advanced Desktop Publication) - 3 credits: A-
Now that's pretty amazing, if I do say so myself. I'm a little bit dissapointed with my B+ in editing. I thought I was doing better in that class, but if I think back, most of my assignments were a B+ or an A-. So it's just a matter of means. Also, kinda sucks to have a B, because I can't say I got straight As!!! :P
I've written the first part of "Diary of a Habs Fan". I call it "The Prelude". I think I like the idea of going with musical themes, and lyrical words.
The problem is that now I need to decide where I'm going with this. I know I need dialogue, and soon. As in, the first paragraph of Chapter 1. Which I just thought of calling "Pre-season". But that wouldn't match up with Prelude, now would it. Unless I use a colon to seperate the musical:sports title.
I have 2 directions I'm thinking of going.
1) Following the chronology of a hockey season. First, training camp is announced. I would start with an extract from the sports bulletin on TV. "The Canadiens have announced their training camp schedule. Once again, they will be opening their doors to the public for a few days at the Pierrefonds Sportsplexe..." And then break into my main character pumping her fists in victory and yelling "Yes!" And looking around to see if anyone noticed.
After that, I know I need major dialogue. Should the main character be like me, living alone/with a roomate/bf as a student? She's obviously a "She". That's for sure. But maybe she's still living at home, with her parents, who don't understand her obsession. Which is a great almost "villain" role. The voice of reason. (The more I think about it, the more I like it)
2) Start with the "Go go go" guy blowing his whistle and waving his arm wildly at the cars. But then there's no chronology. Unless I start from the playoff game, and work through the summer. Which is boring. Because of all the breaks. And there's mostly just trades and drafts, and I can fit that in to the first couple of days/chapters.
But then I break right into the heart of the story.
I think I need to decide whether this is a book about hockey or about someone who loves hockey. And I'm think I'm leaning for the latter, with the sequence of events of point 1).
Thank you blog, thank you very much ;)
Soon, I shall post the Prelude. Then, the story shall write itself, right?
psst... this is about the 3rd novel I try to write. The other one had to do with drugs and junkies. It's working title was "Cocaine". It's somewhere on a protected diskette. And yes, I still remember the password. Just didn't want my parents to find it ;)
I also started a Habs novel, but that was going to be more like, girl falls in love with hockey player, they meet, and start a wonderful relationship... except for the life of a hockey player.
Which is really cheesy and boring, unless it's an autobiography or memoire or something along those lines.
Any feedback is greatly appreciated...