[Montreal in the middle of the twentieth century was a cultural metropolis, with French and English speakers, and many other nationalities all mingling on the island that was first settled by the French in 1642. The First Nations people, of course, had been there 'time out of mind.'
Barb Siket was born to Hungarian emigrant parents and lived in this remarkable milieu. In this brief essay she recalls some of her early music studies and especially her piano teacher.]
My voice teacher was Mr Vanderpol. He prescribed piano lessons in my early teens to augment my voice training and to improve my musical background. He had gone over this many times with my parents - drawing pictures of how my vocal musical exercises would blend with Miss Brennan's piano teaching. The result would strengthen my education.
On our first visit, Mr Vanderpol took my father and me to Miss Brennan's home and studio on De Bullion Street near Pine Avenue. They told me that she had given concerts in England and she was especially famous for one piece that she played all over Europe. I was very anxious to meet her. Her house was a sturdy red brick building with a heavy front door and large glass windows. The front room was filled with music books on shelves, all neatly kept.
We were greeted by Miss Brennan and she shook hands with all of us. Then we were ushered into a shady, heavily velveted front room. There were two pianos set against the walls and a large organ pressed against the third wall. The piano she sat me down in front of was large with beautifully carved features.
Lessons were discussed by the four of us. As they talked they always brought me into the decision-making by asking if this would work for me. Lessons were to take place weekly on Saturday at 4:30pm. I was to come directly after school [Indeed school was six days a week at that time. Ed.] I had to go over the length of time to get there and what I had to bring. Miss Brennan wrote this all down for me.
The lessons cost us fifty cents an hour for which I paid cash, but she always kept me longer. My mother would often come to the lessons and listen. Miss Brennan loved my mother. They hugged each other when they met and then again when we were leaving.
On the day we first met Miss Brennan hugged me and held my hand and said how anxious she was to begin my musical training. She took me over to a bookcase and showed me the books I would be starting with. She took one down and placed it on the seat beside me. She also handed me some sheets with five lines and four spaces and told me to copy the first page. I was very proud that Miss Brennan gave me written homework as well as piano pieces to play. Writing musical exercises helped improve my memory. Initially, I studied short classical pieces of one or two lines each - these were in special piano books which were very old and were kept in cardboard protectors. She always had innovative ideas that related to the compositions.
She heated the house with a small furnace - which my father helped clean on many occasions and for which she was very thankful. He even came to shovel her side-walk in the harsh Montreal winters.
Miss Brennan always wore dark dresses with large collar and cuffs. When I arrived for my lessons she politely greeted me at the door and helped take off my back pack, hat and coat. She was a grand Lady and was in her seventies when I studied with her. She was very tired at times. Occasionally she had a snooze while I was playing something sweet and calm. She gave me many rules to follow and these were all recorded in a small book. I wish I had kept it.
When I relive this part of my life, I wish I had done more practicing and I also wish I had had more guidance. Mr Vanderpol and Miss Brennan were great and they gave me valuable instruction, but it was limited. They were all tired and the energy required was demanding. As I mentioned, Miss Brennan sometimes fell asleep while I was playing my pieces or writing up my musical scores. I know that Miss Brennan kept most of my things in a box on the shelf with the music books and I just left them there.
I only studied with her for two years. Although I did visit her a few times later and she made me play, sing and write my music.
What a time! It kept me off the street and away from the gangs and crazies.
My music teachers gave me more than music. They gave me love and patience. They taught me that everyone has some merit.
Copyright © 10 December 2021
Barb Rumson (née Siket),
Victoria BC, Canada