by Abigail Richardson-Schulte
I started off university in science. I wanted to be smart and I was sure that smart people went into science. I felt a bit unsettled in those first few weeks but assumed that was all part of starting university. Well, one of the most important moments of my life happened in those first few weeks of university when I was doing the “wrong” thing for me. I was sitting in first year biology class when I suddenly knew what I wanted to do with my life. To be honest, I wasn’t terribly conflicted and I wasn’t pondering my future. The knowledge that I needed to be in music just popped into my head at 3:17pm. I didn’t know what or how, just that I needed to be in music somehow. I immediately packed up my backpack, left the 500 seat lecture hall and phoned my parents to tell them my news. They were supportive but really didn’t know the uphill battle I was facing. Luckily, nobody told me that my chances of getting anywhere were slim. Even just the initial step was tough under the circumstances: all music students need to audition on an instrument and I had only been playing piano (one of the most competitive instruments) for just five years at that point. I didn’t start music at a young age because my parents didn’t have a background in it, and besides, I was deaf for a number of years as a kid…but that’s another story.
I dropped several of my classes and started practicing like my life depended on it. I only applied to one place: the University of Calgary. To backtrack a little, we lived in the country outside of Calgary but I attended a Calgary high school with an excellent music program that I loved. I still took private piano lessons in the country. I studied with quite an unusual man by the name of John Ryan. He lived intentionally without electricity (I had lessons by candlelight), kept goats, trained the British army in mountain survival skills and played country and western music at the Calgary Stampede. He wore a big cowboy hat, Wrangler jeans and cowboy boots – not exactly a common image of a classical piano teacher! He got me thinking about music and storytelling which has remained one of my biggest passions. He asked me about the emotion and narrative of the music I was playing and if it could be told in a story. So, I started writing short stories for the pieces I was learning and writing my own music for existing short stories.
After preparing for the audition as best I could, I went in with my own short stories in hand written for my audition pieces. I can’t say that the audition was a pleasant experience. I was incredibly nervous, the jurors weren’t interested in my stories and I found them to be judgmental of the fact that I had not come up within the “system.” Surprisingly, one of them approached me afterwards in the hallway to ask for my stories. He promised to read them later. I don’t have any delusions that these were at all good but I do think they matched the music. I later heard that he pushed for me to enter on “probation” which involved a subsequent jury the following year. I was ecstatic!
My first university music class was music theory with Canadian composer Allan Gordon Bell. I knew nothing of him or Canadian music… and not so much about music theory either. He informed us that our final project would be to write a piece of music using what we had learned and perform it for the class. I knew I was in the right place. I took as many courses as I could from Allan Bell, including his wonderful courses on Canadian music. Luckily for us, the Prairie Region of the Canadian Music Centre was right in the U of C library. Much of our coursework involved research at the CMC. Allan Bell was inspiring as a classroom teacher as well as a private composition instructor. His dry wit kept us amused as he instilled in us the importance of hard work, imagination, and dedication to Canadian music. He also made a point of referring to “composers” as “she” rather than “he”. This was not only surprising but encouraging, as I suppose it was meant to be. He was taught by a woman, Violet Archer, and his former students were the current Canadian female star young composers Kelly-Marie Murphy (whose Postcards from Home is featured as part of the May 28 concert) and Heather Schmidt. His enthusiasm and encouragement was everything I needed to push me forward into becoming a composer. From there, I went to U of T for my Masters and Doctorate degrees. I couldn’t believe it when the composers I had learned about (like John Beckwith, whose Four Love Songs is featured on the May 27 concert) were sitting in the audience at concerts. I felt like I’d landed in Hollywood.
Today, I try to be a champion of Canadian music. I owe that interest, pride and dedication to Allan Gordon Bell.
I invite you to our May 28 concert featuring the music of Allan Gordon Bell and his students Kelly-Marie Murphy and myself.
Trails of Gravity and Grace by Allan Gordon Bell
Postcards from Home by Kelly-Marie Murphy
The Pull by Abigail Richardson-Schulte