It was the Banff scholarship which finally ended my father’s promise to match the value of any award I won. It was a six-week summer session at the Banff School of Fine Arts and included everything but the plane fare. As Dad beamed with pride, he threw his hands up in mock dismay and said, “ Okay, you’re big time now. I can’t match that one!”
So I was quite full of myself when I arrived in Banff and began my classes. I was amongst the elite aspiring young concert pianists from across the entire country and was eager to show off. The first class, listed as an “ An Introduction to Baroque Music”, was to be taught by an eminent Canadian Swiss teacher, Pierre Souvairan.
I sat down very confident with my extensive knowledge of Baroque ornamentation. After all, I’d studied harpsichord as a secondary instrument, with Kenneth Gilbert, the very best harpsichordist in Canada. I was going to really shine.
Then Professor Souvairan announced that the focus would be on the Bach Inventions !!!!
The Bach Inventions? I was horrified. These were the simplest of Bach’s pieces, standard fodder for young students and hardly worth a glance after one had graduated to the Preludes and Fugues. Or if you were as clever as I was, the fabulous Goldberg Variations. All thirty of them! I had already finished the fifteenth and was aiming to complete them entirely by September.
I was incensed. Travelling three thousand miles to attend these sessions at this prestigious summer school and we were going to study those Inventions. Oh this was bad. Very bad. I sat there scowling and somewhat contemptuously making the mere motions of taking notes on the lecture.
We were given the option of choosing any of the fifteen Two Part Inventions. Which was really rubbing it in, since this collection is even easier than the later Three Part Inventions. I chose the fifth one in E major because it has a generous array of little turns and ornaments. And because most of the other students chose the even easier first or second ones. At least I’d get to play those ornaments ….
We were given a week to learn our chosen invention and would all be required to play it at the next group lesson. Then Professor Souvarain would critique each one and supposedly we’d all profit from that experience. I doubted it.
A week later, I had barely touched the Invention. I didn’t need to practice … I could sight read it for heaven’s sake. I marched into the class and flung myself into an empty seat and waited for the class to begin. Professor Souvairan started to pick out students at random and as each took his or her place on the piano bench, he flipped open a small notebook and poised his pencil over it.
The first two students played adequately. The third one was a disaster as he fumbled for the notes. I lost track of the rest of them while I scribbled sketches of Mount Rundle on the back of my music sheet. But I was suddenly jolted back to attention when the Professor called my name. I sat myself on the piano bench, rolled it down a few inches as I’d seen Glenn Gould do and paused for effect. Then I launched into the Invention. Eager to show off the ornaments, I began a little too quickly and had to adjust my fingers as the music began to run away from me. I clenched my teeth and frantically grabbed at the notes, sacrificing the distinct harmonic voices in my attempt not to make any mistakes. I reached the end with my tongue clenched between my teeth, wishing I had practiced it a few extra times.
“Hummmmm” Professor Souvairan said, with his forehead furrowed alarmingly. ” You haf lost ze race wiz zee music. It haz escape-ed you. Now you must find eet for zee next lesson. Und to do zat you vill play zee CORRECT finger on ze note. Each one. Correct. Zen I will tell you vot next to do ….. but firrrrrrst ze fingers.” He wagged all his fingers at me ominously and motioned for me to go back to my seat.
He hadn’t even offered me a critique! I was supposed to work on the fingering? I was tempted to just stalk out of the room and head down the road to the little station, toss myself onto the next train to Calgary and be through with this whole abysmal experience at the Banff school. Sorely tempted. But I just sat miserably in my seat until the class dispersed.
Now one would think that with a little maturity and foresight, I would have trusted this very fine teacher and done exactly as he’d requested. Which was to learn the fingering. But I was insulted and my pride had been more than bruised, it had been positively macerated. Instead of working on the Invention during my allotted time at one of the pianos in the student’s practice cubicles, I donated my time there to Sandra, while I went hiking at the bottom of Mount Rundle. I decided I’d try to climb that spectacular mountain before I left for home.*
The following week, I slumped into Professor Souvarain’s class, sat down and gave a cursory glance at the Invention. Waiting for the class to begin, I scanned the notes and scribbled circles around a half-dozen or so of the trickier fingerings. I was confident that with those last-minute hints, I’d nail it quite easily. Such a silly fuss over fingerings. What difference did it make as long as I could hit the correct notes?
When my turn came, I positioned myself on the piano bench, repeated my fiddling around with the knobs on the sides to lower myself into the “Gould” position and opened my copy of the Invention on the music rack. I chose a slightly slower tempo this time. But by the first line, I was uncomfortably aware that my fingers weren’t operating very smoothly. I was getting the notes right but I seemed to be making awkward moves as I crossed short fingers over longer ones and often had to lift my hands right off the keys to re-position a finger over the correct note.
Halfway through I was halted by the Professor slamming his notebook on the lid of the piano and shouting, ” Stop ….. STOP ….. Zat is enough …. ENOUGH!”
I came to a dead halt and lifted my hands off the keys.
“You haf ignored ze instructions. You haf not corrected a single fingering. You are just zliding around like a monkey in a tree. Your fingers haf no memory at all. Zey are just lost.”
He drummed his fingers on my score sitting on the music rack. “Now you will do zis over again. Very slowly wiz all ze fingers. Every one. CORRECT.” He folded his hands over his chest and nodded for me to begin.
I began. I finished one bar and then saw I’d put a fourth finger where a third was marked on the score. I corrected it. But as I continued, I realized I’d have to slow down to a snail’s pace to get those fingerings. I was sounding like a first year student just learning the notes, rather than the winner of multiple awards in the Quebec Music Festivals. It was awful. And every time, I missed one, Professor Souvairan would tap the sheet of music very sharply and hiss, ” Ze correct finger, pleaze …”
The Invention seemed to be interminably long, far longer than its two-page score would indicate. It was torture. The other students began to shuffle around and it was clear that they were as bored as I was irritated. Finally I came to the end.
“Zere you are. Now zat is the way to practice. You vill do it zis way for the next week and zen I will listen. Not now…” He nodded that he was quite finished with me for that session.
I sat down, shaking with embarrassment and anger. Why I hadn’t just left and gone home after that first lesson, I didn’t know. This was pure humiliation and now the other students would be laughing at the girl from Montreal who didn’t know which fingers to use in a simple Bach Invention. Even though the Professor gave a short lecture afterwards, pointing out that the secret to clean playing was to adopt the correct fingers from the first moment you begin a new piece. And to never under any circumstances change a fingering because that would interrupt something called “finger memory” and make the learning process much much slower.
I cringed when he mentioned playing each finger very firmly. I could visualize the next week’s session where he’d have me up there at the piano, pounding out each note and probably reciting its appropriate finger number aloud or some such nonsense.
When the class finally ended and the students began to file out the door, Professor Souvairan called out, ” Miz Tomkins, let me haf a few words wiz you …”
I walked over and stood in front of him. I was so enraged that I was almost weak.
But he said very softly, ‘ I know right now you are very angry wiz me. You are furious and you feel zat I have picked on you in front of all ze class. But zat is not true. You haf beautiful talent, you vill be a very fine musician, but you must take zis discipline because it vill help you like almost nothing else. The memory must go inside ze fingers and zen you vill play zo beautifully..” His face had softened.
He reached over and cupped my hands in his own as he said, “Someday you vill zank me…”
Today more than forty years later, I am still “zanking” Professor Souvairan for this lesson. It remains amongst the top few learning techniques I have treasured and transferred to hundreds of students. Placing the correct finger on the note from the first time it is played and never changing it, is one of the most powerful ways to learn quickly and accurately. Learning time can easily be cut by more than 50%. And the fluidity it lends to the finished perfomance cannot be matched. Yes Professor Souvairan ….
I’m still zanking you!
Two interesting You Tube films featuring the Banff School of Fine Art/Banff Center.
Archival 16mm footage of students in the early days (circa 50s) of the Banff Centre, known then as the Banff School of Fine Arts, showing the variety of subjects studied there, as well as Senator Donald Cameron, the early driving force in its growth and establishment.
This is the new Banff Center, now situated a short way out of Banff. The upgrades are spectacular, but the ethos remains the same. It affords a unique opportunity to interact with the most talented students and teachers from around the world in an incredibly beautiful setting.
* You also get a stellar shot of Mount Rundle, which I did indeed climb at the end of the session. It was a fourteen mile hike but the view from the top was unforgettable. I leaned over the edge of the top pinnacle and could see the entire valley below with Banff nestled at its base.