Teacher of the Month – Elliette Boumeester
From Mel Karajas
Since her beginnings as a Simply Music student, Eliette Boumeester has grown and expanded her musical horizons in multiple directions, including becoming a singer-songwriter and one of the youngest ever Simply Music Teachers, much of it happening under the cloud of serious illness. She tells her story to Mel Karajas and shares a song reflecting her journey.
Can you please let us know a little background about your musical development?
Music has always been a huge part of my life really. When I was little, my parents sat me down and said “you need to learn a musical instrument”. I began playing violin but we moved from Canberra to Melbourne when I was 5 so my lessons didn’t continue. I started playing piano with David Bremner then with Gordon Harvey when I was 6. My Dad has always played piano, he’s a really talented Jazz player, so I have grown up with piano in the house and loved it so that was where I started.
You started playing at such a young age. What was it that had you stick with music?
Music for me has been always been a way to express myself. My Dad had cancer when I was 9 so it was almost an escape for me. It was a way I could express my feelings like if I was angry or upset. Music is so important in people’s lives … it’s therapeutic. Whether it’s teaching music or playing it, I get something out of it that I can’t find anywhere else.
You are one of the youngest Simply Music teachers. What made you take the leap from learning Simply Music to teaching it?
I was 14 when I started teaching. It got to the time when I was 12 or 13 where I questioned how far music was going to take me … was it going to be a career choice? I needed something more than school, sport and music lessons. I knew I loved kids and teaching so I thought about piano teaching but wasn’t sure how to get started. My Dad suggested teaching Simply Music and because I already loved the method where I didn’t have to learn scales or do exams I went from there and haven’t looked back. It’s been fantastic.
As a person and as a musician, how do you think the teaching has developed you?
I definitely think I’ve grown as a player and as a teacher. You get so much out of teaching so you learn as you go. I’ve always struggled with the theory side of things. When I sit down with my students and they ask me questions about major or minor chords or keys, I can explain it and it makes sense but if I need to write it down it doesn’t. I guess it’s like teaching Mathematics. When you are saying it out loud it becomes more clear than when you would just be trying to figure it out in your head. Having these conversations with my students helps me ‘say it out loud’ so I learn with them. It’s a really cool two way street.
As a person, teaching has helped me mature as well. Just having to arrange schedules and speak with parents it was all really daunting at first. I really wasn’t sure how I’d do it, especially marketing myself. Now I see how much fun it is and how much I get out of it emotionally, physically and musically. It’s really amazing.
You had a health scare a sometime ago, can you tell us a little about that?
Sure. I got a virus called the Guillain-Barre Syndrome. Basically, I got a cold then a week later my hands and feet were going numb and I was very dizzy. Normally when I have a cold I’d say ‘oh well, life goes on’ and I don’t worry about it because I’m so busy and don’t have time to slow down just for a cold. It got really bad so I took a day off school and just slept. My hands and feet went numb again but I thought maybe I’d just slept on my side for too long. I went to the doctors and he gave me antibiotics for blocked ears and sinus infection. The next day (Thursday), I was dehydrated and vomiting so went to the doctor again that night and was sent to hospital. ER ran all sorts of scans and tests as they thought there may have been something wrong in my brain. The following night (Friday) they moved me to the ward and let me know I had Guillain-Barre and that meant that my body was basically shutting down because I didn’t have enough white blood cells to fight that bacteria. I had to have a blood transfusion to try and slow it down but the reality was I would be paralysed and lose my ability to walk. That night I couldn’t breathe anymore so the Saturday morning I was moved to ICU as the doctors said the disease wasn’t meant to progress this fast. I had to be put in an induced coma for the doctors to get on top of it. My family came in to tell me everything was going to be OK but I had no feeling below my knees and my arms barely had any strength to brush my teeth. I woke up Monday morning and couldn’t move or open my eyes. If you were to touch my shoulder I couldn’t tell you if you were hot or cold but I could hear everything that was going on around me and was aware if you were in the room. They moved me into another hospital, in an adults ward, where I was on a lot of medication so don’t really remember much of that week. I had to relearn how to do everything again. How to breathe, walk and feed myself. You have to relearn how to use your muscles again as the sheath around your nerves is damaged. Every nerve in your body is kind of disconnected then has to grow back. So it is something you can come back from which was always a positive but we weren’t sure to what extent. The results vary by age so being 16 was a big advantage. There was another girl who was 19, had Guillain-Barre and after 8 months was still in a wheelchair. My recovery happened really fast, in 3 months I had walked out of rehab on crutches. My Dad was surprised as he thought any sort of recovery would be at least 6 months away. Learning to breathe again was incredible. You have different levels of Life Support and pressure support that helps you breathe. Then you have the CPap machine and after 2 minutes on that I thought I was going to suffocate. The nurses kept me going by pushing me to do more all the time. I was in the ward for about 2 weeks and had been told by a students’ parent who worked there that I would be there for 6-8 months which got me really upset. A wheelchair had been sitting in my room all of this time and the nurses wanted to get me up and moving. After desperately not wanting to be in the chair, they lifted me in and wheeled me around. I still remember being taken to a window where it was bright and sunny and seeing a woman walking her dog. It made me realise that I had gotten comfortable not doing anything and that I didn’t want to live my life this way. I am only 16 and want to travel next year and be energetic. In time, I was taken off my breathing machine, my nerves repaired so I now had feeling and there were still more ups and downs where you had to push the boundaries of what you think you can do. Playing the piano again after such a long time was just an amazing feeling. There was always music going on in my room which was an incredible environment to recover in. It kept my mind busy and motivated which was really important. My friends constantly visited and kept my room decorated so all of this was really positive in keeping my spirits up and recovery fast.
On the ward, I made sure I went to the piano once a day. That was really scary. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to play again as I had to retrain my hands to move and my fingers weren’t working. The hardest thing to face was not being able to play as I did before. I was determined to make sure I could. Playing was a really good way to keep motivated as I couldn’t walk just yet so it gave me something else to focus on. I even wrote a song on the ward to get a few things out of my system which really helped.
Can you tell us a little more about the song and where it’s taken you?
Sure. I entered my song into a secondary school competition throughout New Zealand. I applied last year and made the top 50 and was able to achieve the same this year. They gave me some money to professionally record and I got on their CD. It’s been amazing but also quite scary to write a song then record it and have people listen to and judge it. To send it in to a competition and have very important people in the music industry give their opinion about it is quite daunting. It got some really great feedback though which is reassuring.
Would you recommend the experience to someone else or encourage your students to enter their songs into a competition?
Definitely. Unless you put yourself out there, you’ll never be heard. It’s a career path I want to go down so I’m always jotting things down in my note book. I even ask my students to write me a song as there is always a great story behind it. Music is such a diverse language that no matter who you are or where you are in the world you connect with it. It comes with so much emotion and feeling. You might not be able to sit down with someone and tell them how you feel but when you are writing a song or singing it, you can. I did a research project this year on music therapy as I was just so fascinated on how much music was a part of me getting better. It was on all the time from when I woke up to when I went to sleep at night. There was an experiment in America on kids with cancer. They got them to write songs and encourage song writing. These kids couldn’t communicate with doctors as to what was making them sick, what was adding to their pain or if they were scared. They were really closed off. There was a girl who was quite musical who bcame the face of a recording device that they bring into the hospital in a bus. The kids came up with really amazing songs about how they were feeling. Things that they couldn’t talk to anyone about, talking about doctors or treatment or being sad and upset. This is why I think if you write a song you should share it. I can understand why people would see sharing your private thoughts as daunting but the other thing is that other people relate to it. Everyone feels a little shut off or embarrassed and thinks they shouldn’t feel how they feel but in reality there are millions of people in the world that feel exactly the same.
What a wonderful perpective to have as a teacher knowing that this is what your students will go through.
Exactly. Sometimes they will come to me with songs that they write and I’ll ask them what they were feeling when they wrote them or what is the story behind it? Sometimes they are willing to share and others there is more to it than they want to share. But the fact that they can write lyrics about it or put their feelings on the keys is incredible. I’m not a great poet but if I put it to music then it is something completely different for me.
We’ve included the song you spoke about here but have you created any other work?
Yeah I have. My dad had stage 4 cancer when I was 9 so song writing has been a big thing for me since I was small as a way to get everything out. I have written quite a lot of songs and have gone to music school the last 2 years for song writing courses. Sometimes I get stumped on how to put my feelings into words so some songs take longer than others where other times I feel like just putting absolutely everything into it. I think simplicity of songs is so important. If you have a message don’t make it complicated … it doesn’t need to be. My organic songs are always better than the ones where I’m consciously trying to get across a specific message. In this song I wanted to get the message across that if you believe enough in something it will happen … absolutely. I could easily have sat in my room for 3 months being angry at the world and depressed about my situation but the reality is there was nothing to blame for this, it just happened. If I had’ve caused this then would have been something to be angry about but this was nobody’s fault, it was just life. So I just kept setting goals and saying that I would walk again and I will be out of here by Christmas. That happened. I was out a month earlier than that and on crutches when most people thought I might be home for Christmas and if I was it would be in a wheelchair. It’s all about your mindset. If you are committed to the idea that you can make it happen then you will and I strongly believe that. If you want to lie down and take life’s down side nothing good will come of it. In this song I really wanted to tell my friends how much help they were and that I didn’t have much to say but we fought and got through it together. The first verse opens with ‘I feel cold, I feel numb, I feel nothing’. This song took me about 5 months to write and figure out where I wanted to start. That line really summed up where I was at in the beginning and physically as well … I really didn’t feel anyting. It’s a very emotional song for people that know the message behind it. I’m working on a music video for it at the moment and was asked ‘do you want to incorporate the illness and real story into it or do you want to people to subtley figure it out for themselves?’ I could do a hospital theme or empty bed theme but I didn’t want the video to be too heavy. The other 2 verses are quite light where the second verse says ‘I love the way that you kiss, you kiss my hand’. The third verse is about my friends and how they pulled me though. The bridge is about a ghost calling me into the darkness. It was a hard song to write but I’m really glad I wrote it. It really helped me get my head around everything that happened and what I wanted to remember.
You have a fantastic mind set and are physically healthy again. Where do you see yourself going with this? Is music a big part of your future
Definitely, I want to make music my career. Whether it’s performing or teaching or directing and producing I’m not sure yet. I want to come to Australia and study. I’m planning on going to the Australian Institute of Music in Sydney which is a huge goal of mine. Really I have nothing to lose and if you picture yourself doing something in the future you just need to work hard and be committed then it’s yours. It’s about building my confidence up now and launching into the big wide world. I can’t wait to learn from the important people in my life. I really just want to instill into people that no matter what trouble comes your way, when you are positive and surround yourself with great energy, you really can accomplish anything.
Listen to Eliette’s song Believe