With 60 years of teaching between them, the tight-knit team of Teachers in Australia’s capital are a classic example of the power of cooperation and shared support, not to mention laughter. You can hear in this chat with Elizabeth Gaikwad how well they get along and their deep commitment to their students, their teaching and each other.
Archive for the ‘Teacher of the Month’ Category
Besides being a Simply Music Teacher (and marriage celebrant into the bargain), as a professional musician Ian Christie has enjoyed innumerable musical adventures. In this conversation with Gretta Dunn, he shares some stories of his working life and the experience of juggling performing and teaching careers.
Zippo lighters or piano teaching? Luckily it was piano teaching that won out. Even though Texas single mom Kim Nelson had never played piano she wasn’t going to let that get in the way of pursuing a vision and building a thriving studio. Kim is living testament to the power of determination. In this chat with friend and fellow Teacher Kathy Kiger, Kim’s reflections on the many ways teaching has changed her life are inspiring.
Courage and Confidence – the Simply Music Way
Recently, on the ECL, I shared about a personal breakthrough I experienced in my teaching. It was one of those defining moments that I suspect we all have as Simply Music teachers and it left me even more resolved and committed to helping to create a world in which everyone plays…freely.
First off, here’s a little about my background. I have been teaching Simply Music for about 3.5 years. When I signed up for teacher training, I could play heart and soul and had a month or two of piano lessons as a kid. That was the extent of my pre-Simply Music piano experience. While I had always wanted to play the piano, that actually wasn’t the primary reason for my first call to Neil to find out about teaching. What led me to Simply Music was an urgent need to find some way to support my three daughters after finding myself, very suddenly and unexpectedly, as a single mom. After much searching and prayer, a dear friend and fellow homeschooling mom told me to check out this program called Simply Music she had stumbled onto in a magazine ad. Looking back, it seems more than a little crazy but after reading every jot and tittle of the website, I called Neil to see if I could be a piano teacher…even though I didn’t actually play the piano. It was a terrifying phone call to make but after telling him my background and situation, he told me I would be a fantastic teacher. And I believed him. Thus began my amazing Simply Music journey. I began teacher training in September of 2008 and started teaching my first students in May of 2009. As of January 2013, I will have over 45 students enrolled.
Aligning myself with Neil and Simply Music was one of most important and best life choices I have ever made, but as a new player and teacher, I have also struggled greatly with insecurity and overcome fears too numerous to mention. In fact, if my children weren’t depending on me and I wasn’t absolutely certain it was the Lord’s answer to my prayers, I may have quit early on. The rewards and benefits of staying the course and navigating this long-term relationship were confirmed (again!) this summer when I started a new adult student. As a transfer student from another Simply Music teacher, I knew she was much more musically experienced and educated than me. Her prior musical experience included an advanced musical degree with an emphasis in piano and many years as a public school music teacher, band director, church pianist and traditional piano teacher. When she came to her first lesson I asked her what her goals and expectations were and after talking about her fears and insecurities, mostly associated with music falling off the piano and extreme performance anxiety, she said she wanted to learn to play without music. We had a great lesson and after going over her foundation song, a snippet of an arrangement and giving the class a composition assignment it was time to go. As she was leaving she asked what the large object in the back of my studio was. It was a portable air conditioner I purchased when my main a/c was out for 10 days. After answering her, I remembered I had written Lead Me to Light lyrics for another class about my A/C being out…in Texas…in August, so I even sat back down and played and sang my tale of woe for her, which she seemed to enjoy.
It occurred to me when she left that I am finally secure in my ability to contribute to anyone’s musical journey. In the past I would have been very scared of her musical accomplishments, and even as recently as a year ago may not have even agreed to teach her. But this time I wasn’t. Experience or no experience, degree or no degree; for once I wasn’t the slightest bit intimidated by someone’s musical background. I respect and applaud her background and abilities, but I’m not scared of them. I now own and respect my piano and musical background and it feels great. It’s about so much more than piano isn’t it?!
“To me, everybody has a child within them, regardless of the age they are”.
Despite her limited musical background, the always positive Kerry Verdon has found a home in music teaching, and it’s a truly nurturing home in a huge variety of ways. As well as teaching Simply Music Piano, Play-a-Story and Simply Music Rhapsody herself, Kerry runs two studios that also include other instrumental teaching. She is also a great supporter of the Simply Music Teachers, organising conferences and “playshops” and other events for our Teachers and generally being a central figure in the active Melbourne community. She also worked for Simply Music for nine years doing just about every task we could load her up with.
Her latest project is the especially exciting one of helping Jonathon Welch develop his wonderful School of Hard Knocks Institute, donating her time to teaching music to disadvantaged people under the banner Keys to Success. She speaks here with Unmani about what it’s like to make a difference in the lives of those who wouldn’t otherwise have this opportunity.
“It’s like having your friends come to visit you on a weekly basis”. Despite a strong traditional music background, Kelly Natale didn’t dream of teaching until she encountered Simply Music. From that moment, nothing stopped her. Launching herself as Canada’s first Simply Music teacher, building a large studio and becoming a respected mentor of other teachers and another passionate advocate for social music-making. She talks here with Phil Garment about her experience.
Just about everybody who has even contemplated teaching Simply Music will know of Robin Keehn. She’s our Director of Development and has been instrumental in the shaping of several new programs, as well as spearheading our Teacher Training Program, being very active in the teaching community, and criss-crossing the country leading workshops for non-Simply Music teachers. If that wasn’t enough, Robin somehow also manages to run a music academy in Sequim, Washington, with multiple teachers teaching simply Music Piano, Simply Music Rhapsody, many other instruments, dance, fitness and Zumba. Mary Kaye Ferreter speaks to the tireless Robin about playing by ear, time management and Classic Rock.
from Robin Keehn
Laurie Richards and Simply Music were a perfect match from the beginning. From the moment that she spoke with Neil Moore about teaching the program, Laurie has grasped the bigger picture to the point where she has contributed to the Simply Music curriculum itself, not to mention a great many teachers and an even greater number of students. We are just about to release the first component in Laurie’s Read and Play program, which expands and enhances our Reading 1 program, making the reading process even more natural and strengthening students’ grasp of the basics.
Here she talks with Robin Keehn about integrity, co-operation and music as an everyday companion.
What’s your musical background?
I grew up in a musical family – both parents were music educators and typically involved in numerous musical activities; my two older sisters are also musicians. I’ve played the piano for as long as I can remember. Throughout junior high and high school I also played flute, dabbled in oboe, and played alto sax in jazz band. Flute was my main instrument at that time. In my 20′s I took guitar lessons for a bit. However, piano has always been my first love and a constant in my life. I have taken piano lessons off and on throughout my life, from my childhood through college. Although my degree is in Business Administration, I remained involved in music programs throughout college.
How did you find your way into teaching and Simply Music?
I taught Kindermusik and piano (using traditional methods) for a few years to supplement our income when my children were very young. I was searching for ways to better motivate my piano students when a fellow Kindermusik teacher mentioned Simply Music. I was curious, so I started digging around to find out more. After speaking with Simply Music teachers on the phone, then with Neil Moore, I had a strong gut feeling that I needed to teach this method. I started teaching Simply Music in 2004.
How many students do you have?
I have been teaching an average of 50 students for a while. As my business grew, I began hiring teachers. I have been in a commercial space for 4 1/2 years and currently employ three other teachers.
What do you like about teaching and being involved with Simply Music?
I have found my passion in life through Simply Music. Neil Moore’s vision inspires me. The manner in which he relates to people and the Simply Music teacher training materials which address relationships have helped me grow both personally and professionally. The integrity with which he operates the Simply Music organization resonates deeply with me. The community of teachers is a joy to be involved with.
What kind of public performance have you done? Do you enjoy it?
Growing up, performing was not enjoyable to me as I was extremely self-conscious. But now I really enjoy it. I have played flute and piano for weddings, played in a local rock cover band, and currently I enjoy playing piano and keyboard for my church’s contemporary worship team. I also enjoy playing with students at retirement facilities.
You were very involved in establishing the Simply Music Teachers’ group in Omaha. What have been the rewards of a close association with other Simply Music teachers?
I have learned much from my friends and fellow teachers here in Omaha. The camaraderie and shared enthusiasm are wonderful to experience. Currently the teachers here are working collaboratively to plan a national Simply Music teacher conference in Omaha later this year. When you’re part of something that challenges current paradigms, I think there is strength in numbers. It’s great to have others nearby who share the vision of something bigger than what has been considered possible.
You obviously don’t see other teachers as competitors. Is there room for that many teachers in a limited area? Do you think having more teachers creates more students?
I live in a medium-sized metropolitan area and don’t perceive any limitations to growth. While there are certainly different dymanics in a smaller community, I believe we are only limited by our own imaginations. If there are several teachers in a limited area, there are that many times more ideas and inspirations to make it work. Although I cannot speak from experience, I know of Simply Music teachers in rural areas who have found great success and continued to recruit new teachers in their areas.
You’ve also developed a new approach to teaching the reading process within the Simply Music program, which has led to Simply Music offering new teaching materials. Tell us about how that came about.
It’s not a new approach, but rather a supplement to enhance the approach that Neil has created. I see the teacher training materials for the reading programs as a framework of main concepts to teach. However, teachers must build more content within that framework to give students a really strong reading foundation. So over the years I developed additional content for students in the form of student workbooks. This gives the students additional material with which to process and practice the concepts, aids the teacher in going deeper into those concepts, and allows the teacher to more easily assess their students’ level of understanding.
What’s the music you love the most? What’s the role of music in your everyday life?
I most love contemporary jazz, classical, contemporary worship music and 70′s rock. I feel that music is an integral part of who I am, and I am immensely blessed to have it in my life every day. I love discovering new music and artists through Pandora. Everyone in my family is playing the piano, so there is music in the house every day. I so enjoy the musical freedom I have discovered and developed as a result of having been involved with the Simply Music curriculum. I think it has always been in there, but I just didn’t know how to get to it because I felt restricted to what was on the page in front of me.
What’s your picture of the role of music in an ideal world?
Wow. Music has the power to transform. In an ideal world, everyone would discover the music inside of them, allow it to emerge, not be constrained by a nagging inner voice that says “that’s not good enough”, and embrace their own abilities rather than comparing them to others’ abilities. Imagine the joy that would come of that!
As part of her commitment to the bigger picture, Laurie has been a great advocate of building the teaching community. In the book A World Where Everyone Plays, Laurie tells a story of how that came back to her in a very moving way after a serious car accident:
“My studio was my family’s main source of income, but now my business had unexpectedly come to a screeching halt. At that time there were three other Simply Music teachers in my area – Janita Pavelka, Anne Smith and Michael Favero-Kluge. What they did for me and my family was extraordinarily generous: it is something almost unheard of in our competitive culture. Between the three of them, they arranged to teach every one of my classes, every week at my home studio, asking for absolutely nothing in return. They taught my classes for two full months, while maintaining their own piano studios…” (excerpt from A World Where Everyone Plays, released Jan. 2011, Efting Press).
Laurie has come up with medleys that feature all songs from Levels 1-4 and 5-9 of the Simply Music Foundation program. To see her play these, check out these links:
The community of Simply Music Teachers is as varied as it is extensive. Recently we’ve been able to draw from that fantastic resource to improve and enrich the program. Some of our teachers have been able to use their performing, educational or teaching experience to help create new programs and materials. Elizabeth Gaikwad has combined her extensive background and creative skills to produce the Songs for Children and Foundation Duets and Variations programs, which have proven very popular with students and teachers of Simply Music. Apart from that, she’s a much-loved teacher who’s also great fun to be around. She spoke with Mel Karajas about her programs and her love of teaching and music.
Hear some highlights or read the full interview below
Can I ask you about your musical background?
I was one of the lucky girls – I was very blessed with a family in that my father was an amazing flautist that had a love of music all through his childhood, and continued playing flute. My mum has the voice of an angel and played the piano. We grew up, I have 2 elder brothers and they were and still are flautists. One still plays the saxophone, guitar, piano, you name it, our house was mad with music coming out of it. I would have hated to be our neighbours, because from every window there was something musical coming out.
My father played a lot in musical comedy, so when I was at school, and if I was a very good girl on a Friday night and he was doing a show, and I got all my homework done, I was allowed to go to sit in the orchestra pit with him next to the oboe player and next to him, the flautist. Hello Dolly, South Pacific, whatever the show was at the time I would sit there a foot away from the stage and listening right in the orchestra pit. That was my introduction to live music and that was just like magic to me. If I was a very, very good girl I could go back on the Saturday night! Which you know I tried to be at all times because the wonder and the spectacle of it all was something I really loved.
My parents took me to piano lessons, my first instrument, and then I started up on the oboe. I started up on the oboe mainly because the lady who I used to sit in between my father and her, the oboe player, was a very nice lady and I loved the sound of the instrument. It’s a fiendish type of instrument, anyone who’s played oboe or a double reed instrument will understand. So my two main instruments were oboe and piano. I went through all AMEB exams (it’s the Australian equivalent to standardised examinations) and continued right through high school playing music. I’d pretty much burnt out of traditional music and traditional teaching of piano when I was about 15 or 16 and fortunately my parents were running a music shop that had attached to it a music studio where they would employ local teachers to teach the local school kids and other people who wanted lessons.
So in this old run-down house at the back of the music shop they had all their lessons in the afternoons, and one room was completely taken over by a man named Hal Carter, and he taught what was know as the Scheff method of organ playing and he had this great big Hammond organ there that could do everything except make a cappuccino basically. And he taught me the first steps of accompaniment and chords, and that for me has been the thing that has carried me musically ever since because it was just great fun, he’d arranged all this music from the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s into organ style, one hand playing the melody and one hand playing chords and the feet pumping away on the bass notes. Well, I sort of let go of the bass notes because I didn’t have anything at home to practice on that was like that, so I just played it all with chords and accompaniment. So that’s where my accompaniment and duet playing started I suppose. With his fun way of presenting, that was a big, big milestone.
So I would say that my background of music is very varied. My father played classical music. We used to have this series of music where my mother would play the piano. It was called Music Minus One. There would be piano and flute, or piano and oboe, or piano and saxophone, so then we would always be playing duets and always playing together and that to me was the real treasure of family moments music-making together, that sort of round the piano playing something or singing something. So I was very lucky and I’m totally grateful to my family and my mother and father for providing that sort of atmosphere to grow up in.
I then went on to do a degree in music at the NSW conservatorium of music. My major instrument was oboe and I studied there for 4 years. After that I was determined to get over to England one way or the other so I started teaching. I taught piano, I taught oboe, I taught clarinet, I taught recorder, I basically did anything I possibly could to earn enough money to get myself over to England. Eventually I received a scholarship from the Australia Council to go to England and have lessons from Michael Winfield who was a really good oboe player there, and so I went over to England for about 18 months, to the cold of England, and had amazing experiences there in all sorts of different ways, not so much playing in orchestras because over there the competition rate is like a million fold to what it is in Australia.
So then coming back to Australia, mainly I was playing in wind ensembles, wind quintets and orchestras and I did a pit orchestra playing in different shows in Sydney. I played in the orchestra for CATS for some time and then after all that I basically stopped playing for quite a long time. I think I got pretty burnt out from the intensity of it all.
That’s fantastic, you’ve been busy!
Yes well it’s a bit like my whole life.
That’s great, so how did you get involved with SM and teaching then?
Well, after quite a few years of break doing other things like getting married and having children and working for my brother who ran a special events company, that was what I did for about 10 years. Then I had my second child and after that I decided I just didn’t want to go back into office work again so I stayed at home and was doing bits and pieces from home.
Then the son of one of the parents in my daughter’s playgroup had just started with Simply Music, and she said to me “You know, I’m sure you’d love Simply Music, you know you’ve got such a great background in music and it’s a fantastic method” so I jumped online and had a look at the website and thought this sounds too good to be true. I talked it over with my husband and we thought it would be a good thing to at least look into. So I sent an email to Neil – at this stage he was taking enquiries for new teachers – and sent it off and thought let’s see what happens and about 10 minutes later the phone rang and he said “Hi Elizabeth, it’s Neil Moore here”, and I said “WOW, that service is amazing!!!
And so that was in 2004 and I’ve been teaching since then, extremely happily. I love the idea of teaching from home, which is something I do. My studio is in the front room of my house so I skip up the hall to work very happily every day. No parking hassles, no office politics! All those things are out.
So how many students do you have?
At the moment I’ve got about 50 students, I’m teaching mainly private lessons as opposed to group lessons. I’ve got an amazing array of students, all of whom I love very dearly of course. I’ve got 5 year olds right through to 82 year olds. And the thing that I just love is that every student who walks through the door has a different, whole history behind them of needs as far as how to explain things. They’ve all come for different reasons. And the discovery for me is finding how to communicate with them and to connect with them so that the learning process is efficient as possible, so that they can get the tools they need to have a world where music is part of their whole being, which is something I think is absolutely imperative to a balanced personality and generally gives such a fantastic outlet for all sorts of emotions. And basically it’s such a great way to communicate your emotions.
Now speaking of outlets you’ve created some new programs that are used within the Simply Music program, can you tell us a little bit about these?
I’ve been very lucky that Neil has given the green light for these projects and I’m very grateful to him for that. The first one, called Songs For Children, we’ve got 2 volumes of that, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2. There’s a bit of a long history on how the Songs for Children came about. When I was studying at the Conservatorium I did a subject called Layered Analysis, which sounds all very technical and everything, but basically the thing it came down to is that any piece of music has a certain series of chords that will move through it. One of the assignments we had was to take a whole symphony of any composer and work out the chord sequences in it. You had to take every movement and bring it all the way down into this sort of big diagram. I did a Mozart symphony and it all came down to using just chords I IV & V.
Reduced down, it was like you had a great big stock and it reduced down into this absolutely gorgeous gravy which is basically what this thing was. I think at that moment it was bit of a light bulb moment for me of “Wow, you can have this massively complex piece of music and it can all come back down to chords I IV & V”. Then when I started teaching Simply Music, the very first Foundation level 1, comes Jackson blues using chords I IV & V, Honey Dew, the essence of it is chords I IV & V, Amazing Grace I IV V, there was a moment where you think “yeah ok rightio!”
And the other thing that sorted of added into the conglomeration of the importance of I IV & V was that my daughter at that stage was about four or five and I was going up to her preschool every week with my ukulele under my arm and – you guessed it – I only knew 3 chords which were I IV & V. So I managed to sing along nursery rhymes for about an hour every week just using those 3 chords, and I thought “wait a minute, this is a teaching moment”. And so then when in Simply Music you move into starting to teach the Accompaniment program we use the diagram of taking chords I IV & V into any key. So I was using those nursery rhymes with my students saying you can use all these Nursery Rhymes in all different keys and scrounging round for resources to show them how that worked.
And so at that stage I rang Gordon and said “I’ve got an idea for a book that I think will be a great resource for teachers and a great resource for students to be able to learn chords I IV & V in the very first lesson, and then be able to apply it to 9 or 18 songs immediately you get those 3 chords, then instantly you can play all these other songs”.
The power of accompaniment is that you can use these chords and you’ve got the structure of the pieces. But then I wanted to show that you go through the accompaniment program, you add the 7th chord and you add all these other beautiful dimensions of chords that can give really lovely colour and shade to the accompaniment process, so the last section of Songs for Children is exploring how all of those very simple tunes can have a whole variety of accompaniments to them which expand and give depth and make the whole process really enjoyable.
Then the other project I’ve been working on, and we have one book complete and the other will be due out midway through the year, is the Foundation Duets and Variations. When my students come for their lessons and they are first learning pieces or we are playing through their Playlist I quite often jump on the seat next to them and play along an accompaniment with them, and we’ve developed quite a few styles of playing along with them just to jolly along the Playlist and give an extra depth to the sound. So along the way I’ve been playing these at the conferences we’ve had and some of the teachers have asked “How do you do that? I’d love to be able to teach that to my students”. So the duets idea came out of trying to expand the original Foundation pieces so it’s set out in a format which is playing based, so if you’re not reading music they are still available to you.
They’ve got all the accompaniment chords to them so if you’re developing your accompaniments you can read the chords as to how they are used for the lower parts, and there’s also the full score so if you’re reading or if you want to line up with the rhythmic patterns and everything the full score is there, and it also comes with a whole set of CD’s with me explaining each of the projects and how they unfold for both the upper part and the lower part so you can learn them at home as well as in the lessons. So there’s a fair amount of work in each one of them as far as how you can expand your playing. But the main thing I find really exciting about these books is it’s a starting point to see how from the pieces that you know and love, Dreams Come True, Night Storm, Chester Chills Out, all of these great songs that Neil’s produced for the Foundation program, that each one can be expanded out and developed into variations, and these are just some ways that we’ve done it. It’s encouraging students to find their own variations of them as well. So it’s also just a little tool to be able to apply it to other songs.
It seems that a big part of your interest involves sharing music, what do think the value is of people making music together?
For me music is something that is so close to my heart. Being able to connect with people through music is something that is just so precious. Just recently Stevie Wonder came to Australia and I was really fortunate enough to go to one of his concerts, if you’ve ever sat in amongst 20/25,000 people and this guy’s on stage playing music like all the great songs and you don’t know anyone in that audience but somehow everyone feels connected and that connection is because music is so fundamental to our being that when it’s played with a common cause then everyone’s heart opens you feel this complete connection with people, and it can happen in Rock music it can happen in any kind of music.
Just the other day I was at a concert with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and there was an Italian violinist played and he did as one of his encores, a piece that was by Johann Sebastian Bach on the very last day of his life, written to his son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, as his final offering of music. He played it and every single person in the audience had tears streaming down their face. At the end there was at least a 20 second silence where nobody wanted to break, no one wanted to breathe, we all wanted to remember that moment where we were all connected into one moment. And I think only music can do that. It just was a moment where everyone links, everyone’s heart opens, there was a connection between us which goes right through to our core, and for me if I can provide tools for students to experience any moments like that then I’ve done my job!
It sounds like your doing a fantastic job; I’ve got goose bumps already. Well you’ve talked about Stevie wonder and Johan Sebastian Bach, what about the music you love the most?
Well that would have to be up there, I’m very lucky to have an incredible husband who’s from India and I’ve traveled quite a lot in India, I’ve experienced music over there which will take you into another orbit all together. So Indian music plays a lot of role in our household. I’ve got a teenage daughter so she is into all of her teenage daughter type music.
You sound like you love that a lot too!
For me anything that’s got a bit of integrity – sometimes I’ll say to her “Oh you turn that off!” – head banging music I’m not so much into, but you know some of the best moments for me are sitting really quietly and experimenting on the keyboard, you know I love that. When I was learning traditionally I was a completely on the page type of person, you know I was never encouraged to improvise at all, my brothers were and are still jazz and blues players so they improvise and play very freely but for me it was something since I’ve been teaching Simply Music has been really unlocked as far as me starting to write my own piano pieces which I’m really enjoying expanding a little repertoire of pieces that I’ve composed.
So that is something that is very dear to my heart. It’s a bit like an artist, when you put your painting on the wall and someone comes in to critique it, you do get very precious about it in a way, but if it’s part of what you’ve done and whatever you offer up, if it means something to you, then I think the most important thing is you feel sort of strong, and that was the best expression that you could put out there, and hopefully other people enjoy it and connect with it.
There’s a very interesting movie that came out in Sydney last year called Mrs. Carey’s Concert, it was an Australian produced film, actually in a local school from here. They have a concert every second year. It’s about 1400 kids and it’s massive and every single girl has to perform. So they allowed this camera crew to come into record the process and there was one moment in that movie that really sums up a really important thing about music. There was a young violinist who was playing a Bruch violin concerto. She was a very quiet girl, very emotionally mature and had gone through a lot of trauma in her life, and when she played this music you could just feel her soul soaring you know it was one of those beautiful moments.
There was a part of the movie where one of her teachers wanted her to explain to the orchestra who was playing alongside of her what she was feeling at that time and what she was imagining in the music so that they could go there with her, and she was really put out by the teacher wanting her to express it in words and there was a little off cut with her with the camera and she said “The thing with music is that you can communicate things that words cannot express”. And for me that is exactly the thing about composition, about improvisation, about performance – that there are some things that you can not say in words that if you’re in the zone and you are performing and you connect with the audience beyond words straight to their soul or straight to their spirit or whatever, it is that place inside that you know you go when you want to know more about yourself, then that’s what the whole premise I think Simply Music is based on is that we are giving our students the basic tools to be able to have music as a companion in their lives in whatever form that takes, weather it’s a greater appreciation of listening to music or a greater appreciation of playing music or playing it together with other people or just experimenting with sound in the privacy of your own home, and you just love that, that you’ve got tools to do that with. For me that is what it’s all about – giving that connection and the tools to work with to really find yourself in music.
For me when I’m teaching or when I’m playing if I’m somehow making a difference in someone’s life, if I’m creating an environment where people can enjoy music together, if I’m listening to music and can go into a place where nothing else can take me, then that’s the journey for me. I hope I can take my students along that journey with me, so they can find that really deep appreciation of music and just have it as something that is not separate from their lives – have it as something they can merge into.
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