Dook’s Look Back: The Merits Of Extreme Piano Playing

Story by Catherine Dook | NWT Archives / Henry Busse fonds / N-1979-052: 6256

 Yellowknife in 1971 was possessed of two musical matriarchs who taught piano lessons. But musical genius is paid for in temperament, and the two ladies had both in plenty. They presented a veneer of professional respect to each other on most occasions, and the two women rubbed along for years.

 I took piano lessons from one of them.

 Every week I walked through the snow to her house where she kept two baby grand pianos in the basement. If I was too stupid or unmusical to understand something, she would explain with infinite patience. If I hadn’t practiced enough, she’d kill me, and she always knew the difference. “Put some guts into it!” she’d scream, waving a lit cigarette. I never did become much of a pianist, but I am an expert on guts.

 I loved my music teacher. And feared her, of course, and gagged on her cigarette smoke and admired her amazing talent and tried to practice enough to convince her I was doing my best.

 By the time I was 16 I was practicing 4 ½ hours a day, which I’m pretty sure was child abuse. Also, you can teach a chicken to play the piano if you make it practice 4 ½ hours a day, and I was just musical enough to make it excruciating for me to listen to myself butcher the classics. I hashed Mozart. I plodded my way through Chopin. I bashed out Beethoven. “Put some guts into it!” she screamed, but it made no difference.


 Some people had two houses, and some people had two cars. Our family owned two pianos, one in the basement and one upstairs. In order to accommodate both my two sisters and I practicing long hours, two of us had to get out of bed at 5:30 a.m. and hammer out scales and exercises and exam pieces for 2 ½ hours before breakfast. The third sister put in all her time after school, well into the evening. It was a simpler time, when parents looked for ways to avoid hanging-around time for teenagers.

 At the end of the year all the piano students in Yellowknife were expected to participate in a recital on the grand piano in the auditorium of the Yellowknife Public School. One year my youngest sister was playing a very difficult piece with a lot of runs and jumps. Hardly had she begun, when the power went out, plunging the auditorium into profound darkness. A gasp went up from the audience. My sister hesitated for a split second, and then barreled to the end of the piece in the pitch dark without missing a note. As she finished the last bars, the auxiliary lights flashed on. The audience gave her a standing ovation.

 “How did you DO it?” someone asked her after the performance.

 “Well,” she said, “every year my sisters and I draw lots to see which of us will practice early in the morning and this year I lost, so I memorized all my pieces in September and practiced them with my eyes closed so I could pretend I was still asleep.”

 Put some guts into it.

 Then Singing North, the local amateur musical-comedy association, had its accompanist come down with something you couldn’t argue with, like a sprained wrist, two days before the curtain went up on Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers. Disaster! Every year Singing North rented costumes from Edmonton, and they’d arrived and been fitted and had cost money. They begged my music teacher to step up, and by Glory she did.

 She sight-read that operetta four nights in a row sitting at the grand piano in the auditorium of Yellowknife Public School sweating buckets. A nervous page-turner stood beside her. When my music teacher jerked her head, the page-turner flipped the page from right to left and then jumped out of her way. If the page-turner wasn’t fast enough, the cords would stand out on her neck and she’d bare her teeth. Her eyes stared fiercely at the notes, her shoulders moved powerfully with the grand piano, and her clever hands made music.

 I went all four nights just to watch her do it.

 To this day I have no idea what the operetta was about. I was watching my music teacher. . . put some guts into it.

 Catherine Dook was born in Yellowknife where her father worked as a bush pilot. She is the author of three humour books and now lives onboard the sailing vessel Inuksuk in Cowichan Bay, B.C. with her husband. Contact to purchase her books.


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