From My Perspective – A Tribute To My Piano Teacher

It was with great sadness I read an obituary notice the other day to discover that Thelma Johannes O’Neill had passed away, one day short of her 88th birthday. Her obituary states that Mrs. O’Neill was “dedicated to motivating and encouraging her students to search for the highest musical expression.” I can testify to the truthfulness of that, since I had the honour of being one of her students.

I first met Mrs. O’Neill when I was 15 years old. I had been taking piano lessons for many years, but Mrs. O’Neill was my first “real” teacher, and she taught me what playing piano was really all about. My mother wanted us to take lessons, but as a non-musician she didn’t know what to look for in a teacher. Convenience and cost were the criteria she used, and this meant that I had some very strange experiences. One teacher came to our house, which was a bonus from my mother’s perspective. Unfortunately he was a bit eccentric. For example, he would always write in all the names of the notes (in pen) on any piece before he would allow me to learn it. I hated this since I knew how to read the notes and did not like my music marked up. We had a conflict over this when I bought sheet music for Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and asked him to help me learn how to play it – without writing in the notes. He turned several shades of red and purple, advised me that I had no business challenging him and that I would either learn his way or he would not teach our family anymore, then stormed out! He later called my mother to tell her that I was disrespectful and a terrible student. She was shocked, asked me what I had done to merit this, then insisted I call him and apologize, since she did not want to lose his services as a piano teacher. Even though I knew I had done nothing wrong, and that in fact his method of teaching was incorrect, I had to apologize and submit to having him write in the names of the notes all over my copy of the Moonlight Sonata.

I had other teachers who were even worse. One young girl taught at a studio down the block, and at my first lesson advised me that I played piano better than she did and that there was nothing she could teach me. For a year all I did was go to the lessons and play piano for her. Another teacher had a heavy Hungarian accent and I could barely understand her instructions, although I got a good giggle every time she referred to trills as, “thrillers.”

Fortunately I had a lot of support and encouragement from my paternal grandmother and an aunt; both accomplished pianists, who were willing to listen to me and critique my playing. By the time I reached high school, I had already successfully passed several exams and was at the Grade 10 Royal Conservatory level. I finally begged my mother to find me a “real” teacher, suggesting that she call Alberta College, since they had a reputation for being the best in the city. She agreed, and several days later reported that she had set up a tentative lesson with a Mrs. O’Neill. My mother reported that the conversation was a bit scary and intimidating, and that Mrs. O’Neill had gruffly advised my mother that she only accepted students by audition – she would not consider me as a student unless she felt I was worthy.

I went to that first session nervously, and Mrs. O’Neill made no effort to put me at ease. She looked very serious and spoke in an abrupt manner, using words sparingly. She said nothing as I played the first piece I had prepared, then asked me what I hoped to accomplish. I told her I was hoping to work towards my Associate Royal Conservatory exam. Mrs. O’Neill gave a slight sniff and with an air of disdain told me that exams were one thing, learning to play piano properly was quite another. She then proceeded to show me the difference. By the end of the session I still had no inkling of what she thought of me nor whether she was willing to take me on. As I got up to leave, she simply said, “next week, same time,” in a dismissive tone of voice. I walked out of there elated and apprehensive – realizing that I had finally found a real teacher, but wondering whether I would prove to be a worthy student.

Over the weeks and months, I grew more comfortable with Mrs. O’Neill as she taught me how to really play piano. At last I learned how to make individual notes sing, to pull out the nuances of a tone, to bring passion and intensity to my playing. She showed me the difference between a note that was muddy and boring and one that rang true and clear “like a bell.” I learned all kinds of tricks and exercises to improve my technique and speed, the proper way to use pedaling, and how to effectively memorize pieces so you never forgot. When I bemoaned the fact that I had to learn a Bach Prelude and Fugue for the exam, since I hated Bach:she just gave me a funny look and said that perhaps I had not found the right Bach piece. She then introduced me to Bach properly, choosing pieces that she knew I would find interesting and showing me how to find beauty and challenge in them by extracting the intricate pattern of the underlying theme and variations. By the time she was finished with me I loved Bach!

And I learned to love Mrs. O’Neill as well. Her gruff exterior and abrupt manner hid a deep passion for music and a heart that was full of affection and caring for her students. Although she was usually serious, her sense of humour would surface at times and she had a ready smile of encouragement when it was merited. I studied with her for several years, then left to move to Central America. Several years later, after I married and had my first child, I called her up and asked if I could take lessons again. She said she would be very pleased to have me. Mrs. O’Neill was always very professional, keeping the focus on the lesson, yet she could be very sensitive. On one occasion I came to my lesson upset and distracted over a problem at home with my husband. She noticed my mood and asked if I wanted to share with her what was going on, since I obviously was not able to concentrate for a proper lesson. I briefly shared with her what had happened – en route to my lesson I had seen his vehicle parked somewhere it should not have been and feared the worst – and she suggested I leave and go take care of the problem. The following week she simply asked if I had straightened things out and it was not mentioned again.

Mrs. O’Neill had weekly informal music performance sessions in her home for her beloved students and she always invited me, but I was too shy and intimidated to ever go. I did have a few lessons in her home rather than at the college – an older, smaller, character home in a mature part of the city. I recall being stunned by my first look at her living room. It contained two grand pianos side by side and little else! Mrs. O’Neill’s husband was a painter – not an artist, but a house painter, and I often thought it was odd how someone so dedicated to music would be married to a tradesman with no musical connections. She had no children, and on reading the obituary I discovered that she had very few close family members. Her music and her students appeared to fill any gaps, however.

On one occasion, she had invited me to come to a recital she was giving. I took my eldest daughter with me, who was about three years old at the time. My daughter was entranced by the music, whispering the occasional question and comment about it to me during the performance. This irritated a woman sitting in front of me who kept making shushing noises and rude comments under her breath, condemning me for bringing a child to a piano performance. During intermission I leaned forward and said, “you know, enjoyment of music is not something reserved for adults.” The woman opened her mouth as if to object, then moved away in a huff to sit elsewhere. A lady sitting on the other side of me thanked me for this, saying that if I had not spoken up, she would have. After the performance we went backstage to congratulate Mrs. O’Neill and I recounted what had happened. She was surprised that anyone would be angry because a child had so obviously enjoyed her performance, and told my small daughter that she was very pleased that she had come.

Although Mrs. O’Neill had music degrees from the Paris Conservatory and Ecole Normale in France; in 1981, at the age of 65, she completed a Bachelor of Music at the University of Alberta. I was still a student of hers during the time she would have been attending university, yet I did not know until reading the obituary that she, like me, had gone back to university as a mature adult to achieve a degree. What an inspiration!

Mrs. O’Neill was keenly interested in her students, and always asked about what I was involved in. I told her about my band, and she asked what kind of music we played. She seemed to have difficulty understanding what pop music was all about, so one lesson I performed an Abba piece for her called “Chiquitita”, which I played and sang in the band.” I could see by her expression that even though every radio station was playing Abba those days, she had never heard of them before. But even though it was alien to the classical musical world she was immersed in, she was eager to learn more, and supportive of me. The important thing, for her, was that I was playing music with passion and emotion – “making all the men cry” with my performance.

My life got busy with children, and I discontinued my lessons in 1980. Some ten years later, however, I called Alberta College on behalf of my eldest daughter, to see if Mrs. O’Neill would accept her as a pupil. The College advised me that Mrs. O’Neill rarely took any new students, and the few she accepted were by strict audition. They suggested I would be better off trying one of their other teachers since my chances with Mrs. O’Neill were very slim. I asked if they would just pass on my name and number to Mrs. O’Neill in any case. The next day I received a call. Mrs. O’Neill was thrilled to hear from me and asked many questions about what was happening in my life. To my surprise, she remembered that night so long ago when I had been upset, and with a hint of laughter in her voice asked if I was still having missing husband problems. She said she’d be pleased to accept my daughter as her student, and would not require an audition, since she would trust my recommendation. In a strange twist of irony, one of the first pieces my daughter wanted help with was the Moonlight Sonata, and Mrs. O’Neill’s wry comment was, “they all want to play that one!”

I warned my daughter that Mrs. O’Neill could seem somewhat scary at first, but she soon found out, as I had, what a wonderful teacher she was. She didn’t take lessons for a long time as it turned out, but they had a profound impact. We ran into Mrs. O’Neill often during the next few years at various music events at the College. She was always alone, attending one performance or another that one of her students was giving. We again lost touch for a while until 1995, when I called her to see if she would be willing to take another of my daughters as a student. She told me she would be very happy to do so, but unfortunately shortly after this my marriage broke up and I could no longer afford piano lessons.

I didn’t see Mrs. O’Neill or speak to her again after that, although my eldest daughter would see her occasionally in the coffee shop where she worked. Only a few weeks ago I had occasion to stop by the Alberta College bookstore and I thought of Mrs. O’Neill and wondered if she was still teaching her beloved students.

I don’t normally read the obituaries, but for some reason this past Sunday I did, and was surprised and saddened to see that Thelma Johannes O’Neill had passed away. I was even more surprised to realize that she was almost 88 years old. She had seemed to be timeless and ageless to me – yet she would have already been in her eighties when she agreed to take on yet another of my daughters as a student. I don’t think I ever told Mrs. O’Neill just how much of a difference she made in my life. She wasn’t one to offer words of praise, nor did she seem to expect them in return. The closest she came was during that last phone call in 1995, when she admitted that she always felt I had a special spark of talent in me. I hope that I managed to convey to her my deep respect for what she had done for me when I asked her to teach my daughters. Mrs. O’Neill was an inspiration in so many ways, and although I regret not ever telling her just how much her teaching meant to me, I think she knew. As a teacher, the greatest satisfaction and reward is not in the thank you’s. It’s in seeing the fruit of your teaching, watching your student grow and improve under your tutelage, seeing the spark of light your instruction awakens in them, that moment when your teaching comes alive. Mrs. O’Neill brought music to life, and her love of music and dedication to her students will never be forgotten by those of us fortunate enough to have been among that privileged group.

Debbie is a native Edmontonian, and a single parent with four daughters. She has worked as a professional musician for most of her life, and has enjoyed a rich variety of life experiences – with many more to come! Debbie is working towards an eventual doctorate in psychology, and currently serves as the president of the Athabasca University Students Union.