Swan Kiezebrink is a Suzuki and traditional piano, voice and theory teacher in BC, Canada. Here she shares her piano story …
I grew up in a small town of 5,000 in north central British Columbia, Canada. As a matter of fact, I still live here! We are 11 hours north of the nearest large city, Vancouver, and 10 hours west of the next largest city, Edmonton.
Live music was by ear and the rare occasion a real performance came our way, my family was there! Piano teachers also were hard to find – there were 2 in town, to be precise. And exams? A five-hour drive away – unaffordable.
I grew up listening to recordings of Bach, Handel, Grieg and more, as my dad was a classical guitar teacher most evenings, and my mom loved the piano, but only had a few years of lessons as a teenager.
I do not recall being drawn to the piano – I was drawn to music. I would listen right up against the speakers on the floor, or rock in the rocking chair with my eyes closed and listen to all of it, everything I could hear. Mom and dad decided I would take piano lessons at age 6 with the best of the two teachers in town, so off I went.
I did not like it. I loved to listen to the Suzuki recordings, and had no problem picking that music out and playing it, but reading? No. Practising? No.
So by age 10 my parents were tired of the fight, but could see that music was in my blood and thus told me I had to choose another instrument (a band instrument, as there were no other instrumental teachers in town) and that I had to practise that instrument daily for 30 minutes – the clarinet.
But I did not stop playing piano – I loved it, I just did not love the structure and effort of reading! So I taught myself to play.
I listened carefully to the lady that played at church, would go home, dig out the hymnbook and decipher that she was not playing what was written, she was playing way more – and it sounded so much better than what the hymnbook said to play.
I set out to copy her when my parents were at work, so they didn’t know I was secretly devouring the piano. In this way, over 3 years, I taught myself harmony and counterpoint and chording all by deduction. Later when I was in college, I had a very easy time of learning harmony and counterpoint – it was very logical and I already had the foundation of voice leading and more from my listening and copying.
Back to Lessons
At age 14, I started with my old teacher again. But she did not create music or relate harmony to my music, so it was all very boring again. I almost quit.
But at age 15, I went away to another province for school, and was given lessons by a young lady who understood me.
I had never done scales or technique; I had never memorized any classical music or entered festivals (I couldn’t, there weren’t any where I lived) – and she set out to get my piano training evened out. In that one year of lessons I did three years worth of work because I loved her, and I loved that she allowed me to tinker, but towed the technical line as well.
A Passion for Pedagogy
Once I was in college, I discovered that I loved piano pedagogy, and I loved to teach.
Not only that, but I understood many of the students who came to lessons that were ear-oriented, and could now make the correlation that they had to be taught to read and read well, without squelching their ear or being made to feel inferior (as I was made to feel) by those in the “establishment” who feel that reading and reciting the classics is all there is to music.
I have found my passion in teaching the piano.
I took the Suzuki piano training as well, as I was drawn to that – yet because it was looked down on by the “establishment” I had a secret dread of it, knowing that in my case, it was my downfall.
After taking that training and getting the brainwashed point of view out of my head about how the piano can be learned and taught, I saw that it was actually a lack of training on the part of my first teacher, not a flaw in the system. My parents had given me the best teacher they could, and she was a wonderful teacher. She really did try to work with me – it was my stubbornness that held me back!
Because of the remoteness of where I live, the expense of going to a papered school was not an option, so I chose a music school with a good reputation, but that was small, private, and only 9 hours away.
So to add to my feelings of inferiority, not only was I not a great sight-reader (it is still not my strong suit!), had not done any exams, but also went to a school where my 3 year diploma meant nothing. I went to see if I could challenge the RCM examinations, but at that time they did not offer that option. I did do my Advanced Piano Pedagogy with RCM, as well as four summers of Suzuki training, but still felt like an imposter, even though my students were winning in festivals and going to Provincials.
I still couldn’t think of myself as measuring up.
Just in the last 4 years, I have gotten equivalent status in BC and with the RCM, and feel more validated as a teacher.
I teach 40 students a week and they all work on improvisation, and they all can play their scales flawlessly and sight-read well.
I tailor my teaching to the student, drawing from both the traditional ways of teaching, and the Suzuki way of teaching.
I start beginners through Suzuki only. The freedom as a teacher is amazing – no tracking, no numbers or letters and where they are on the keyboard – just music, listening, asking questions so my students think and learn to listen; modelling and educating parents on practising, listening, supporting, and more.
It is very fulfilling to me and very important to me that my students love music as much as I do, but are prepared and “well-rounded” technically and aurally.
An Ongoing Journey…
Having raised two children and homeschooled them while teaching (I was crazy) as well as teaching them piano as well, I was not as able to practise as I should, and lost a lot in those 20 years.
I was cramming from event to event (in a small community, the ones that can play piano competently get asked to do a LOT of things) and ended up letting my ear and precision slide.
Last year when my youngest graduated highschool, I set out to “get it back”.
I doubt I will be able to, but I have made great strides and am enjoying taking part in the online 40 Piece Challenges to help me take time for myself and my music. Getting a grand piano 5 or so years ago helped, too – my husband convinced me I needed one!
Moving forward, I intend to continue to be the best teacher I can be to the families I have, to inspire them, to hold them to the highest standards that they can each handle, and to ultimately have my students able to have the tools they need for life – to listen intelligently, be able to teach themselves and have a lifelong love of playing the piano in whatever capacity they are able.