A Town with Musical Traditions
#7 in a series in a virtual visit back to "My Newfoundland"
Newfoundland has a culture rich in musical tradition. My Catholic schools in Grand Falls-Windsor may not have been a center for the jigs and reels that the island is known for, but back in the 1960’s and 70’s it seemed the entire community provided an abundance of wonderful musical opportunities for its young people.
First and foremost, the Presentation Sisters made it their mission to groom us in the fine art of choral singing. Even in my early years at N.D.A. it was serious business… no fooling around, standing and singing through every music class, keeping a steady beat, and did I say paying attention? I was a daydreamer and was thus prone to an active imagination. (Still am!) But one day I made a discovery of my own and, unwittingly, I shared it.
It was second grade. I caught Sister Andrena’s ear on the way into class, single file and quietly, of course. I whispered to her that I’d learned how to sing like an opera singer. Quite proud, I was. She gave me a silent nod and I took my place in the middle stand on the left side of the classroom. Some moments last forever…
Near the end of class Sister made an announcement to the entire class. “Josette Kenny has learned to sing like an opera singer and she will now demonstrate this for the class.” I swear she did, and so I sang as she asked, because who knew what would happen if a young girl said no to a nun. You just didn’t.
My only option was to cringe and sing a song I knew with as much as vibrato as I could muster. (At the time I certainly didn't know what the word even meant!)
That particular experience, as mortifying as it was, helped shape the teacher I later became - I respected my young students, no matter what their little imaginations came up with.
Around that same time Sister Andrena announced a few openings for piano students. Even though we didn’t have a piano I begged my parents to sign me up. I took lessons with Mrs. Madeline Hamilton (!!) and went to school a half hour earlier each morning to practice on the piano in a little room on the second floor.
Dad soon heard that the Shallows were giving away a piano, and before I knew it, a huge upright grand was brought to our house on Birch Street. I loved my lessons with Mrs. Hamilton, but after a year or two she left to start her family.
Sister Andrena, who had years of experience as a music teacher, took me on as a piano student. Still, my practice habits waned. Could it have been her stainless steel pen that stretched into a pointer… that nipped my knuckles every time I played a wrong note? Who knows? But later that year Sister told my parents that I lacked musical talent. Oh my!
Dad was incensed. “What does she know?" he said. "You’re going to show that nun what you can do, and you’re going to practice every single day for at least 30 minutes.” The law had been laid down. I practiced every day, and come May, I took part in piano examinations…
The only time children EVER ventured inside the convent was for piano examinations. When my turn had come I crept inside and sat on a chair in the wide silent hallway. After I was called into the parlor I was greeted by a tall statue of Saint Cecelia in the left corner, a grand piano to the right, and an older Englishman from the Trinity College of London who was sitting behind a small desk, pen in hand, waiting. After a quick curtsy and a nervous smile I sat at a piano that I had played only once before. Saint Cecelia was now staring down at me from my right. It was scary enough, but I'm glad I hadn't yet heard the story of her martyrdom.
I started with a deep breath because there were no guarantees I’d breathe once I'd begun playing. During the scales, two studies and two other pieces I tried to ignore trembling hands, or was it shaking knees? I never knew which would act up but one of them surely did.
It was inevitable that a note or two, or entire section, would land in the wrong place but what could I expect? Everything had to be played from memory. I was so petrified I felt as if I was jumping logs and hoping that I didn’t fall into the river. But no matter how it went, I always made it to the end. Did I enjoy it? I can’t say I did, but I survived.
Some years I performed better than others. I scored very well the year Dad made me practice every day. That experience taught me that nobody, not even a nun, is invincible, and that there’s a correlation between effort and results.
Perhaps a more joyful musical highlight in our town was the Kiwanis Music Festival. Volunteers from the community organized thousands of participants into a week-long series of events. Adjudicators came from mainland Canada and the United States to judge what must’ve been dozens of choirs and hundreds of young instrumentalists who performed in every auditorium in town. There were also choral speech presentations. We nailed Casey at the Bat.
Each year the same few kids performed in my age group. In fact, the competition was pretty stiff. I rarely took top honors, but several of the others – including Gary Tucker, Michael Malloy & Pam Morgan - went on to have amazing music careers.
A belated thank you to all those teachers and festival volunteers. My mother was secretary of the festival for several years, so I know how much work went into its planning and execution.
Choirs and triple trios were the heart of my years at St. Catherine’s High School. There’s something special about singing in those SSA choirs. Every single person’s effort mattered as we followed every nuanced tip of a small baton or waving hand... all for sake a polished musical performance. What a joy it was when we made it through a song on a river of beautifully formed vowels with no cut consonants and hardly a flat note. Songs from Godspell. Jesus Christ Superstar, and The Sound of Music were just some of the 60's and 70's songs that we sang. How many hours must we have practiced the art of the “s” and the perfect "o"?
My piano teachers at St. Catherine's, Sister Hilda and Sr. Sheila McCarthy challenged me just enough that I stuck with the music and decided to major in music in college. No surprise that I followed in their musical tradition of choirs and piano studies.
Through it all, some of my fondest memories are the duets and theory classes with my music buddies. There are still a few of our silly lyrics floating around in that head of mine... "God bless our gracious hemi-demi-semi-quavers. "
After college Ron Southcott, the Superintendent, called me about a position at N.D.A.. I took him up on his offer! I taught K-6 music appreciation, led choirs, planned concerts, and helped young pianists prepare for their own performances.
It was great teaching back home... but I’d met a guy and I moved back to the states at the end of that school year. In the years since I've bumped into former students who fondly remembered every word of a fun-to-sing song that I'd taught them, Piccolomene! (There's only one word in the entire song.)
I've managed to return most summers, except for this pandemic year. Instead, I'm revisiting my favorite memories and sharing them with others.
A musical upbringing in Grand Falls-Windsor is something that stays with you. "Long live our noble naturals," and our marvelous musical memories!
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Twice a teacher and always a writer, Josette Kenny Abruzzini is a native Newfoundlander and a current Pennsylvanian. As a child she wrote letters to her favorite aunts. As a teacher she enjoyed writing report card comments (as well as teaching her students!). In time she realized her love for writing about Newfoundland and anything else that caught her curious eye.