I wrote this essay in 1993, when my college piano teacher retired from the University of Western Ontario. She had an enormous influence on me and several generations of Canadian musicians, and I cherish her wisdom to this day.
Many of us have had teachers who changed our lives- someone whose wisdom and caring fundamentally altered the way we think, feel and look at the world. For me, and for many other music students at Western, that teacher was Damjana Bratuz.
Professor Bratuz, who retired in April from the faculty of music after 25 years, was the reason I attended Western. From the moment I auditioned for her on a wintry March morning, she became the centre of my gravity. My weekly piano lesson with her wasn't just the highlight of the week: it was the week. She demanded the highest standards and introduced a new system of learning, with new vocabulary and new meanings. Actually what she did was give us a new set of ears with which to hear music. A scale wasn't just a scale any more. It was a "Mozart scale" or a "Debussy scale." A trill had infinite expressive potential: a Chopin arpeggio bloomed with its own romantic will.
I'll never forget a lesson just after Christmas of my sophomore year. I had practised through the vacation and was ready to surprise her with several new pieces. I was sure she'd be impressed. Well, if she was, she didn't show it. She began to dissect my Bach fugue, asking me to pick out its separate lines and play each one. I stumbled around and stopped. I'd learned them all in a jumble, all wrong. Then I played some Mozart. I remember my shock when she asked me to stop playing and conduct the music instead. I felt as if she'd just asked me to juggle six oranges and two watermelons. Blood rushed to my face. Sensing my rising frustration, Professor Bratuz leaned over from her position at the second piano and said, almost in triumph, "Use your anger! Anger is good. Use it!"
Like the best teachers, Professor Bratuz's greatest wish was that we become our own pilots. Our charter territory was the classical piano repertory of the past three centuries, which stretched before us as distant and unfamiliar as the far shores of Lake Ontario. From the joyful exuberance of Bach to the ear-bending angst of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Professor Bratuz introduced us to one masterpiece after another.
Professor Bratuz, who was born where the countries of Austria, Italy and Slovenia converge, has never lost her passion for multiculturalism. That's what attracted her to Canada in the first place. Three decades in North America have not diluted her European manner or her colorful accent. Her voice is as musical as Mozart in any of four languages. And she remains a restless, pioneering intellect. In 1958, she won a Fulbright Scholarship to study in the United States and became the first woman and Italian citizen to earn a doctorate degree in music from the University of Indiana in Bloomington. Her life came full circle, she says, when she returned to Italy in 1989, this time as a Canadian citizen and senior professor, to continue her lifelong study in the aesthetics of music at the University of Bologne. Her plans after leaving Western include performing and giving lecture/recitals throughout North America and abroad.
Professor Bratuz believed that her students should not just dabble but wade into the some stream of culture that surrounded and created the great works of classical music. Many of us, fresh from rural Ontario, had never seen an opera or heard a live orchestra when we entered Western. To remedy our deficiencies, Professor Bratuz would bring books on art, philosophy and psychology to lessons. Symbols and the roots of creativity have always fascinated her, Often she would take a carload of students to Toronto in her enormous blue Buick to hear the great artists of the day: Artur Rubinstein, Maurizio Pollini, Rodu Lupu, Alfred Brendel. We would leave London in the morning and spend a couple of hours in the bookstores along Bloor Street. Then we would have supper upstairs at the Cafe de la Paix, where Professor Bratuz would order things in French for us to try. After the concert she would take us backstage to meet the artists.
Slowly, over our four years with Professor B., we began to change. Less satisfied, more curious, more disciplined, we started to shed like old clothes our laziness and ignorance and set out on the road to becoming rnusicians-a road that has no end. She got us to see ourselves as heirs to an enormously rich heritage and to feel the burden of that responsibility. Professor Bratuz's foreign world of pianistic colors and physical gestures was becoming familiar. Although I do not perform today, I use her teachings in my work as a music critic for a newspaper in Portland, Oregon. I try to listen with her ears because she hears better than anyone I know.
Her wish that we be our own pilots has come true for many of her students. Some of us ventured to Europe on our own, to study and soak up the culture. Several former students have grown into respected performers and recording artists. Some are teachers, passing on her principles which she came by through years of thought and practice. Others, like myself, earn our living on the periphery of music, but remain musicians at heart.
As Heather Morrison MusB'75, a former student, said not too long ago: "She made me realize that it isn't possible to separate music from the process of life."
Professor Bratuz didn't teach to our limitations but to our imaginations. She guided us with her eyes firmly on that far shore. If we didn't grasp a concept, she would say, "In 20 years you'll understand."
For me, its been 20 years. I'm just beginning to.
David Stabler is a pianist, writer, dad and cyclist. He's working on a novel based on his childhood years living in Africa and rode across America with his brother in 2017.