B. Ed. Music (Vocal Studies) - University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario
Certified Teacher - Ontario College of Teachers, Toronto, Ontario
B.F.A. Vocal Studies, Additional focus: Theatre - York University, Toronto, Ontario
K-8 Orff Specialist Music Teacher - Royal Conservatory of Music, Toronto, Ontario
Certified Yoga Instructor, Octopus Garden Yoga, Toronto, Ontario
First Aid & C.P.R. Trained, First Aid 4U, Toronto, Ontario
My Early Years
I didn't grow up in a musical family.
But, I remember my mom and my mom's mom singing nursery rhymes to me when I was a small child. I also recall my mom singing, and waving her hand like a conductor, while family and friends carolled together on Christmas Eves. My mom has a beautiful singing voice. Her Dad, my grandpa, had a lovely voice too, and he was always singing and humming songs from great musicals of the 1940's and 50's. Every time my grandpa opened a door, he would serenade us with a song. My grandpa's sister also loved to sing and played the piano by ear. On two occasions, I got to sing old Tin Pan Alley pop songs with her while she played her keyboard.
The first song that I am remember having a deep connection to was called, "Spinning Wheel" by Blood, Sweat and Tears. I remember hearing it for the first time when I was four or five. It was Summer. My Dad, Mom and my Dad's four Sisters were painting the outside of my Grandma's farm house white. "Spinning Wheel" was blasting from a speaker and my cousins and I were running freely in my Grandma's yard.
Like lots of kids in their early years, I enjoyed making up songs and singing. However, my passion for poetry and songs really began after my mom gave me a small notebook with a photograph of a fluffy white cat on the front cover. I was seven, and she told me to: "Ask your aunts, uncles, grandparents and friends to write a limerick, a saying, a poem, a quote, or a phrase that means something to them in your book." For some reason - I don't know whether it was the timing or just the way she said it, I took this new task as a journalist very seriously and brought my small note book with me everywhere I went. I studied each hand written poem carefully. I was always reading and re-reading the poems with the goal of finding deeper meaning. Their poems were mysterious to me. Why did each person's penmanship look so different? What do some of these words mean? Why did she/he/they choose to write what she/he/they wrote? Was the poem stuck in her/his/they memory? Why? Who taught them these poem?
In grade two I began writing down the poems and songs I made up and tried to form bands at my friend's houses, and during recesses at Spring Valley Public School in Brighton, Ontario. Surrounded by fresh air and trees, and only two television channels, my brothers and I filled many of our days writing and recording radio plays and songs together.
My hunger for creating and performing music continued to grow through my involvement in elementary and high school musicals and choirs. I owe many thanks to my fourth grade teacher, Pat Artkin. She, with the help of Ms. Menzinie, ran full musical theatre productions at my school. By the time I was 13 years old, I had performed in 5 musicals: "Get Hoppin'", "Oliver", "The Dragon's Tail", "The Wizard of Oz" and "Alice in Oz."
I'm so grateful for my mom and dad, who supported my passions in music. My mom used to listen to me talk on and on and on about my music activities, then sit in the living room and listen to me play the piano or sing a song. My dad had a lot of work obligations that took him all over the world, but he somehow managed to show up to all my performances. I will never forget one evening, when I was about to perform the role of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. I was in grade six and I was shocked because I couldn't find my Dad in the audience. After five minutes into the show, I watched my dad quietly open the gymnasium door, sneak in and stand at the side of the gym. There were no seats left, so he stood for the entire show in his suit and tie. He had just spent the day flying into Toronto Pearson Airport and driving 2 hours east on the 401 so he could make my show.
I also clearly remember a Peer Mediation Camp that I was invited to attend in grade 6. At the camp, a musician led a drum circle. I'll never forget how he created such a safe and warm environment for us to take risks as we sang, "I can See Clearly Now" by Johny Nash, and danced bare foot.
I begged my parents for music lessons, which I began in grade 6. My very first piano teacher, Ona Hazelwood, was wonderful. After just a few lessons, she told me that singing was my calling because I always hummed as I played the piano. She noticed I could sing in tune, so she taught me a song and she enrolled me in a vocal festival where I won a second place ribbon! For many years, I continued to perform in both piano and voice recitals and Kiwanis Music Festival competitions. I was so nervous performing in recitals and never liked competing, but over time these experiences taught me how to breathe under pressure, and how to perform with conviction.
In grade 7, I had the privilege of being involved in private piano lessons with Mary-Lynn Folds and voice lessons with Steven Folds. They were both very kind, efficient and effective music teachers. I learned SO much from them.
So here I am a private music coach now - but, in all honesty, I never loved taking private music lessons! My teachers were so great, but they made me work hard and all I ever wanted to do was write and perform my own music. But I forged on with the rigorous lessons because they taught me to be disciplined and organized. It took me years to figure out how to use my practice time efficiently and effectively in order to prepare myself for each lesson. I kept taking lessons because the lessons gave me strategies to read music - which is like learning a new language. I kept going back because the gruelling vocal exercises made me a better singer. I didn't stop because my dad kept saying, "Grosjeans don't quit" (my maiden name is Grosjean), and many people told me, "Sarah, you have talent!" The funny thing about all this is that my parents never said, "practice the piano" or "practice for your voice lesson." Not once! I was passionate about making music and I put pressure on myself to keep learning more and more.
Why do some memories inspire and stick with us while other memories just don't? I guess the ones that do stick with you are the things you are most passionate about. I will never forget the day my Aunt Mary and older cousins, Jenny and Josh, visited my house. They lived in Quebec, so it was a novelty every time they visited. This particular time around, they brought a hand drum and a guitar with them. Jenny played the drum and Josh played a Blues chord progression on his acoustic guitar. As Josh played the guitar, he said, "Sing anything." I was 13 years old and beyond embarrassed. Eventually, I closed my eyes and started humming a melody and my humming turned into scat singing and my scat singing turned into the words from poems in my note book. I was so inspired and moved by this experience. From that point on, I discovered that I loved Blues and Jazz music and quickly started listening to all the Blues and Jazz greats, like Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Holiday, Diana Washington and Nina Simone. This experience also inspired and motivated my older brother, Chris, to learn guitar. A few years later, Chris taught me how to play the guitar.
In grade 9, I auditioned for a Vocal Jazz Choir called RazzmaJazz. We toured and even won silver at the York University Vocal Music Festival. Singing in RazzmaJazz Choir, and singing, acting and dancing in Musical Theatre Productions at East Northumberland Secondary School was everything to me. I am so thankful to have learned from my high school music teachers, Bruce Tonkin and Dan Walker, and my high school drama teacher, Sharon Caswell. They took a regular small town high school and transformed it into an outstanding arts school. I had the privilege of being casted as an orphan in "Oliver", Peter in "Peter and the Wolf", and Evita in "Evita". I also created and performed in Black Light Theatre shows, and wrote and performed in a Shakespeare inspired play.
Throughout high school, I also had the privilege of taking voice lessons with Donna Bennett who built the famous Westben Theatre in Campbellford, Ontario. At that time, the music I sang for her was very challenging (e.g., Schubert, Schumann, Mozart). She inspired me, and pushed me, to work towards completing my Royal Conservatory of Music Grade 8 Voice and Grade 2 Theory examinations, as well as my Grade 6 Piano examination, which helped me get into vocal music programs at universities. She also encouraged me to keep taking piano lessons because you need piano in order to understand music theory, and to teach and accompany soloists, vocal ensembles, choirs or yourself. That was the best advice ever. I'll also never forget the times Donna asked me to go home and paint or draw a picture of what the song meant to me and keep my visual painting or drawing in my mind when performing the song. Although the poems in the classical songs were old, she helped me interpret the songs in a new way.
For two summers, when I was 15 and 16 years old, I participated in the National Music Camp of Canada, which helped me learn to navigate auditions, and perform, without the constant support of my family and friends. I had to look inside myself to find self-esteem and confidence, instead of looking to others. I struggled a lot with dance because I had took only a few semesters of dance prior to attending the camp. Struggling to learn dance choreography, not getting lead roles, and having to develop friends on my own, were 3 really important experiences. One of the best experiences that came out of the camp was developing a friend for life. Robyn was in the same cabin as I. We met when we were 15, and she is still one of my closest friends. Just like me, she is also a music teacher : )
I went on to study music at York university because they offered a degree in Vocal Jazz performance. At York, I learned so much from Bill Westcott and Bob Fenton. Bill Westcott was the best teacher I have ever had in my entire life. When I went to him for extra help, he could immediately pin point exactly what I needed to practice to succeed. I learned how to sight read music from his Musicianship classes using the Solfege system. Then there was my Jazz Voice Masterclass teacher, Bob Fenton. I'll never forget the first time I sang a song for Bob. He told me that my voice was "nice" but I flushed all the lyrics down the toilet. He told me to sing it again like you're talking to someone and you really mean what you are saying to them. I was so nervous and confused that I just sang the song the same way! In my first year at York, I learned a lot about failure. For example, I auditioned for the Wibi Vocal Jazz choir and I didn't get in. I auditioned for Toronto All-Star Big Band Vocal Ensemble and failed. I auditioned for a major off campus musical and I was rejected. The problem wasn't that I auditioned for these musical groups. The problem was how I responded to failure after each audition. I took each failure to heart. The story in my head was this: I'm not good enough to be studying Vocal Jazz, so I should just do something safe (like Classical Voice - what I had studied in my private lessons prior to university). If I could go back in time, I'd tell my 19 year old self to go back to those same choirs and musical theatre companies and audition again every year until I got in! If I could go back in time, I'd also tell myself not to give up on that extremely challenging music improvisational course taught by Casey Sokol that I dropped. I'd also tell myself: keep going, take the Jazz Theory II course - you can do it! Get a tutor and work hard the summer before Jazz Theory II begins. On the other hand, I built a lot of confidence through studying Classical Voice with Professor Catherine Robbin at York. Catherine really helped me understand how to "breathe deeply and speak truly" (Catherine Robbin). In other words, breathe properly, and sing each vowel sound purely. Unless the markings show staccato, the main goal is always legato singing. Legato is singing smoothly, like how water flows along a river. Legato is seamlessly connecting one note to the next. Catherine helped me interpret songs by connecting lyrics to my real life experiences and truths. She was, and still is, an incredibly warm and kind hearted person. What a privilege it was to work with her, and the outstanding pianist and accompanist, Raia Nachmanovich. I got to play one of the three witches in the opera, "Dido and Aeneas" and performed solos, duets and trios in our yearly "Le Salon de Chant" shows at York.
Touring and Performing
After my time at York University, I toured and performed for five years in China, Bolivia, Germany, France and U.S.A.. My most noteworthy experiences include: recording 6 projects of original music (one album produced by the guitarist, Mark Pelli, of MAGIC!), obtaining a F.I.M.U. Touring Grant from the Government of France, facilitating a huge charity Music Festival in Samaipata (Bolivia), performing at Massey Hall, recording beat boxing tracks for Bob Eagan (Blue Rodeo), earning a MusiCounts Band Aid Juno Grant, singing alto for the Oasis Vocal Jazz Choir in Toronto and adjudicating a High School Vocal Music Festival in Brighton, Ontario. The festival was located at the high school where I went to school and I am forever grateful to Bruce and Linda Tonkin for inviting me to adjudicate at their festival.
After touring and performing for 5 years, I decided to become a music teacher because I realized that I enjoy teaching...even more than performing. I became a music coach because I was taught by excellent music teachers who inspired me to put forth my best effort through practice, then (try to) let go, relax and find joy in telling stories (songs) through performance. I used to think that my best was never good enough, but now, I think the opposite. This is an important message, that is communicated to all the students I teach.
Sarah Saskin (she/her)