This is Not a Bio; It's a TOME!
→ Suitable for Disregarding!
→ Highly Self-Indulgent!
I was born in Maracaibo, Venezuela, in 1957. I have been occasionally been asked how my parents, both from Alberta, Canada, came to be living in Maracaibo when I was born,
and my short answer is that I suspect they zigged when they should have zagged. But that, of course, is pure conjecture on my part; it could very well have been the other way around, for all I know. In any event,
I thought I would provide some historical background about my mom and dad. Mom
My mother, Alice Lorraine Ross (née Skeith; b. 1922), was raised on a farm near New Dayton, in southern Alberta,
a small and relatively isolated community (population in 2001: 291) about thirty miles from Lethbridge.
She was the only girl amongst five siblings, which apparently led to gender-based teasing (probably exacerbated by her being the second-youngest in the family)
and a sense of injustice over the treatment of women in those days. When the "Women's Liberation Movement" gained momentum in the 1960's, she was an ardent supporter. I recall as a teenager reading her copies of "The Second Sex" by Simone de Beauvoir and "The Feminine Mystique" by Betty Friedan.
She did not foist these books on me, insisting that I read them; I think I read them because I knew they were very important to her, and I also shared her frustrations over
the many injustices of the world. I grew up often feeling like the odd person out in my family, and I suspect she had a similar feeling in the family in which she grew up.
Someone gave me a book called The Highly-Sensitive Person several years ago, presumably because they thought I am such a creature, and the gist of it is that "highly sensitive people, who comprise about a fifth of the population, may process sensory data much more deeply and thoroughly due to a biological difference in their nervous systems. This is a specific trait with key consequences that in the past has often been confused with innate shyness, social anxiety problems, inhibitedness, or even social phobia and innate fearfulness, introversion, and so on." [from Wikipedia entry of the same name.]
I found this a very interesting concept, not only because it had resonance for me on a personal level, but because it seemed to apply to my mother as well.
In my case, it has probably been a contributing factor to some of the issues with which I struggle, but I am fortunate in that I was able to find a profession (and a partner in Jennfier) where sensitivity might be seen as an asset (although, to be honest, it can feel like more of a curse sometimes).
For my mother, however, high sensitivity was was probably seen as a weakness in both her family and society in general; she
seemed poorly equipped to deal with the teasing from her childhood (she would still mention it occasionally as an adult), and the struggles of her adult life, such as alcoholism, depression, and heavy smoking.
Another hardship for both my parents was that they grew up under difficult economic circumstances during the depression, and this influenced both their outlook and the way my brother and I were brought up.
My maternal grandfather, Thomas E. Skeith, had at various times been a lumber worker, general store operator, farmer, postmaster, and Justice of the Peace,
as well as serving on the local school board. He also played piano and organ. My maternal grandmother, from St. Paul, Minnesota, was a graduate of the University of Minnesota.
See box on the right for more information on the Skeiths.
My mother graduated from the University of Alberta around 1945 (I understand that her four siblings did not attend university, making her a trailblazer I guess!), after which she became
a schoolteacher. She stopped teaching when she married in 1948, which I believe was fairly common back then.
Her background as an English teacher was frequently in evidence during my childhood on the numerous occasions when I demonstrated faulty grammar, poor sentence construction, or otherwise exhibited speech problems such as mumbling or stuttering, which I eventually outgrew.
Being a mumbler and a stutterer, I don't think anyone (myself included) thought I would end up in a profession that required frequent public speaking;
hopefully, my mother would have been pleasantly surprised had she lived to see this, or perhaps not; she always maintained that my brother and I could do anything if we put our minds to it, and I believed it.
It just took me a while to figure out how to do this…
The sum total of my academic achievement in music at the time of my mother's death was having completed grade 2 Rudiments at the Royal Conservatory, and having learned how to play guitar a little (one year of lessons when I was fourteen, after which I was self-taught), so she probably had very little expectation that my professional life would turn out as it has. I would like to think that she would have been pleased, since she loved music. Possibly she would still be correcting my grammar, though...
I was preparing for the Royal Conservatory grade 3 Harmony exam when she died suddenly of a massive heart attack.
It happened on October 27, 1978 (my brother's birthday), in Paris, where she had gone for a few days with my dad (they lived in Brussels at the time, and I was living in Toronto). In making arrangements to fly to Paris, I ran into a major obstacle in that I discovered that my passport had expired. I had no idea how one went about getting one on short notice, but fortunately my girlfriend at the time (who later became my first wife) thought of calling the Member of Parliament for our riding, who happened to be
David Crombie, former mayor of Toronto. He arranged for an emergency passport to be issued for me on a Saturday, which amazed and impressed me to no end, and I will always be grateful to him for that act of kindness.
One challenge in obtaining a passport was that I knew no one who could serve as a guarantor, and I ended up asking William Andrews, a teacher at the Conservatory, to do this. He did so willingly, even though (a) he didn't know me very well, and (b) technically, he did not actually qualify as a guarantor. This presented a problem for the bureaucrat assigned to issue my passport, but she eventually issued one to me anyway, a mere ninety minutes before my flight was to take off for New York (where I was to meet my brother) and then Paris.
My memory of the experience in Paris is now a bit hazy, since I was in shock, but I recall my brother and I accompanying my father to the police station, where he was apparently interrogated about mom's death. I guess they wanted to rule out foul play, but it was pretty surreal. My father, my brother, and I spent some time in the crematorium chapel while they played recordings of organ music, none of which I remember. Nobody else came; it was just the three of us, sitting on a pew, not talking to each other. I remember a scary ride in a hearse to the crematorium with mom in a coffin in the back, and the driver drove like a madman, switching lanes erratically and frequently, and passing cars whenever he could along congested city streets. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and I remember thinking that the driver was going to get us all killed, and I didn't care.
I think they put her ashes in a container within a compartment in a wall, and I never thought to ask why my dad didn't have them shipped to a Belgian Cemetery.
My brother could only stay for a few days, as he was working in Washington, D.C., so I went back to Brussels with my dad to try to help out with whatever needed to be done.
Frankly, I don't remember too much of this, but I think we went through her things, deciding what to keep and what to throw out, all of which was pretty hard to do. We eventually came up with a suitcase full of her clothes that my dad wanted me to take back to Canada and ship to my relatives in Alberta. I was given a very hard time at customs when I got back to Canada, though; the Canada Customs agent kept me for hours, interrogating me about why I was taking a suitcase full of women's clothes back into the country, and when I broke down and began to cry, he seemed to see this as a victory and his questioning became even more harsh and included threats to have me locked up. I truly despised this person for many years after that.
I mentioned that I had been preparing for the Royal Conservatory grade 3 harmony exam at the time of her death, so when I got back I tried to continue to do so, but I was just going through the motions. When it was time to write the exam I had no idea what I was doing; I remember staring at the exam for about 2.5 of the three allotted hours, wondering what it all meant and why I was bothering to
study this useless stuff.
I left the exam in tears, certain that I had just blown any chance I ever would have of becoming musically competent. I failed the exam.
Life went on, but I was feeling like it was doing so without me. I don't know that you ever really get over something like that. When I reflected on her life and was able to set aside the painful aspects (drinking, screaming, mental illness), I remembered that she was a good teacher — I have fond memories of her teaching me how to read before I began school (which she did so well that my schoolteachers actually thought I was clever when I was a little kid, and I skipped a grade) — and she was a really kind, loving person to whom I owe a great deal.
My mother was an avid reader; it seemed to be her favorite pastime. When I came home from school I could usually find her in the smoke-filled living room (she was a chain-smoker), with a Dixie cup of gin nearby, reading so intently that it often seemed she hadn't realized that most of another day had gone by.
She loved playing piano when we had one, but when we moved from Venezuela to Peru when I was nine (1966), we did not take our piano (I believe because of the expense), and after that we never had a piano again. This always struck me as extremely unfortunate,
since the move to Peru also seemed to correspond with the beginnings of her fondness for those Dixie cups of gin, which she insisted were actually filled with water. Without a doubt there are
multiple factors that contribute to alcoholism, and perhaps the lack of a piano made very little difference to its onset in my mother's case; I nevertheless used to have "what if" daydreams, wondering if things would have been better if we had kept our piano, which was probably just wishful thinking on my part.
Any musical talent I have seems to have come from her side of the family. Both my
brother and I learned piano from her as children.
My father (b. 1920, Lethbridge, Alberta) never attended university, but he ended up achieving a great deal in life as a business executive, first with Price Waterhouse and subsequently with ITT. He too read a lot, and seemed to retain everything he
read (which I found rather intimidating). After high school he worked at a variety of jobs, including apprenticing to be an undertaker,
but he didn't have a strong drive towards any particular profession, so when Canada became involved in World War II he took the opportunity to join the Canadian Air Force , and was
trained as an radar mechanic and then stationed in London, England.
It is my understanding that he experienced something of a personal crisis following the war,
as he found himself in his late-twenties without a profession. He thus became a highly-motivated accounting student
(much of his training was through correspondence), and became a chartered accountant very quickly.
He subsequently worked for Price Waterhouse in New Jersey (briefly, where my brother was born) and Venezuela (about 11 years, where I was born).
In 1966 we moved to Lima, Peru, where he became the Director of Finance of the Peruvian telephone company (CPT, a subsidiary of ITT) and,
about a year later, when the president of the company died suddenly, he became the President of the company.
My brother (Douglas, b. 1953, New Jersey) is a brilliant guy and an extremely-successful lawyer
living in Seattle. He is Chair of the litigation department for Davis Wright Tremaine (among the 100 largest law firms in the U.S.), serves on the governing Council of the ABA’s Antitrust Section, is a member of the Bureau of National Affairs’ Health Law Advisory Board, and is listed among The Best Lawyers in America. I don't believe he plays piano anymore, although he kept up his skills by taking piano lessons in his early years as a lawyer, and he still enjoys and appreciates music. He has two sons (Aaron, b. 1985, and Daniel, b. 1988). Aaron graduated from Harvard University in 2007, and
subsequently worked for three years as an analyst for an economic consulting organization (Cornerstone Research) in Washington, D.C. In the fall of 2010 he began studies at the University of Virginia School of Law. His brother, Daniel, is also
an impressive individual of multiple achievements, who graduated from Pomona College in 2011, and now works in Los Angeles.
Move to Peru
And now, for some reason, we hop back to childhood…
When I was nine (1966), we moved from Caracas, Venezuela, to Lima Peru, and I hated it.
It meant severing ties with all my friends, and making new friends. Some kids are good at this; I was not, perhaps because I felt socially awkward. It meant adjusting to a British school (Markham College) that was very different from my previous school in Caracas. Kids had to wear uniforms with neckties, and I didn't know how to tie a necktie. It was fine in the morning, when my mom would tie it, but if I had to take it off at school for gym class, I was, at the beginning, unable to tie it properly again, which got me into trouble with the teachers, one of whom apparently considered it sound pedagogy to mock me for this. So I learned to tie a tie, demonstrating the efficacy of his cunning pedagogy.
Some classes were taught in Spanish, which I could speak well enough to get by, but not well enough to understand very much about what was going on in biology class. Yeah, biology class. For nine-year olds. And many of the teachers were mean, crazy, and fond of administering corporal punishment.
Speaking of mean and crazy, the local customs of many of my classmates were varied, and included schoolyard bullying, kicking a person while they were down, and ostracizing the foreign kid. Even the the foreign kids would take part in this, if the foreign kid was new. The teachers, to their credit, would turn a blind eye to this behaviour, knowing well that invaluable character-building was going on.
I was required to play cricket, and in my three and one half years there was never allowed to bat once. When it became obvious that no one really cared what I did, I would go explore the hedges on the perimeter of the playing fields, and hide in them until it seemed prudent to come out. Probably I would have been allowed to bat had I stayed another three and a half years, but perhaps not. Peru was also when my home life began to deteriorate; my mom began her heavy drinking, my dad was not home much, my brother was away at boarding school, and my mom was hospitalized for a "nervous breakdown."
But all kinds of worse things happen to kids all the time, and, while I didn't care very much for my new life in Peru, not all of it was bad. I made some good friends,
the closest of whom was Victor Krebs, who later became a philosophy professor.
All good things come to an end, as do bad ones, and when I was twelve (1969) I was sent to a boarding school in Canada, Bishop's College School (BCS), about 6,500 kilometers away.
This too was not a particularly positive experience, but I disliked it less than my previous school, so things were looking up!
A military coup brought down the elected government in Peru in 1968, to be replaced by a dictatorship under which the constitution was suspended.
They "nationalized" (i.e., took over) companies with foreign ownership, including the one for which my father worked (it had been owned by ITT)
and I gather the climate became less and less hospitable for foreigners, so we left South America in 1970. I don't think I had any
inkling at the time that I would never return, but I never have. Would I like to go back one day? Sure, but it seems unlikely.
Moves to New York City, then New Jersey
We moved from Peru to New York City (1970), and then Fort Lee, New Jersey (1971), where I attended grades 10 and 11 of high school.
I began taking guitar lessons when I was 14 in Fort Lee, and soon began to spend 3-6 hours a day playing guitar. Yes, I did practically no homework. And yes, for me music was an escape; at the time, I felt very little connection to my father, and my mother, with whom I felt connected, spent an extraordinary amount of time incapacitated by her drinking.
Music was my refuge.
Parents' Move to Belgium, Return to Boarding School
In the summer before my final year of high school, when I was 16, I learned that we would be moving to Belgium.
I was given the choice of joining my parents in the move and finishing high school in Brussels,
or returning to the boarding school in Quebec that I had previously
attended while living in Peru. Neither option seemed particularly attractive to me; I kept wishing there could be a third choice, like quitting school and joining a rock band, but this option was actively discouraged by my parents. I opted for the devil I knew (boarding school), passing up the opportunity to go to a school I might have actually enjoyed,
based on reports I later heard about the international school in Brussels from people who had gone there.
No move was ever a pleasant experience,
but this one was particularly difficult because I'd developed close friendships in Fort Lee that helped me to occasionally ignore the fact that
my mom was a chain-smoking, depressed alcoholic, and my dad seemed ashamed of me.
I did not enjoy boarding school and missed my friends a lot; I appeared to be perpetually down at the mouth, with a glazed, far-away look in the eyes in
any school photographs taken of me that year. At least I think that's how I appeared;
as far as I know, all personal items relating to my childhood were later thrown out by my evil stepmother (more information below).
But who knows, perhaps going back to boarding school was the best thing for me at the time. My academic career had mostly been undistinguished, to put it mildly
(I was consistently near the bottom of the class when I lived in Peru - did I already mention I was unhappy there?),
and, since (a) there was nothing better to do, and (b) it occurred to me that if I didn't shape up I was unlikely to get into university,
I actually worked very hard that year for the first time in my academic life, surprising myself with the results. And, although I missed my friends,
I didn't miss living in the dysfunctional and chaotic conditions at home, so perhaps it was good to be separated from that. I also got to play on football, hockey, and track and field teams, which probably contributed to my lifelong love of sports. The only slight irony there is that my favorite team sports are baseball and basketball, which I never got to play there. I frequently played recreational basketball during university, though.
It transpired that I would never again live at home, since I began university in Toronto the year following my return to boarding school.
However, I spent summers and other holidays in Brussels for the next few years, and I
was an avid cyclist, so I got to know the city pretty well.
It seemed like a great place, and not just because it was home to the extraordinarily small and chronically incontinent public
statue known as the Mannequin Pis, and many other even larger public statues. It seemed filled with wonderful restaurants.
I learned that eating Belgian chocolates make you a better person and go a long way toward erasing childhood trauma, and ditto for gaufres, which bear a passing resemblance to Belgian waffles here in
North America, except they are much, much better (I am salivating as I write this...) and you'd buy them from street vendors.
My father became Comptroller (an odd spelling, for sure, but that's how I believe it was spelled) of ITT Europe, and
eventually retired to the Alicante region of Spain, where he died in 1992.
University in "Toronto"
Why did I choose to attend the University of Toronto? I had also been accepted at Queen's University and the University of Western Ontario,
and, having visited all three campuses with my brother the previous summer (he was nice enough to take me on a driving trip from New Jersey to check out
Ontario universities), it struck me that Western was probably the one I would like most, simply because it seemed to have more open spaces (e.g., playing fields) and
more modern architecture (which stands to reason, since it is newer). However, U of T's acceptance letter threatened that if I did not accept within something like two weeks,
the offer would be rescinded, so I caved in to their threat, thinking, "ah, what the heck?", and accepted their offer.
When it came to choosing a college within U of T, I chose one that, based on pictures, seemed to have the most open spaces (e.g., playing fields, but they also had horse-riding stables) and modern architecture, and picked Scarborough College.
Did I know Scarborough College was not in Toronto? No, I did not. Turns out, it's not even in Scarborough; it's in a place called West Hill, Ontario, which is even farther from Toronto than Scarborough! Should I have known that it wasn't in Toronto? Oh, sure, probably. But who ever heard of a place called "University of [city name here]" with colleges that aren't even in that city? Of course, as I later learned, there are numerous examples of that very thing, but silly me, I just assumed that all University of Toronto colleges were in Toronto. Which explains why the heading of this section is University in "Toronto," in case you were wondering.
In fact, I didn't even figure out that such was not the case until I got to Toronto and (eventually) found my way to the admissions office, where some lady (eventually) told me that Scarborough College was a long way away. To her credit, she did not burst into laughter as she was telling me this. This led to a multi-hour odyssey on the Toronto Transit Commission attempting to get to Scarborough College. Let us just say that the people of whom I would periodically ask directions did not always provide accurate information. Finally, I hopped off a bus in the middle of nowhere because I saw a sign pointing to Scarborough College in a direction opposite to the one in which we were heading, and just followed the road signs on foot for the remaining hour and a half that it took to get there.
I don't have much to say about my experiences at Scarborough College. My academic career there was undistinguished, but I somehow got a Bachelor of Arts degree in Humanities, which was a fairly new programme in which you had to take courses in the sciences, social sciences, and the humanities, and I liked the idea of a broad, liberal arts education. I took a few music courses, which mostly turned me off the idea of studying music in a university. The first course was basically music appreciation, using the Joseph Machlis text, "The Enjoyment of Music." The instructor was someone who clearly loved medieval music, but not much else, and his lectures were peppered with put-downs of composers who had the gall to live after the medieval period. To be fair, he probably had a few nice things to say about Bach and Beethoven, but what I remember most strongly was his musical snobbery, which I incorrectly assumed was probably typical of all university music professors.
One positive aspect of those years was that in the summer following my first year of university I met and started going out with a young woman when we both had summer jobs at a retreat for the wealthy called
the Caledon Mountain Trout Club. She was also a U of T student (although her college was, inexplicably, in Toronto!?); we fell in love, and eventually (six years later, I think) got married. She was a French major, and spent a year studying in France after graduation. I visited her there in the spring of 1977, and we spent a good part of that summer traveling around Europe, including stops to visit my parents in Brussels. When we finally returned to Toronto, we had both finished university, and I got a job at Grey Coach Lines as an information operator. And they said you couldn't find a job with Bachelor of Arts degree! Actually, maybe all they said was that you couldn't find a job related to your degree, in which case they were right. But I didn't mind; I was happy to find a job of any kind, and besides, I already had decided that I wanted to follow my dream of becoming a musician, so I knew that job was just temporary.
I recognized that lots of people start a job that they consider to be temporary only to find themselves still there many years later, seduced perhaps by the security of a regular paycheck even if the work itself is uninteresting, so, to ensure that my job as an information operator would be temporary, I quit after a year there. Maybe that wasn't a very smart move, since I didn't have much of a savings built up, but in my mind I had to quit and devote my time to writing songs and performing them. Things do not always go as planned however ...
Mom's Death; Turning Point
As mentioned above, my mother died suddenly and unexpectedly on October 27, 1978 while visiting Paris with my dad. This, as you might expect, marked
a turning point in my life. I was twenty-one, and had just quite my job at Grey Coach to follow my long-time dream of becoming a musician. It probably struck anyone who knew me as a pipe-dream (i.e., an unattainable goal), since my formal training in music was so weak — piano lessons from age 5-9, guitar lessons for a year when I was 14,
a course in music rudiments, and that was it. My informal musical training was more extensive, however, consisting of spending many hours a day playing guitar and learning songs, often by ear.
One of the results of my mother's death was that I took stock of my own life,
and was unimpressed, to put it mildly. As corny as it sounds, during my mother's sad little funeral service at the crematorium I made a vow
to stop wasting my life away, and to work harder than I had ever worked before, for as many years as it took, to realize my musical dream. I
wasn't clear on what type of musician I wanted to be at the time - I played mostly pop/rock music, and I enjoyed
jazz and other kinds of music as well, but I wanted to somehow be involved in some aspect of music making, possibly even becoming a recording engineer. Becoming a classical musician, particularly a classical music composer, had never crossed my mind. I don't think I even knew that becoming a composer of classical music was a possible career choice. I'm still not sure that it is...
In which he Decides to get some Musical Training...
Recognizing that my severe musical limitations (I could barely read music; I had heard that neither could the Beatles, but I wasn't them) could possibly stand in the way of
becoming a successful musician, I decided, on the advice of a friend of a friend, to enroll in a music rudiments class at the
Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. Although it was mind-numbingly boring, the class was an
interesting experience because most of the other students seemed to be about
ten years old (I was twenty-one), and the desks seemed too small for adults; I could not fit my knees under them. Initially, I wasn't planning any studies beyond that, but
one thing led to another, and I ended up spending the next eight years (!) studying at the RCM
(theory, history, ear-training, piano, guitar, and composition), while working (mostly) as a sales clerk at The Bay.
I also took jazz guitar for two years at the Eli Kassner school in Toronto (my teacher was Mike Roberts).
Another significant turning point in my musical life occurred in 1980, when I began studying composition with
Dr. Sam Dolin, one of the best teachers I ever had. I had decided to pursue an ARCT in composition, which required writing 12
three-hour exams, and, if successful, submitting a composition portfolio for approval. For the next four years I studied renaissance and
baroque counterpoint, romantic harmony, twentieth-century techniques, history, and of course, composition, all (with the exception
of the history courses, which, frankly, were pretty lame) at a more involved level than is required for a typical undergraduate
music degree, and, for the first time in my life, I was consistently doing well in my studies. I eventually finished my ARCT in composition
(1985), and, although I went on to do Master's (1986) and Doctorate (1992) degrees at the University of Toronto,
my conservatory diploma probably meant the most to me because it was an accomplishment I never
even imagined when I began taking rudiments classes as an adult eight years previously.
My composition teachers at U of T were Chan Ka Nin (1 year), John Beckwith (4 years), Harry Freedman (1 lesson), and Gustav
Ciamaga (1 year). All were good teachers, but as might be imagined, I gained the most from
John Beckwith both because of the length of my contact with him, and because his teaching approach was fairly similar to Sam Dolin's.
The fact that I only had one lesson with Harry Friedman might lead some to wonder if we had a really bad lesson, but such was not the case. The explanation is that I had been hired as a sabbatical replacement professor at
McMaster University in the fall of 1990, the year Friedman was assigned to be my advisor, and I ended up working feverishly (literally; I actually had
a cold that lasted virtually the entire academic year) to try to pass myself off as competent in the eyes of my students.
Somehow, it seems to have worked (at least some of the time), and I survived the year, but
I was unable to find time for composition lessons (although I kept composing when I could,
and finished most of the first movement of my thesis as well as some chamber pieces that year).
But composition lessons can only take you so far, and possibly the most significant factor in my later development as a composer
was my involvement in Continuum, the Toronto new music group. It afforded me the opportunity to rehearse and
hear every piece that I wrote, from which I developed a much better sense as to what worked musically, and what was possible. After several years of active membership, I became Treasurer, and finally, President. Almost all members were composers, with the
exception of Jennifer Waring (flutist and first President), and initially, the idea was simply to hire some musicians,
rent the Music Gallery (a Toronto concert venue), and have a concert of our music away from an academic venue, which we did. No one died, so we decided to try it
again the following year. Once again there were no casualties, so we became slightly more ambitious, and every two years we increased
the number of concerts by one, until we reached four concerts in the 1991-92 season.
An idea we tried one year that
seemed to work out well was to have a different Artistic Director, or "Curator" for every concert; I believe we tried
this the year we had four concerts. The reason for the suggestion was because I suspect composers
are never too thrilled about someone else making artistic decisions for them, and, frankly, we were having trouble
reaching consensus on programming decisions. Our 1991-92 season had four radically different concerts, representing
four different artistic visions, but all were excellent. Even though there was a lot of work involved
that wasn't always pleasant (publicity, becoming incorporated, figuring out how to get people to come to concerts, fundraising,
writing grant applications, trying to get the CBC interested in recording our concerts, etc.),
I think the experience was probably felt by all to be valuable. Many
members from those early days have enjoyed successful compositional careers, including
Alastair Boyd, Omar Daniel, Larysa Kuzmenko, Sasha Rapoport, James Rolfe, Ron Smith, and others.
I became a teaching assistant at the University of Toronto in 1986, the year I began my doctorate studies. The course I was given to teach
was first-year sight-singing, and I remember being so anxious the first day that I had to fight a strong impulse to flee
without as much as a backwards glance just before entering the classroom. I ignored this impulse, the class went well, and I came to
realize that I actually enjoyed teaching! In fact, I actually found it exhilarating at times. Over the next few years as a graduate student I also taught a number of
music dictation sections, as well as both first and second year harmony. In addition, in 1987 I was hired by
the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, where I taught all levels of harmony, counterpoint, analysis, history,
and composition. By the time I was hired as a sabbatical replacement for a year at McMaster University (1990-91),
I had had a relatively wide variety of teaching experiences, so I was reasonably confident that I could do a good job.
Nevertheless, it was an exhausting and intense experience; with the exception of first-year materials,
I had never taught any of the other courses in my assignment at the university level, so I spent practically all my waking
hours preparing for classes, marking, teaching, or on the highway commuting between Toronto and Hamilton.
I went back to teaching at the Royal Conservatory of Music (RCM) the following year (1991-92) - I can't remember if there was even a single university composition job
advertised in Canada that year - and concentrated on finishing my doctoral thesis.
While my resolve to become a composer was as strong as ever, I was very much aware that the odds against making a living as a composer were enormous,
and, with a wife, an infant daughter, and a teaching income from the RCM that was substantially below the poverty line,
I needed to consider alternative means of employment. There are infrequent points in life when it a reality check may be a good idea, and, when I did so at the age of 35,
it seemed increasingly (and painfully) obvious to me that a career as a composer wasn't in the cards.
I considered many alternatives, including driving a cab and
selling real estate, but I could not think of anything else I might enjoy doing. This presented a dilemma for which I could see no solution (also known as a crisis), so I just kept muddling on, hoping to catch a break some day.
1992-93; things change
Many things changed in 1992-93. I was hired for
a year by Memorial University, with the understanding that there would be a permanent, tenure-track position to which I could apply the following year.
I called my father in Spain several times that summer to tell him the good news, hoping to at long last win some measure of approval from him (he never seemed to understand why I wanted to be a musician),
but could only reach his answering machine, and my calls were never returned.
It later turned out that he had died
long before I made those calls, but his wife (he had remarried remarkably quickly after my mother's death) took several months to inform my brother and myself of the fact. This
was done through a tersely-worded note, the gist of which was, 'your father has died. Do not attempt to contact me. Below is the name of my lawyer.'
She appeared to be concerned over the possibility that my brother and I might make a claim on some portion of our father's estate,
and felt she needed time to put her affairs in order before notifying us of his death. One of the consequences of her paranoia was that we never knew about
any funeral plans, and we were thus unable to attend it (if indeed one took place, which I doubt).
Other difficulties from that year included a miscarriage, the death of my cat, the separation between my wife and I that would eventually (5 years later) lead to divorce after 17 years together,
and being parted from my 2-year old daughter (whom I missed terribly), who stayed in Toronto when I moved to Newfoundland.
I began to feel I was under a dark cloud from which there was no escape.
This was around the time I wrote my Interlude for String Orchestra,
subtitled "La Muerte Me Está Mirando," which was an attempted musical representation of some of what I was feeling.
Click here to have a listen,
if you wish.
On the positive side, I was a finalist in the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra's
Young Composers Competition, another piece of mine was chosen to be part of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra's
Young Composers Workshop, and I was enjoying the teaching that I was doing. The best news of all on the professional front was that I was offered
a tenure-track position at Memorial in the spring of 1993. It was a year of extremes.
The School of Music at Memorial University had excellent faculty and many strong students when I arrived in 1992,
and things have only improved since then. It has been a good place for a composer to be, because there are so many outstanding
and active performers. This has led to numerous performances of my music both here and elsewhere, almost all my music being
recorded by the CBC, and over 20 commissions. A list of some of the many fine
musicians, ensembles, and orchestras to have performed my music can be seen here.
One of the more exciting experiences I have had here was being invited to be Composer-in-Residence at Ireland's
Waterford New Music Week
in 2003, others include Young Composer's Awards in national competitions by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and
the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra.
More recently, I founded and am the Artistic Director of the Newfound Music Festival (2004-), held every February in St. John's, and
I serve as secretary on the Executive Council of the Canadian League of Composers, and I have also served on the Board of Directors of the
Canadian Music Centre and the Canadian New Music Network.
I have won Memorial University's President's Award for
Outstanding Research (1999), and some Newfoundland Arts and Letters Awards in composition.
I married Dr. Jennifer Porter
(professor of Religious Studies, Memorial University) in 2000, and I have three children (Alexander, (b. 2004), Andrew (b. 2001), and Julia (b. 1990).
My interests outside of family and music include baseball, cats, cooking, ethnic food, hiking, reading, wassailing, writing short stories,
and invigorating jumping dances.
Thomas E. Skeith (my mother's dad) was born in Cornwall, Ontario on December 2,
1879. After high school he worked in a grocery store for
four to six months for nothing, purportedly, in order to learn his job.
In 1900, at the age of 21, he moved to Minnesota and
worked for various lumber companies until moving to Alberta.
He married Ethel Boynton Spooner (b. ~1884), of St. Paul, Minnesota,
on September 17, 1908. Mrs. Skeith was a graduate of the
University of Minnesota. Their first child, Robert Howard, was
born at White Bear Lake, Minnesota on July 19, 1909.
T. E. Skeith, his wife Ethel, and their son Robert, settled in Kipp, Alberta,
where he operated a store until 1912. At this time he built a
forty-eight by fifty foot store in Coalhurst, Alberta, that had three
rooms at the rear for living quarters. Mr. Skeith served on
the Coalhurst School Board and he also served as Justice of
the Peace, for two or three years. Their second child, a son (Donald),
was born in Coalhurst. In 1915 the family moved to New
Dayton, Alberta, where T. E. Skeith operated a general store until 1934.
He became postmaster in 1919 and retired March 30, 1957.
Other children in the Skeith family were: Lloyd, who was born (~1920) in
Lethbridge, Alice Lorraine (my mother) born in New Dayton, April 16, 1922, and Norman,
born (~1925) in Lethbridge.
The Skeiths acquired their first land about 1917 in the New Dayton area, and began farming.
Their eldest son, Robert, worked on the home farm from the time he was a young boy until his retirement
from active farming at the age of 65, after which he continued to live there while
renting the farm land.
Due to failing health, Mr. and Mrs. T. E. Skeith moved to
Lethbridge in 1964. Thomas E. Skeith died July 30, 1965 at the age of 86, and
his wife passed away March 2, 1976 at the age of 92.
Their daughter, Alice Lorraine Ross (Skeith), died two years later, on October 28, 1978 in Paris, France, at the age of 56.
Robert (Bob) Skeith died November 6, 1979, and Lloyd Skeith died on February 6, 2007, at the age of 87.