This week I received the news that my former piano teacher, Boyanna Toyich, passed away. When I saw the news flash over my screen, I was stunned and suddenly filled with an immense amount of grief.
When I was a student at the University of Toronto, Faculty of Music from 1993-97, she was a key figure in my life. These were my first four years of adulthood. I was a musician and composer who wanted to conquer the world but severely doubted that I had the ability or ambition to do it. Then somehow we were brought together and she guided me and gave me the courage and skills to achieve my dream.
Boyanna wasn’t just a piano teacher, but a therapist, mother, sister, friend and drill sergeant. Most of all, she was a passionate individual who poured everything she had into every lesson and class and made me feel as her student that I was the most special human being and musician in the world.
My first encounter with Boyanna was not that positive though. She was one of two panelists that conducted my audition to get into U of T in the spring of 1993. I traveled to Toronto from my hometown Ottawa on the bus, alone, to do the audition. I was freaked out by this big city. I nervously walked into the imposing music building and played my pieces pretty well. But then came the interview. Boyanna gruffly asked me, what composers inspire you? I named a bunch. Anyone else? I named more. Anyone else? I named the composer of one of the pieces I played, Ginastera. I pronounced it “Jinastera”. And she quickly corrected me, it’s “Hee-nastera”. I brought a small binder of compositions I had composed so far. She took it and rifled through the pages for no more than 5 seconds. I left the audition thinking there’s no way I would get into this school. But I did get in and furthermore, Boyanna requested that I study with her.
Weekly lessons with Boyanna were an amazing experience. She was energetic and passionate. She loved playing along with you. She emphasized musicality…she wanted that piano to sing! Her markings in my music were just as animated. If one didn’t know Boyanna and looked at my scores of pieces I was working on with her, you would think that a toddler had attacked it with a variety of pencil crayons:)! But it made sense to me.
Boyanna held performance classes for her private students every Sunday afternoon each winter leading up to her studio recital in early March. I learned so much watching her work with her other students. It was the perfect setting to get comfortable in my own skin to be a performer. Many of the people I met at those performance classes have become lifelong friends.
Boyanna’s annual studio recital was a grand event! I was honoured that she often asked me to Emcee the event. I didn’t really think of myself as a public speaker at that time, but she gave me the confidence that I could do that too.
Boyanna encouraged me to perform my own compositions. She spent time in our lessons to coach me on my own pieces and invited me to play them in her studio recital. Before studying with her, I never saw a future for myself as a pianist of my compositions. But since then, it has become an intrinsic part of my musical life.
In the weeks before Lisa and I got married, Boyanna organized a high tea at the Hotel Intercontinental with her whole studio to celebrate our upcoming nuptials. Boyanna loved Lisa – she was part of our family.
A couple of years after I graduated, Boyanna called me to invite me to be part of a Piano Monster Concert that would perform in Toronto and Rome. I was honoured that she would ask and we had such an amazing time meeting more new friends and performing outdoors. I was so touched that she still thought highly of me that she would ask me to be part of such a prestigious event.
I have so many memories of Boyanna that will stay with me forever. But there’s one in particular that stands out. When I was in my 2nd year, I came to a lesson at my regular Monday morning time. She asked how I was doing. I said that I felt bad that I was lazy the day before. I said I was so tired and I just plopped myself in front of the TV that Sunday afternoon watching football. I should have been practicing but I didn’t. At this point, one would assume that she would say, yes, you should have been practicing. But instead, she explained to me in a calm but expressive way that my whole life as a composer and musician is to output to the world. TV was a form of input back. And that my body was looking for balance. Don’t feel bad about the fact that you gave yourself balance. Instantly, all the guilt was gone. She gave me a big hug when I left and I proceeded to have an amazing week.
That was Boyanna. Caring, kind, loving. The world needs more people like her.