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Celebrating success at LCMS

As music school approaches its 50th anniversary, retiring principal Susan Magnusson looks back
Susan Magnusson, former principal of the Langley Community Music School was honoured by outgoing Langley City mayor at a retirement party. She took some time to reflect on her years at the school, where she remains as a piano instructor and principal emeritus. Photo courtesy Rosemary Wallace

Pianist Susan Magnusson joined the teaching staff of Langley Community Music School as an instructor in 1973.

Twenty-seven years later, she took over as principal following the retirement of Ian Hampton.

Late this summer, Magnusson followed in Hampton’s footsteps, retiring as principal of the school, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2019.

Retirement has not marked her departure from the music school in City Park, however, where she remains as both principal emeritus and teacher.

Q: You continue to teach piano at LCMS, but the occasion of your retirement as principal seems like a good time to reflect on your 45 years at the school.

LCMS had been opened just four years when you arrived so, in essence, you witnessed it in its infancy. What are some memories that stand out for you from those days when the school was still taking shape?

A: Shortly after my husband, Stewart, and I moved to Langley in 1973, I read in the local paper that the Langley Community Music School was holding an open house. I remember how excited I was to learn that Langley had a music school. I attended the open house where I met Marilyn Lamont, one of the founders of the school. Shortly after, I was asked to substitute for one of the piano teachers who was on extended leave. I had a full time job in Vancouver at the time but was happy to teach in the evenings.

A few years later I gave up the Vancouver job and focused on developing a new program at LCMS. The Suzuki Method was just being introduced in North America at the time and I was fortunate to be among a small group of teachers who attended a training program at Langara College in 1974. The method is based on the philosophy that every child has the potential to learn music the same way they learn language; through listening, imitation and repetition and starting at a very young age.

I started a small class of four students. Within the first year the students were performing at an unusually advanced level for their age. I travelled to several preschools in the area to tell them about the program and soon had a waiting list of over 100 young students wanting to start lessons! Today, the school’s string program is based on the Suzuki Method and we have close to 200 students involved in Suzuki piano, violin, cello and harp classes.

I love to teach and plan to continue as long as possible. Former LCMS Principal, Ian Hampton, is still an important member of the faculty at age 83.

As one of only a few registered Suzuki Method teacher trainers in Canada, I hope to have more time to accept invitations to present the method to teachers in other parts of the country. I’d like to pass on my knowledge to the next generation of teachers.

Q: One of the major changes, of course, was the construction and opening in 2001 of the new school building in City Park, including the addition of a dedicated performance space, Rose Gellert Hall.

What are some of the memories that stand out for you about that very busy period of time?

A: This was a very exciting time for all of us at LCMS. We had outgrown our facility long before 2001 and had attempted several time to raise funds for a new facility. After years of profile raising and fundraising, we were finally moving into our beautiful new building. It was a time of celebration. We are forever indebted to all of the volunteers who worked tirelessly throughout the capital campaign and to all of the donors that contributed the funds to make our dream a reality.

Along with a new building came the need for more instruments to fill the additional teaching spaces. It was beyond our wildest expectation that we would have a nine-foot Steinway concert grand in our concert hall. But, again, as a result of a generous donation, I was on my way to New York to Steinway Hall to select the instrument for Rose Gellert Hall.

I had the help of renowned pianist, Jon Kimura Parker. He was living in New York at the time and I solicited his help. Jon had performed as a child at the opening of the original LCMS building in the early 1970s. He graciously agreed to help us with our capital campaign and also with the selection of the piano. I’m very pleased that he has agreed to perform at the first concert of our 50-year celebration in January, 2019.

Q: Since the opening of Rose Gellert Hall, live musical performances have drawn a wide audience to the school, but is it fair to say the concerts have been especially popular with seniors — the Sunday daytime series, in particular? What feedback have you received from the senior community about the musical offerings?

A: The Sunday afternoon concerts are programmed especially with seniors in mind. It’s important to provide opportunities close to home for seniors to experience live concerts and interact with local and international artists. We receive very favourable feedback from the audience. I often hear how much they enjoy the commentary and performances. It’s almost as if they are reminded each time about how much they enjoy the performances and each one seems to be better than the one before.

The format allows for a conversation between Artistic Director, Elizabeth Bergmann and the artists about the interesting points of the performance that the audience is about to hear. There is time for coffee and mingling between the chat and the concert. It’s timed so that our seniors can be back at their homes in time for 5 p.m. dinner.

Q: Has the school had many senior citizens as students over the years? At what ages have you found seniors taking up an instrument? What is/are the most popular instrument or instruments among older learners?

A: I see more seniors coming to the school and we are welcoming their participation. It’s never too late to not only return to playing an instrument but also to start a new instrument. We constantly hear about the benefits of music study to healthy aging and I see evidence of this constantly.

We have had seniors in their 90s still coming for their weekly sessions with their teachers. The teachers also enjoy the interaction with senior students. They take a totally different approach to teaching adults than to younger students. We offer opportunities for adults/seniors only to get together to perform for one another.

We really have older learners taking up all instruments – cello, violin, guitar but probably the most popular is piano. I think most had the opportunity to take piano lessons as children. The Langley Community Chorus also rehearses at LCMS each week and I see many seniors involved in the choir program.

Q: Do they seem to have similar reasons for taking up an instrument in their later years or is each story unique?

A: I think the main reason is that retired adults are looking for interesting and challenging activities to help they stay active and healthy. Music certainly achieves those goals. And lessons aren’t the only opportunity available to seniors. We depend on volunteers to serve in many different capacities, from serving refreshments at our concerts, assisting with the delivery of our programs, to serving as directors on our board.

Q: The school has had a number of former students go on to have distinguished musical careers. Are there any former students whose careers you’d like to publicly acknowledge?

A: I always am proud to acknowledge the success of our students. There have been many who have gone on to become very successful professional musicians and we will be showcasing many of them in our upcoming concerts. One of my former students, Susan Tang, is now on the faculty of Northeastern Illinois University. She will return to Langley to perform in our Café Classico Series on Feb. 3 and also adjudicate our piano students during the annual scholarship awards festival. We will be featuring another former student of mine on March 10, Stephen Duncan, but he will be singing. He will be accompanied by alumnus Derek Stanyer.

Q: What do you see as the school’s role in terms of the development of young musicians?

A: Not only does the school provide excellent training to students to prepare them for post-secondary studies towards a professional career, we also feel it’s important to provide our former students with opportunities to perform as they develop their professional careers. We also are fortunate to be able to provide financial assistance to our students throughout their education through our scholarship and bursary program, including a career development scholarship worth $10,000.

But our goal is not to produce professional musicians. I am particularly proud of the work we do with the very young students. Our Babies and Toddler programs provide parents with the opportunity to interact with their babies in a musical setting and raise their awareness of the amazing potential of their very young children. They are encouraged to provide an enriched environment that will be of benefit in all areas of the child’s development at every age.

The school’s mission is not only to provide the highest quality of music education to the community but also to enhance cultural development.

Our goal is to foster an environment where personal growth and cooperation are nurtured through musical activities.

Our community music school has proven to be an asset to the community. We enjoy the opportunity to provide our faculty and very talented faculty to perform at community events. Among the highlights for me was my participation as director of ceremonies for both the 2010 Summer Games and the 2014 Seniors Games.

Q: The school has long had a focus on supporting music by Canadian composers. Why is that important to you?

A: While it is important to gain training through the great classical composers of the past 400 years, students should also have an opportunity to experience music written in modern times, especially by composers of our country. I think this develops an awareness of the art form that only comes from realizing the process of creating the music and interacting with the composers and hearing about their inspiration.

Music is a reflection of the times that we live. We encourage our students to compose their own compositions. We hold an annual festival of Canadian Music in November during Canadian Music Week and a competition for young composers in the spring. We offer prizes from a recently established scholarship fund in memory of LCMS Founder, Leonard Woods. LCMS has supported a composition program and is proud to have Marcel Bergmann as our resident composer.

Q: Having been at LCMS since (almost) the beginning and seeing it grow and change over the past four and a half decades, what is your vision for it in the years to come?

A: Over the past 45 years, I have had the pleasure of a career that allowed me to combine my training as a pianist and my business knowledge with my love of teaching and interacting with young people. I have had the privilege of working with many volunteers, supporters, and especially outstanding musicians to build a school that provides the community with the highest level of music education and wonderful concerts.

As we approach our 50th anniversary we will celebrate our success with concerts and events that feature our former students. We will be launching a campaign that invites people to build a legacy for our next 50 years. I believe that with the ongoing support of the community, we will continue to be ambitious in our goals and innovative in our program offerings. We will strive to meet the needs of the community and remain an organization in which Langley can take great pride.