The Schulich School of Music’s Kelly Rice recently met with pianist and music teacher Catherine Steele (née Thornhill) to discuss her life in music, beginning with her childhood in Newfoundland.
She is the inspiration behind the Catherine Thornhill Steele Visiting Artist Fund, created by Seymour Schulich in 2005 to honour her.
In this photo: Catherine Thornhill at her graduation recital
Notes from the interview
Kelly Rice: Tell me about your first musical memories.
Catherine Steele: We had a radio and listened to music, but mom didn’t play an instrument. My dad claims I got my music from him because he used to play an old squeeze box. If there was a dance going on, he always had his accordion to play, and he loved it.
KR: Was there a song that you remembered loving?
CS: The old songs, just plain songs like “You are my Sunshine,” you know? It was all very simple, no classical music whatsoever. And of course, as dad played the accordion, I liked dance music.
KR: How did you start playing music yourself?
CS: My cousin Mary had an organ at her house, one of those ordinary two-pedal ones. She was a year younger than I was, but we were very close friends. One day, she said “I’m taking piano lessons now,” and she practiced her music on this organ. So I went home and I said “Mom, Mary is taking music lessons. If Aunt Celine will let me practice on her organ, could I please take music lessons? It would cost $4 a month.”
Well, my dad was a fisherman, and if the fish were scarce, there was no money. I remember one year he made only $300. So needless to say, we couldn’t afford an organ. But Mom agreed for me to have lessons if Aunt Celine would agree to let me practice on their organ, and she did. So I started practicing down there.
KR: How did that go?
CS: After going to my cousins to practice for a while, I got the feeling that it wasn’t such a good idea. We had a sewing machine at home that was a foot machine, and so I took “Root’s Pleasant Hours,” my music book, and I made a rig so it would stand on the sewing machine. And I would pretend my feet were working the organ.
One day when my dad came home from fishing – I can see it now as plainly as I can see you – he and mom were standing in the corner in the hall, watching me in the living room. And I was pretending that I was – well, I wasn’t pretending – I was practicing my music. Unbeknownst to me, dad told my mom, “Ruth, if I can get a good load of fish she is not going to be playing music on the sewing machine.” My dad was a captain then; he would go to Lunenburg to pick up his men before sailing to the Grand Banks to fish.
At the time, the newspaper advertised a piano for sale in Grand Bank, not an organ, for $35. But dad had a poor catch of fish. On the next trip, he caught a good load of fish, and the piano was still for sale.
So if you could picture my house one morning when I was 10 or 11 years old: we were having breakfast at the kitchen table, which looked out the bay window, and I was getting ready for school. I heard a noise outside, and there was a truck with a bunch of men standing in it. And there was something covered with a dark cloth. Then I saw dad walking down our yard, and I screamed I said “Mom, dad’s coming.” We had thought he was on his way to the Grand Banks. But in he came, and he said “Catherine darling, I would like you to look out the window.” So I looked out again, and these men were bringing this thing, whatever it was, into the house. When they took the cloth off, there was a piano – not an organ. And only rich people could have a piano. But here we were – dad had brought me one. I’ll never forget it as long as I live. There was no more practicing on the sewing machine for me. I had a piano. I was in seventh heaven.
Catherine continued to enjoy her piano lessons in Grand Bank, doing well enough that she made up her mind to go to university to be a teacher – if possible, a music teacher. She also learned to play the violin by ear. So after high school she applied to Mount Allison University in Sackville, Nova Scotia, to study music, and was accepted into that university’s music program, studying piano with violin as her second instrument. So she left Newfoundland at age 17. But at Mount Allison she was told that, due to her lack of theoretical background, she would need four years to complete the three-year program.
KR: How was your experience as a music student at Mount Allison?
CS: I was so home sick! When I came home at Christmas that first year, Mom put a fire in the living room, I closed the door and studied the books and practiced; I even ate my three meals there. So from then on it was hard work. There were nineteen of us in our class, and only four graduated in three years. And I was one of the four. I worked hard but it was worth it – I loved every minute of it.
KR: Who was your piano teacher there?
CS: Evron Kinsman was her name. We had a great relationship. She made me feel that I was important, that I wasn’t too backward, and that I could do it. And I was prepared to work. The sad thing is, the night I gave my graduation recital she couldn’t be there because her mother had just died. I was really sorry about that.
The recital was frightening. It killed me to play it. But I’m a fighter and I really wanted to finish, especially for my parents, because it was a sacrifice for them. And also I loved music and I always got top marks in my class. So failure was not in my dictionary at all.
KR: What kind of music did you enjoy playing?
CS: Mozart and Chopin were my two favorites. I could relate to them. I couldn’t relate to Beethoven. With Beethoven you had to have, I don’t know, more strength. Beethoven is more like Harry Steele [Catherine’s husband], if you know what I am trying to say. Having met Harry, you understand. (Laughs) They say opposites attract and there is not a musical bone in his body. When we were first married, we decided to take dancing lessons. But after two lessons, I said “Harry, if this marriage is going to last, we have to give up dancing lessons.” He doesn’t know a waltz from a march. But 60 years now we’ve been married, so something else must have worked.
KR: Tell me about teaching music.
CS: I was not a performer, but I really enjoyed teaching. I loved the students. I think I related well to them and they tried their best for me. I found that every child was different, and every child taught me something. I missed them so much that in the summer time I used to drive around to where they lived just to see if they were out in their yards. One little guy, he used to have to come in by bus, so sometimes I would take him home with me for lunch. I just loved teaching.
KR: Where do you play today?
CS: My grandson is very musical. I can’t wait to go to St. John’s because we’ll have another jam session, and it’s real fun playing with him. And I love going to senior’s homes and playing the old songs for them and seeing them tapping their feet or clapping their hands.
KR: Tell me a little about your connections with Seymour Schulich and his family.
CS: My brother Roland Thornhill was in the investment business and was friends with Seymour, also in the investment business. My husband became interested in investments as well, so Harry met Seymour through my brother. Seymour and Harry hit it off; Tanna and I hit it off. Then Seymour and Tanna were going on a cruise and asked us to go with them. I think we’ve probably have been on ten or fifteen with them now. And we’ve become extremely good friends.
On one of the cruises, Seymour said ““I am doing something for McGill. I am going to make a Chair in your name.” I was floored. The first thing I thought was “Oh, if only dad were alive.” I told Seymour I want my dad’s name in there for sure because he would be so proud. I’ve also set up a scholarship named after my dad in Gander.
KR: Why is your advice to a young person if they’re thinking of a life in music?
CS: They definitely need to love music. From the day I was began playing music, after that first lesson, I knew that I would go to university to study music. I didn’t want to be a performer but I knew I wanted to be a teacher. My music is still one of my best friends. I can’t imagine my life without my music. I just can’t.
The interview ended with a short performance by Catherine.
CS: Do you want me to just bang one out for ya?
KR: I would love for you to bang one out for me. Yeah.
KR: That was wonderful – thank you so much!
CS: That’s the kind of music I play. When I play at the senior’s home, they like something they can tap along to. And god love them, I hear them tapping their hands on the table, and it makes me feel good.