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John’s Story

A master of piano, John has dedicated his life to teaching and playing music. His piano, and CanCare volunteers Paul and Neil, have been by his side during John’s recent treatment for diffuse B-cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

How long have you been teaching music?

I started teaching piano when I was 17. That means I’ve been teaching music for 55 years!

I also play and can teach violin and viola.

I ran a music studio in Caringbah for ten years. We had four different studio rooms where we taught piano, violin, guitar and singing. I had to close the studio in 2020 just as Covid began. Now I only teach online and have nine students.

What do you enjoy most about teaching?

I have published several books of my piano methods. I love trying to find different approaches from the various traditional methods.  I’ve spent all my life doing this, and I still work on my books every day.

Do you come from a musical family?

Yes my father used to play and we had a grand piano in the house. I started playing when I was about five and I just picked it up by ear. I started lessons at age 12 but had already worked out a lot.

Where did you grow up?

I was born in Newcastle but our family moved from Sydney’s northern suburbs when I was five. We came to Bundeena at the edge of the Royal National Park to run a local shop. The national park was my backyard. I used to ride horses with my sisters Eleanor and Lorraine when we were teenagers. That’s how I spent my time growing up – playing piano, riding my horse and exploring in the bush.

 

My father passed away at an early age when I was only 14, however my mother stayed in the same house in Bundeena until she died ten years ago aged 95.

My mother was a wonderful botanical artist and introduced me to all the native orchids in the area when I was a young boy. Many years later, I connected with my future partner Anthony Bishop over these same plants as he was writing a field guide to the native orchids of southeastern Australia and photographing every species.

I learned later that my mother also played piano, but I had never seen her play until after we kids had all left home. Then she bought another grand piano so she had two!

Did you always want to pursue music as a career? 

My father was an Engineer and I had planned to study Engineering; however, it didn’t feel like the right choice. Instead, I graduated with Bachelor of Science and a Diploma of Education from Sydney University. While I didn’t have a lot of confidence teaching in schools, I did enjoy teaching kids piano, and also playing band and piano bar gigs around Sydney. I spent one year at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music at age 21, and later won a scholarship competition to study overseas. At 26, I set off for the United States with my first partner Philip. We had such an adventure. I returned to Australia a couple of years later with a Master of Music degree in piano performance from Indiana University.

Your teaching methods have received a lot of attention over the years.

I’ve always been a bit of a rebel! Back when I was 17, I first had my own ideas about how to teach piano to beginners in ways that were a bit different from traditional methods. I turned the keyboard into a train, with each of the seven sets of notes ABCDEFG being one carriage – hence the name of my books and business – The Keyboard Express Piano Teaching. This is different in that traditional methods think of the keyboard units as CDEFGAB instead.

 

I became even more radical by developing alternative letter-names for the beginners to call the black keys. Instead of calling them sharps and flats, I gave them the extra letters H-I-J-K and L.  When I realised this also stood for ‘Hi, John Keller’, it was like a sign from above!

I was invited to be a guest lecturer in piano pedagogy at the Conservatorium of Music for a few years. But I have a feeling that I went too far for the conservatives when I showed them my completely new notation invention called Express Stave. I didn’t get asked back after that!

More recently I have been sharing a lot of my teaching methods on YouTube.

Do you have a favourite style of music?

I basically love all styles of music. My students learn everything from classical pieces to pop songs and jazz, reading music notation and playing by ear.

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What is different about your life recently?

Around April 2020, my life changed completely. I had been diagnosed with a low-grade form, follicular non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma about 25 years ago – but nothing really came of it until about a year ago. Then the cancer had mutated to the more aggressive form, and I began a course of intensive chemotherapy.

Around the same time, the lease ran out on the music studio, and was not renewed by the landlord. This was just at the start of the first Covid lockdown in Sydney. It was very stressful for me to move everything out, and I had to sell or store all my music equipment just as I was about to start chemotherapy.

I have also developed a type of tic that is usually associated with Tourette syndrome. I feel nauseous at night and have problems sleeping. I’ve seen various sleep doctors and neurologists. I still don’t know whether the problems are all related.

How has CanCare helped?

The support from CanCare has been a lifeline. I was matched with two volunteers, Paul and Neil, who are both very friendly, helpful people. It has made such a difference to have them in my life this past year.

Paul has been a great help with practical things. For example, I still have a lot of paperwork and equipment from the music school stacked up around my home. While I tend to avoid dealing with it because I don’t know how to, or I feel too unwell, Paul motivates me and keeps me on track. We have been able to find new homes for many of the larger instruments – including the grand piano.

How has the Sydney lockdown affected you?

Like many people, I have found lockdown to be a lonely time. Neil has been a great emotional support for me. He calls once or twice a week for a chat. He’s always interested in what I’m doing with my music and we talk about all sorts of things.

I used to love socialising and visiting my friends in the gay community around Newtown. Since having chemotherapy, I am classified as immune compromised. Even though I am now triple vaccinated, and restrictions have eased, I’m still wary of mixing with too many people or going out with friends or to see live gigs etc.

Being home more means I see a lot more of my home-unit neighbours. Everybody is friendly and they don’t seem to mind my piano playing, so that’s a relief!

With my students, I have adapted to using Facetime on my mobile phone, and I can’t see that changing anytime soon.

What do you love doing now? Describe a perfect day for you.

My perfect day would involve playing piano, working on my piano books and catching up with what other teachers are doing on YouTube. Doing some exercise like a walk or some light weights, or if I was feeling fit and well, I might visit the Gunnamatta Bay tidal baths for a swim – but you just have to look out for the numbrays sleeping on the bottom!

I am grateful for my students and enjoy teaching them on the phone. I have learned to take one day at a time.

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