Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Tribute to an exceptional individual - Mrs Noella Dana

Last weekend, nine ex-students of my late piano teacher Mrs Dana got together and we had a wonderful catchup. This was a strange reunion of sorts because some of us didn't actually know each other. We were just bonded by the connection with one incredible human being who really demonstrated how much impact a teacher could have.

It's hard to explain how Mrs Dana's music studio worked because it was really one of a kind. When you went for a piano lesson, you didn't just sit with a teacher for an hour and then went on your way. A lesson at Mrs Dana's was like a visit to a music community. She had three pianos and usually at least two "helper" teachers. At any one time, a student could be going through their scales with one teacher while another was practising theory cards (which Mrs Dana made herself) and yet another would be in her studio being taught their exam pieces.

Even though we had a given lesson time, we often spent hours there. It was a laissez faire approach but there was a method in the madness. When we were not at the piano with Mrs Dana or another teacher, we hung out with the other kids or did our school homework. It was more like an after school care than a music studio, really. Mrs Dana ruled with a kind but firm hand and if you didn't know your work, she would insist you come back for an extra lesson. If you didn't practise, she would march down to your parents in the car or call them to let them know. She had more than her fair share of difficult kids, I suspect because some despairing parents hoped she would straighten them out! She had a knack with naughty kids and believed that music could solve most problems.

If Mrs Dana felt that you were musical, she would tirelessly hound you until you lived up to your talent. Her fees were below market rate and she used to grumble that some didn't pay their fees for months, yet she never turned anyone away. Many students expressed shock at how later on, when they took music lessons elsewhere, they realised that other teachers charged strictly by the hour, four lessons a month, didn't make up lessons you missed and didn't really care if you practised or learned anything. We were all spoilt by Mrs Dana. 

When we were older, many of us ex-students were invited to be the helper teachers at her studio. Teaching at Mrs Dana's was my first paid holiday job. Her home at La Salle Street was open to students from morning to evening and it was well known in the eastern part of Singapore. We heard anecdotes of how when given the address, taxi drivers would ask, "oh, the piano teacher's house?" Through these black gates, hundreds passed through to get their dose of music and more. The swing in the garden was a favourite. I managed to take photos of the exterior in 2010 before it was torn down and rebuilt by the new owners.

Mrs Dana's teaching methods were truly innovative. For example, she made up her own lyrics to exam pieces to help kids remember the melody. She held Sunday aural classes so we could listen to and learn from other students in the same grade. At our meetup, we all shared how she instilled the love of music in us. Some mentioned that till today, they remember their music intervals clearly thanks to her methods. A couple of them have chosen music as a career and still practise her methods today.

But even more than her extraordinary love of teaching and gift of music, what made her a remarkable individual was her exceeding generosity, which she blessed families with. At the gathering, an ex-student shared how growing up as the daughter of a church's caretaker, her family sometimes found it difficult to make ends meet. She first met Mrs Dana who did the flower arrangements for the church. Mrs Dana took her under her wing and gave her piano lessons at no charge. Later, she offered her a job as a teacher at the studio and even gave her a piano. This ex-student is doing well today and she has kept the piano all these years, even though some of the keys are stuck and can't be played properly.

I really don't know how Mrs Dana found the time but between running a music studio and raising a family of her own (she was the sole breadwinner since her husband was ill), she also reached out to the community. She once mentioned to me that she was helping underprivileged kids from Geylang Methodist Primary School learn how to read. As an ex-kindergarten teacher and principal, she had a big heart for kids.

On a personal note, Mrs Dana was a very special friend to me. She was my mentor and confidante, always warm and caring. I remember her sense of humour and her bubbly laugh. She had a skin pigmentation disorder and used to joke, "I'm like Michael Jackson!" As an adolescent and later as an adult, I could confide in her the way I couldn't with my own mother. She was a second mother to me and was part of almost all my significant life events. When I did well in piano exams, she bought me music books. After learning at her studio for almost a decade, I taught there during my university school holidays. This is a rare photo I took with her and my sister at her studio.

She was the one who brought my sister and I to the church we currently attend. She took us to SSO concerts to expand our minds. She was very pleased when I later joined the SSO as its marketing manager. My box office staff knew her very well as she was a regular concert-goer and always booked the same seat in the stalls of the Victoria Concert Hall (I believe it was an aisle seat in row R). She also played the organ at my wedding.

When I had my kids, Mrs Dana embroidered flowers on baby shirts for them and bought them books and toys. I love this photo of Mrs Dana carrying Lesley-Anne. Lesley-Anne learned with her only about a year before Mrs Dana got ill but even then, she said some of Mrs Dana's methods really stuck with her.

Mrs Dana suddenly fell ill in 2005 and even then, refused to seek treatment as it was the period of piano exams. When she finally agreed to be hospitalised, a bunch of ex-teachers mobilised themselves to help out at the studio and they were overwhelmed by the sheer number of students. Even with a team, it was exhausting. Nobody knew how this feisty 76-year-old managed it.

Even in hospital, Mrs Dana's thoughts were with her students. "Tell so-and-so to practise! She doesn't practise enough," one teacher recalled her saying. When she passed on, her daughter found boxes and boxes of cards and gifts that her students had given her. Mrs Dana had kept everything.

It was by chance that a group of her ex-students met in church a few weeks ago and came up with the idea of having a gathering. Nine of us met up but through this, so many more have since been contacted - a network spanning a wide range of ages and backgrounds. Many of her ex-students are pillars of society today - doctors, lawyers, etc but they recall being that naughty kid being chased down by Mrs Dana to practise scales. I've also since learned that many of her ex-students are now musicians or music teachers. All remember fondly the time they spent at La Salle Street.

As we chatted over dinner and shared our stories of Mrs Dana, I was blown away by how this one woman could have touched hundreds of lives from three generations. It's been almost ten years since she passed away and yet our memories of her remain vivid - that's how deep an impression she made on us.

Many people speak of love but rare is the one who personifies it. How blessed we are to have known her.


stay-at-home mum said...

My children learnt the piano with Mrs Dana too. My son for only a year, and after her death we couldnt find one with her kind of patience for him, and unfortunately he eventually gave up learning the piano. She was one amazing teacher, whom until today, every time we drive by "her house", would lament about missing her. Their memory of her lives on forever!! SHe was one AMAZING teacher, who had the passion and taught for the love of it.

monlim said...

Thank you for sharing!

Anonymous said...

I dun know ms Dana but I cried after reading this article. Such a touching story of a woman with a big heart!

Unknown said...

I m Christina, Mona's grade and my sis is Elizabeth Low. We both learned under Dana.
Please keep us in your contact list.

monlim said...

Hi Christina! Good to hear from you.

Unknown said...

So good to remember Dana and her innovative class structure. I remember the freedom of lessons pegged to an invisible structure. Thats how music is. Good to know we are all linked with this invisible thread called Dana Studio. Amazing. Big hi to Mona and all the students of Dana.

Theodore said...

Hi I'm Theodore and nephew to Aunty Noel. Permission to share this beautiful story to Aunty Noels 3 sisters.

monlim said...

Hi Theodore, yes, please go ahead!

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