You’ve likely never heard of Dorothy Lawson — unless you’ve been part of the Manitoba classical music/voice world. Dorothy was a voice teacher par excellence, as well as an accomplished pianist, organist … the list goes on. A cello and a violin “lived” beneath the grand piano in her living room — she and her sister played duets in their youth. She taught out of her home in Winnipeg, and for years also traveled to Brandon University (which has a top-notch music program) to teach there. Many Manitoba singers who have gone on to great things list Dorothy Lawson as one of their teachers.
She was from my mother’s hometown. She taught my mother (who had a beautiful warm, rich mezzo-soprano voice) and my uncle (who had one of the purest tenor voices I’ve heard) … and years later, she taught me. And I will be forever grateful that she did.
In the early 1980s, I needed a new focus in my life. My mother said, “Why don’t you move to Winnipeg and study voice with Dorothy?” And I did. I didn’t have any job prospects when I moved, I figured I’d find some sort of work. My sole purpose was to study with Dorothy.
Although I’d studied voice with another teacher, Dorothy opened my voice, taught me to sing properly, and gave me tools to use that I still use to this day. But there was so much more to my experience with her than simply proper vocal technique.
I had spent my life within a stone’s throw of many of my father’s family. Moving to Winnipeg connected me to my mother’s history, her roots, her experiences. A friend of Mum’s took me to a supper at her church, and introduced me to her friends as “Lilian’s daughter.” Without any other introduction than that, one of the women said, “Will you come and sing for us sometime?” That says something not only about my mother’s voice, but about her teacher, Dorothy, I believe.
It meant so much to me to have Dorothy pull out a piece of music, such as Handel’s “Where E’er You Walk” and say, “Your uncle sang this, and you’re going to sing it, too.” One of the music books I sang from was the same one she’d used with Mum some decades before. But she knew enough about me that, after starting me on one song that Mum had sung, she stopped in mid-phrase and said, “No, that one’s too depressing for your voice.” I think it’s fitting that when I stopped studying voice, one of the songs we were working on was “Songs My Mother Taught Me.”
Her skills weren’t just vocal skills, however. In the first year after I moved to Winnipeg, I also went back to piano lessons, although I had no piano to practice on. Dorothy trusted me with a key to her house, and let me come over and practice on the “little piano” (an upright, in contrast to the Petrof grand in the living room). I was playing a Clemente sonatina on the little piano in the back bedroom one day, door closed, when Dorothy came into the room and said, “You’re missing a G sharp there, and it would be as well to correct it before it becomes a habit.” !
Dorothy paid great attention to diction, which has carried through to both my mother and me being sticklers for diction in singing. Anyone who sang in the choir I directed will know Dorothy’s stock phrase, “the tip of the tongue, the teeth, and the lips,” which all play a part in making the lyrics understandable and meaningful for the listener.
I could go on and on. For me, Dorothy is a true Wednesday worthy. She died several years ago, but her teaching and her person still live every time I sing.
Is there someone, a teacher or mentor, who has touched your life in a special way?