D is for … Dorothy Lawson — Wednesday Worthy

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?


A to Z Challenge

18 thoughts on “D is for … Dorothy Lawson — Wednesday Worthy”

  1. Beautiful, inspirational post, Beth. What a special gift this season with Dorothy was and that you had the time and possibility of making voice (and piano) study your focus for a while. Dorothy clearly had that sensitivity, knowledge of you and confidence in you that a good mentor should have. I loved reading about this very personal Wednesday worthy!

    To answer your question, yes, at important crossroads in my life I have seemed to encounter men and women who have played significant mentoring roles in my life, both professionally and personally. I have also had the privilege of mentoring others.

    1. Thanks, Joanna. It was likely too personal for the A to Z challenge, and veered off topic, but when I thought “D” I thought “Dorothy”.

      What a privilege you have had to be a mentor to others!

    1. Thanks, Erik. She was a lovely person indeed. I’m glad you’ve had teachers who have helped you — and I think your parents are awesome.

  2. Beth, a very lovely and personal post I think I know you and then I learn something more. It’s wonderful Thank you for sharing the story about Dorothy and her relationship with your Mum and uncle, and later you. You know I love music, so I enjoy ach person’s journey. Such an inspirational post. Hope you write your memoir some day — “How One Canadian Song Bird Learned to Fly,” seems appropriate. 🙂

    I have had different mentors grace my life since I was a teen. The most important were the spiritual wise women, two of who made their transtion this last year. I believe everyone needs a mentor or two. You certainly found yours.

    1. Thank you so much, Pat. And what a wonderful title!

      I have had a few other mentors in my life, and I value them so much. I’m grateful that you have had them, as well.

    1. Thanks, Stacy. All things seemed to work together to make this happen, and it was such an important time in my life.

    1. I grew up hearing such wonderful stories about Dorothy that she had reached star quality in my eyes before I even got to know her (I had met her when I was small). It was good to get to know that she did have her faults, as we all do, but she shines no less bright in my personal universe because of them. I am so grateful to have had this time with her.

  3. When I was 8 or 9, I wanted to join the junior choir at church. I had difficulty matching my voice to the note, and the director(who shared my name Margaret), worked with me one on one, playing notes on the piano and helping me sing it. I am grateful she took the time to encourage me instead of telling me I couldn’t sing. In my 30’s I joined a community choir, and enjoyed it immensely, and it was a gift that my first teacher gave me. Your Mrs. Lawson sounds like a kindred spirit to my Mrs. Marg Harke.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing that story, Margaret! They were indeed kindred spirits. I am so glad Mrs. Harke helped you instead of dismissing you. What a great gift she gave you. Lovely.

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