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Wednesday September 4, 2013

A passionate musician and teacher

He dedicated himself to playing piano as a child, and over his long career inspired thousands of students

Special to The Globe and Mail

Robin Harrison believed that music was a manifestation of love. He passionately taught, composed and performed in Europe and North America while heading the piano division at the University of Saskatchewan for more than 20 years.

"Robin in a way was a pure artist. He lived and loved what he did," said Robert Klose, his former colleague and long-time friend. "He didn't play just to display a stunning technique. It was always something that grew out of the music itself."

Before arriving in Canada in 1970 to join the University of Saskatchewan's music department, Mr. Harrison studied with some of the great teachers in Europe and performed on the BBC as well as in the popular London classical music festival, the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts.

The University of Saskatchewan sponsored Mr. Harrison's 1979 recording, Robin Harrison Plays Chopin. He recorded three solo albums of works by Chopin, Haydn, Mozart, Fauré and Albeniz. A member of the Canadian Arts Trio, he also made guest appearances with Canadian orchestras including the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra.

His passion for music and the arts led him to elementary schools in small towns such as La Ronge in northern Saskatchewan to give concerts, believing that if he reached one child his trip had been a success. "He saw the arts as something that could enrich anyone's life," said Bonnie Nicholson, a pianist and piano teacher in Saskatchewan.

As a teacher for more than 60 years, Mr. Harrison estimated he taught about 10,000 students. "He was such a vast resource of knowledge. I never stopped going to ask him questions," said Ms. Nicholson, a former student. "He was really good at drawing out talent."

Mr. Harrison died on May 19 in Burnaby, B.C., after suffering a heart attack. He was 80. A memorial concert in his honour was held at the University of Saskatchewan hall in July, and a piano scholarship fund has been established at the university in his name. He leaves his children, David, Mark, Lucy and Paul; brother Patrick; former wife Marilyn; and wife Rachel Anderson.

In a YouTube video in 2010 for the Piano Teachers Federation, Mr. Harrison explained his teaching philosophy: "It's very important to think first before you play. As Franz Liszt's famous saying [goes] - he said to his students think 10 times before you play once." Mr. Harrison said students need to think about the rhythm, harmony, melody, fingering and sound they are going to make and how they are going to make that sound.

"If you didn't have something to say what was the point of playing?" Mr. Klose said. "That was his approach to teaching and playing."

Born in North London in 1932, Mr. Harrison didn't credit his parents for his musical talents. Neither his father, a city engineer, nor his mother, a homemaker, was a musician. But Mr. Harrison used to say that he started humming before he could talk. By the time he was eight, his parents bought him a piano and he started formal lessons. Until then, he was in the habit of riding around his neighbourhood peeking into windows to see who owned a piano. When he found one, he would knock on the door and ask if he could come in to play.

By 10 he was performing publicly, and in 1949 he was named teenage talent of the year in London after playing Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111, in a competition. He was called to perform several times on the BBC's Children's Hour program.

Mr. Harrison won a scholarship to study piano with English pianist Harold Craxton at the Royal Academy of Music. He then studied with Italian pianist Carlo Zecchi in Rome and Salzburg, Austria, and with Hungarian-British pianist Ilona Kabos in London.

"He believed passionately about what he was doing," Mr. Klose said. "When he played Schubert you could almost imagine Schubert sitting there. Always you felt you were getting close to the essence of the composer when he played. He had a deep love of the arts and music."

Mr. Harrison had a busy teaching and performing schedule in Britain in the late 1960s, but with a wife and four children to support, he wanted a more permanent job. At the time, the University of Saskatchewan was expanding its music department. Mr. Harrison took the position of heading the piano division and moved his family to Canada. In addition to piano, he taught the history of opera and music appreciation, a popular class that could draw up to 400 students.

In North America, his concert career continued. In 1984, he gave a solo recital at Carnegie Hall after booking the venue himself. Like many musicians it was his dream to play there, so he decided to simply fly in from Saskatoon and play. The audience was a respectable size. He was also a guest artist at the American Liszt Society festivals in Canada and the United States and performed on CBC broadcasts.

"Robin was never dazzled by fame of any kind," said his wife Rachel Anderson, a piano teacher. "He said, 'I will never be [an Arthur] Rubinstein.' But he said the important thing is that you do it for yourself, that you play to connect to something bigger. Music was about connecting to this spiritual world."

Describing Mr. Harrison's performance, Murray Adaskin, a composer and former head of the University of Saskatchewan's music department, wrote of his "formidable technique which permits him to sing with the greatest ease and beauty."

In his teaching studio, Mr. Harrison had two pianos. Always wearing a suit and tie, except in summer when it was too hot for the tie, he would accompany students and play phrases for them to repeat. At each lesson, he would also spend time playing to allow students to absorb the music he created. "He made us fall in love with his sound," Ms. Nicholson said.

On his own Yamaha grand piano, he would play an average of five hours a day. In his diary from 1953, he wrote that he practised every day between three and seven hours, except on Christmas Day.

Maintaining friendships spanning 70 years, he liked to call his friends on their birthdays and play a Tchaikovsky version of Happy Birthday over the phone. He loved calligraphy and left beautifully written love notes for his wife around their home; last year he sent more than 100 Christmas cards handwritten in calligraphy.

In 1977, just seven years after he arrived in Canada, Mr. Harrison's first wife, Eva, died of cancer. Left to raise four children on his own, he remarried not long after. His second wife, Marilyn, who also taught piano, had five children. At one point, the couple had eight children at home to raise.

After retiring from the University of Saskatchewan in 1994, he and Marilyn moved to Margaree Forks on Nova Scotia's Cape Breton Island where Marilyn grew up. He continued teaching and performing.

In 2008, Mr. Harrison moved to British Columbia to be with Ms. Anderson, whom he married in 2011. Together they played duets at small concerts along the west coast of Canada and the United States.

Recently, when Mr. Harrison wasn't playing, he would practise on an imaginary keyboard on tabletops or armrests, which would usually trigger a musical story from his past, Ms. Anderson said.

"He had this wonderful childlike enthusiasm for life," she said. "He was this glass-is-half-full type of person."

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