OVER the years, Montreal writer Robyn Sarah has won a number of awards for her poetry and short stories, including the Governor-General’s Award for Poetry in 2015 for her collection My Shoes Are Killing Me. Who would have guessed that she spent her youth training to become a professional musician, that she recorded several recitals on CBC and played first clarinet in the Expo ‘67 orchestra?

OVER the years, Montreal writer Robyn Sarah has won a number of awards for her poetry and short stories, including the Governor-General’s Award for Poetry in 2015 for her collection My Shoes Are Killing Me. Who would have guessed that she spent her youth training to become a professional musician, that she recorded several recitals on CBC and played first clarinet in the Expo ‘67 orchestra?

In the 1970s, when Sarah turned to writing, she gave up the clarinet but continued to play the piano for pure pleasure and relaxation. Then, in 2009, she decided to set herself two challenges: she would spend the next six months preparing to give a piano recital on her 70th birthday and she would write a book about the process.

To say the least, neither challenge was straightforward. Not ready to give a performance on her 70th birthday, she continued to take piano lessons and document her journey until 2018. After four years of lessons in Montreal, she attended a piano workshop in Vermont that required its students to perform. There she was, 40 years older than all the other students; still, she bit the bullet and took the stage.

After that, Sarah began to take pleasure in playing the piano in several informal venues in Montreal and Toronto. She came to the conclusion that what she wanted from music was "not a personal proving ground, not a showcasing of a skill... aimed to impress, but a sharing of something I loved." And she was finally able to do that.

At this point, those readers who are still following Sarah on her angst-ridden, intensely personal path will give her three cheers and a toast, but others may have dropped out along the way. An early reader of her half-finished manuscript told her it was "quite wonderful and insightful" but "rather circular."

Indeed, there are many insights about music and its role in her life and the lives of others, and they are always honestly and elegantly articulated. But there is also a lot of going over the same ground, particularly regarding piano lessons with her mentor Phil Cohen.

In 1960, at the age of 11, Sarah started six years of lessons with Cohen, who went on to found the music faculty at Concordia University. He was an unusual, enigmatic coach even then, and not much had changed when she came back to him in 2009.

Cohen’s focus was never on mechanics, but on varying methods of helping musicians keep music alive and spontaneous no matter how often they had played it. Sarah had the same goal but a long way to go, first in understanding Phil’s advice and then in implementing it.

And it’s possible that her determination to write a book about her venture sometimes got in the way. During one lesson, Phil tells her to "stop the intellectualizing crap... It isn’t rational. Got that? We’re in a world here where rationality can’t help you. Leave the other world behind and enter this one."

Ultimately, then, this is a book about the creative process. Skill matters, but it will only take you so far.

Faith Johnston is a fan of Robyn Sarah’s short stories, especially her collection Promise of Shelter.

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