Stories from ACWC Members — Interview of Sylvia Rickard by Patricia Morehead

To celebrate our 40th anniversary, we are sharing stories from some of our members throughout the year! In the following interview of Sylvia Rickard, conducted by Patricia Morehead, Sylvia reflects on her life as a composer and her relationship with her composition teacher, Jean Coulthard.

Patricia: “I gave Sylvia several questions to think about. Her responses were so delightful and heart-warming to read. For me the music that composers create is about a life led. I also had the pleasure of meeting Sylvia’s teacher, Jean Coulthard, in Vancouver many years ago at her home and have always wanted to know what it was like to study composition with her.”

Sylvia: “I was born in Toronto, May 19, 1937, and stayed there until 1948, when my adoptive mother and I came to Vancouver. My adoptive parents separated and this was very traumatic for me, because I saw my adoptive father, whom I adored, very infrequently.

I always loved sports; skiing, skating, bike riding, tennis; and later ping pong, which I still play except for now because of Covid.

I began piano lessons at six years, got my Grade X Toronto Royal Conservatory, but not a great mark. At UBC I majored in Russian, French and minored in German; took a “catch-all” rudiments and theory course from Jean Coulthard. I continued the next year, and started to write music phrases.

I have been so fortunate to live in many different places: in France for a year, then California, then Punjab and Delhi, India for 14 months, and Todtmoos, Black Forest, West Germany, at the Graf von Dürckheim Jungian Institute, for 9 months. I came home to Vancouver, met an old UBC colleague who told me that Jean Coulthard had retired from UBC as Professor Emerita and was “now” teaching private lessons at her home. I decided to take composition lessons from her and never looked back.

Jean Coulthard had her own teaching rituals. The first was tea and cookies or some baked goods for about 10 minutes of general chat, to put both of us at ease, I believe. Then she would look at what we had written that week; she advised us to create works that had their own logic and structure. I’d say she championed the sonata form, especially for beginners. She was not much interested in free-form composition, or organically grown composition. She did not really like it when we added elements of jazz or any other discipline of music into our own works. But as time rolled on, she herself explored poetry to set of India’s Tagore, Persian and Japanese Haiku poetry and other cultures. She was very anxious that students of other cultures would pay heed to their own cultural roots in their music. One of the first students to benefit from this was Chan Ka Nin, who then went by the name of Francis Chan.

Jean told all her students to enter the newly formed Okanagan Composers’ Festival. I did, and shared First prize with Joan Hansen. Then we all went to Shawnigan Lake Summer School, where we had composition with Jean Coulthard and had access to great performers who played and sang our fledgling works! Then Banff Centre was on offer. Jean managed to convince the Board of Directors, with help from Tom Rolston, that composition should be included in the summer programme. Eight of us were the pilot group of composer-students in 1978, I think. That’s when we were all exposed to other composer teachers as well as Coulthard — Oscar Morawetz, Violet Archer, Gilles Tremblay, and others.

I continued to work with Jean for four years at her home in Vancouver; I rode my bike to her house, since I lived pretty close to her and husband Don Adams. Jean’s students were all very lucky; some of us got airtime on CBC, thanks to Jean’s knowing producer Don Mowatt. We had a jump-start to our careers. It was unbelievable. If anyone had told me when I was a teenager that I would become a composer, I would have laughed in their faces! Jean never doubted us, and we never looked back or gave up.

My first piece was a three-movement one in sonata form, which she labelled “Ballet Sonatina”. The second movement was in ABACA form. The C variant she made me go back three different times to make this one fit into what I had already written. I was vexed but then very pleased when she approved the third try! She complimented me on taking criticism so well, saying that some students did not. After all, she was trying to help us make better music than what we had started with! She got me fascinated with poetry of First Nations, in translation from the native languages into English. Not many composers who were non-native were much interested in First Nations literature or music at that time.

And Jean was quietly hilarious! Even in dark, broody tales she could see a funny side and make a funny comment. She laughed away remarks made by mean persons, which annoyed them intensely because she did not feel crushed but amused by their nastiness! She was shy but very centred emotionally, and very determined!

One of the best performances for me was in 2017, in Stratford, Ontario, when operatic tenor Roger Honeywell, cellist Ben Bolt-Martin and pianist Emily Hamper performed my Love, Death and Rebirth songs, settings of three Rilke poems, on the Inner Chamber Series at the Anglican Church. (These are all on my website:

Because of my love of foreign languages, I have written choral pieces in Russian and Latin and art songs in German, French and Brazilian Portuguese. I am now writing a love song in Spanish, poem by my Colombian friend José Quintero. I am fortunate to have good performers. I feel so lucky to have had many good performances of my compositions.

My hope for future composers is that they will not be deterred by nasty criticism and that they will keep their minds open to new sources of inspiration as they grow and mature.

My favourite moment in my life was the birth of my daughter Janine Rickard, in Rohtak, India, Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1964. Another great event was my 80th birthday celebratory concert at the Murray Adaskin Salon, CMC Vancouver, thanks to director Sean Bickerton and many fine performers.

All-time favourite music is by Gustav Mahler; other favourites are Rodrigo, Borodin, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Ravi Shankar, Jean Coulthard, Ravel, Debussy, Poulenc, Shostakovich, Puccini, Verdi, Villa Lobos, Ginastera, Piazzolla, and Stravinsky and Richard Strauss.

I would like to promote more women’s large ensemble works, such as choral and symphonic works and operas in the general domain, and works by all races of people.

I think there will be an upcoming concert in Vermillion, South Dakota, this March 2021 or 2022, on the Great Plains New Music Festival, since last year’s September concert was delayed due to Covid 19. My piece will be Good-Bye, My Fancy, a poem by Walt Whitman, to be performed by Andrew R. White, baritone, and Graeme Wilkinson, piano.

More memories of Jean Coulthard which I will savour to the end of my days are these: when, at age 39, I discovered my birth mother, Helen Rickard Buxton, Jean and Don were wintering in their Honolulu house. When I wrote to Jean of this great discovery, she immediately sent me a telegram of congratulations! She was always supportive of our lives, not just our music.

And how can I forget her quips such as when, in England as a student, Jean said to an adult” Chalmondelly” in reading a road sign. He sternly retorted, “Chumley!”. “Oh” said Jean, inventing on-the-spot “That’s Like our Niffels”. Eyebrows raised in disbelief, he “ Niffels?” She calmly said and slightly haughtily, “O yes, Niagara Falls”.

Finally, one boo-boo has stayed with all of us Coulthard students. It was the last day of our summer school at Shawingan lake School Johannesen International Festival of Music), about 1977: We were all sitting crosslegged on the floor, around a huge punch bowl, feasting on delicacies and trading stories. By way of a “toast”, Jean bade us all “Clink Thearly, my dears”. She meant “Think Clearly, my dears!” We never let her forget that!”

Sylvia Rickard

Jean Coulthard

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