Eleanor Toebaert was five when she first touched a piano.
She didn’t know how to play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star but she got a compliment on her performance.
Buoyed by her success, she signed up for group lessons at Sperling elementary under June Perry — a decision that would launch a lifetime love for music education.
By 14, she was teaching piano and, after graduation, would make the long commute to UBC to study for her associate degree (ARCT) under the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto while still teaching privately. “It was the kids and the classical music. I had to put them together,” she said plainly.
It was around this time Toebaert learned about a job in the Coquitlam school district to teach group lessons, between 3 and 6 p.m., at the now-defunct Austin Heights, Mary Hill and Central elementary schools. Her first class at Mary Hill had five students — two of them the children of the BC NDP leader Dave Barrett, who had yet to become premier.
Within five years, Toebaert (who by then had married a fellow musician and changed her surname to Dricos) boasted nearly 100 students in her extracurricular lessons at schools. In her spare time, she taught piano and theory at her Port Coquitlam home six days a week, passing on her love for Romantic and Impressionism compositions.
Next month, the 71 year old will retire after 57 years of teaching by hosting a farewell picnic at Settlers Park, in Citadel Heights.
And though she’s instructed close to 1,000 people, she’s not sure how many of her “kids” will turn out to give her a hug and share stories at the catered event organized by her daughters.
Jennifer Brown and Lisa Suhopoljac want the send-off to be a recognition of her half-century in music education.
“Our mom is a natural with children and has a special kind of magic that makes kids want to work hard and strive to do their very best,” they wrote to The Tri-City News. “In our home, it was comforting to hear piano music coming up from the vents and to know that mom was just downstairs at work.”
Dricos, who also taught piano to her daughters, said she’s loved her lengthy career as well as the evolution of her students.
Often, the little ones would be shy about the keyboard in the beginning but she would sit them on the bench and “in front of the most important key: the ‘C.’”
Soon, they could identify every “C” and name the keys for each octave. “By the third lesson, they would know all the keys and I would say, ‘Great, now let’s learn music!’”
At recitals — Christmas at her home or at year-end shows in bigger venues — they’d take their bow and look in Dricos’ way first; the gesture warmed her heart.
Her piano lessons were sometimes a release for kids struggling at home or school, or with other challenges. A couple of years ago, a former student — who became a brain surgeon — stopped her at Safeway in PoCo to confide he never forgot her words of encouragement.
Dricos said, unlike some piano teachers, she kept her lessons light. “I was a fun teacher. I was a nice teacher. I never yelled. I recognized that music is to be enjoyed.”
She got a kick out of her older students, too. The late Nel Forrest (mother to Mike Forrest, who recently received the Freedom of the City designation) took up the piano for the first time in her 80s, after she was diagnosed with dementia; the doctor recommended she stimulate her brain.
It wasn’t uncommon for Dricos to teach two generations from the same family on her Young Chang Bergmann grand piano (which is now up for sale) or her Heintzman upright, the same piano on which she got her ARCT.
But, five years ago, Dricos said she was ready to start winding down. An overused tendon in her hand and arthritis were bothering her, and she stopped accepting new students.
Now, she has only two left.
Two years ago, she also gave up her long-time membership with the Coquitlam/Maple Ridge BC Registered Music Teachers Association.
As for her retirement plans? “Travel, grandkids and, of course, lots of music.”
• To save a spot at Eleanor Dricos’ retirement party, call 604-202-2556 or email email@example.com before June 1. The party is on June 15 from 2 to 4 p.m. at Settlers Park in Port Coquitlam.