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McKennitt's ailing teacher lifted by surprise concert

Mon, Sep 24, 2001

By Leah Hendry

SHE has played to crowds of thousands in concert halls across the world. Yesterday she sang in a small cafeteria in the basement of Victoria Hospital.

It may have been a smaller stage than she is used to, but internationally renowned musician and singer Loreena McKennitt was singing for someone very special -- her former piano and choral teacher, Olga Friesen, who taught McKennitt from age four to 18 in Morden and Winnipeg.

When McKennitt learned Friesen was seriously ill with cancer, she didn't know if she would be able to fly from her home in Stratford, Ont., because of safety concerns surrounding the terrorist attacks in the United States earlier this month.

Resigned to the fact that McKennitt wasn't coming, Friesen was more than a little caught off guard when the musician strolled into her hospital room with her mother on Saturday night.

"Have you ever had Queen Elizabeth walk into your room to say hi?" Friesen asked. "Her fame is equivalent to that."

"It was great to see her," said McKennitt, who credits Friesen for starting her out in music. "Her focus and creativity was somewhat of an example for me. She set the bar pretty high."

When McKennitt was in Grade 10, Friesen co-wrote an operetta with McKennitt's English teacher and hired someone from the Royal Winnipeg Ballet to instruct the students in choreography.

"Nothing but the best would do," said McKennitt, adding that Friesen also worked on the sets and painted. "It was really quite extraordinary to be exposed at such a young age to all those different doors."

The last time the two saw each other was six years ago. McKennitt was in town to play a sold-out concert and dropped by Friesen's restaurant, Omi's Pantry, to sing her a couple of songs.

"She's the same little kid," said Friesen. "She hasn't changed a bit."

When McKennitt was a child, her mother asked Friesen to teach her in the hope that music would be a creative outlet for the redhead's restless energy. At first, Friesen couldn't get McKennitt to sit still and they almost had to tie her to the piano stool. But she was a quick learner and began to focus.

Friesen moved to Winnipeg when McKennitt was in Grade 5. Undeterred, McKennitt hopped on a bus once a week to continue her lessons in the city.

It still amazes Friesen that the award-winning singer/songwriter has sold nearly ten million records worldwide.

"I didn't consider her to be one of my best students. I didn't think anything would come of her, but she used her technique, perfection, drive and energy to reach excellence."

In front of a small crowd of patients and visitors, McKennitt spoke about family history and explained how her music was influenced by her travels. An awed hush fell over the room as she sang two a cappella songs, a traditional Irish folk song and a French Canadian song.

Ever the teacher, Friesen barely resisted the urge to get up and direct McKennitt, longing to push the singer to stretch out some of her notes.

"I really challenge my students," said Friesen, who pushed one of her student's last year to play five pieces at a piano festival -- her student won. "It's extremely rewarding for me to see a vision of potential in every person. I am so happy when my students surpass me."

Many of Friesen's students have gone on to be semi-professional or professional musicians.

"She really nurtured and identified the students who had potential," said McKennitt, who stayed after her songs to chat with some of the other patients and sign autographs. "Even though she taught me classical music, I benefited from the discipline classical music demands of you."