A teacher of unforgettable lessons
In response to the article “The making of those memorable professors” (Issue #3-2010, p. 26) I would like to pay tribute to one of Queen’s most unique and memorable professors: Denise (Narcisse-Mair) Bishop, who graced the Harrison-LeCaine building with her presence from 1972 to 1980, News of her untimely death on June 8 also was recorded in issue #3-2010 (p. 15). I was one of the many students who encountered Denise in and out of the classroom, in curricular and extra-curricular activities, and throughout it all, she remains one of the primary influences in my own work as a choir director and a teacher.
I first met Denise in the fall of 1974 when as a green, young, first-year student in the Bachelor of Music program, I joined the Choral Ensemble. I had been singing all of my life, in church and school choirs in Kingston, and was a senior piano student of the locally renowned and exceptionally talented Lois Rich. I thought I was quite familiar with learning difficult music and performing, and that the Choral Ensemble would be a “little break” from the very demanding music courses I was taking. However, at the first rehearsal, I quickly learned how little about choral singing I really knew. Denise gave new meaning to the idea of “a whole new level” and I knew I was going to be working harder than I ever had in my life.
In the classroom, Denise was an exemplary teacher. She was always excited about the subject matter, lively and stimulating in discussion, and quick to encourage and listen to individual concerns. In her Choral Conducting class, I remember being one of the first people brave enough to get up and try conducting the class as a choir. In elegant, plummy tones, Denise congratulated me on “not being a wimp”! I knew that was high praise indeed from her! In the course, “Music in the Schools” she was eager to share her ideas about teaching music to little ones, and, seated on the floor playing rhythm instruments with six-year-olds, she provided us with great model lessons and ideas that I still use today in the classroom.
My most memorable time with Denise came during the Choral Ensemble’s trip to Europe in the spring of 1978. In the space of three weeks, we travelled from Amsterdam to Budapest, singing in churches and community venues all along the way. At the end of it all, relaxing in her hotel room after we had won the final competition in Hungary, she said, “You are now equipped to sing with the best choirs around” and I knew she meant every word. The caliber of choral singing that was present at Queen’s under her directorship, was at a professional level, and we were trained and honed in the crucible of her exacting tutelage.
Perhaps some readers will remember the concerts the Choral Ensemble gave in and around Kingston in the 1970’s during Denise’s tenure. There was the beautiful concert in the City Hall’s Memorial Room, Messiah at St. Mary’s Cathedral, and perhaps one of the most memorable, the singing of the Brahms Requiem at Principal Deutsch’s memorial service in Grant Hall.
Denise was a fierce musician and this was reflected in her passion for teaching and directing. Everything we learned and performed had to be at the highest level possible. It was this quality of excellence that defined everything we did with her and is still the measure of how I believe good teachers always operate.
After 5 years in the Choral Ensemble (I split my fourth year into two years in order to work and help with the cost of tuition) I felt that I had come a long way from that nervous 18 year old who thought she knew a little about singing. I was a confident alto, able to read and perform very challenging pieces of music, and a musician who had developed her talents in the classroom under Denise’s expert and demanding eyes.
On the European junket, those of us who had grown to be strong assistants and helpers with the organization of the trip also grew to be Denise’s friends. We knew when things were not proceeding smoothly (she would fluff into a ball in her gray fur coat and huddle in the front seat of our bus) and when things were going well (there would be that expansive smile lighting her whole face, and we would be told roundly, “Well done!” None of us who knew her will ever forget her: the distinctive British-accented voice that could take on the Jamaican drawl without warning, the unmistakable clip-clop of high heels announcing her arrival in exotic and (to us) very chic ensembles.
But what I hope we will remember most is the way she instilled in us the absolute love of music, her singular focus on excellence, and those traits of good teaching that she modeled in all her work.
Every time I lift my hands to conduct my church choir, or watch young children enjoying the power of choral singing, or go about my discussions with beginning teachers on how to engage and interact in the classroom, I will remember Denise.