Whangārei woman Rae Patterson has been a piano teacher for an astounding 65 years.
But when she first heard of her nomination to become a life member of the NZ Institute of Registered Music Teachers (IRMTNZ) – a high honour, as there can only be five life members at a time – she was shocked.
"I didn't reply to their email for a while. But then I thought back about how much I always wanted to put Northland on the map; I've been working for years vouching for Northland."
So she finally decided to accept the nomination and appreciates the notion of her appointment.
Patterson started playing the piano when she was 8, about the same time her parents were expecting their second child.
"I can remember being encouraged a lot by my teachers at school; I was lucky in that way."
Patterson's father used to play the piano too, but enjoyed playing contemporary music by ear, while Rae preferred classical music.
"My father liked modern music. He kept asking me why I was playing all this dead music all the time."
Patterson has not deviated from her love for classical music and didn't find exploring other genres appealing.
"I'd rather put time into practising Chopin's Nocturnes than learning a rag."
Growing up, she enjoyed playing Chopin and Beethoven a lot.
"Hearing Richard Farrell [late New Zealand pianist] playing Chopin as a youngster when he came up to Whangārei was simply magical. Today, I like playing Bach. His music has no indication of loud, quiet or speed. It's a blank page, and you make your own decisions when playing. It's fascinating and quite stimulating to see how people interpret his music differently."
Soon, the piano became more than a hobby for Patterson, and she considered teaching others who wanted to learn the elegant instrument.
While Patterson was "ever so grateful" to her first piano teacher, the student was made to wait for "the longest time" for an official exam.
Since Patterson wanted to prove her skills, her teacher finally gave in, and when Patterson finally played in front of the Trinity College panel – who are still, among other organisations, setting standards for examinations today – the results came back with a surprise.
"My teacher expected me to do a whole lot better than I did. It was a complete and utter new experience for me. I had never played on a grand piano before, but for the exam I had to."
But Patterson was ambitious in her plans to eventually teach, so she pushed and finally passed her exams with greater success.
Today, Patterson has a relative view of official exams: "Not as many students are taking them as they used to. I've always been conscious that exams – used in the right way – can be a stepping stone. They are valuable but also an ordeal. When you have a very nervous child, you have to make sure they are well prepared to be as confident as they can be."
Other things have changed too in the time Patterson has been teaching music.
While during her youth nearly everyone learnt the piano, today children experiment with different instruments – and different hobbies, entirely.
Patterson herself practised the violin for a while but ultimately remained faithful to her love for the piano. On occasion, she played the organ at the Anglican Church.
Outside of one-on-one classes, Patterson has been active within the music community, joining the IRMTNZ in 1968 and helping set up its Northland branch where she acted as its president several terms since.
Locally, Patterson worked with the Northland Performance Arts Competitions Society, and in 1964 she initiated the annual Non Competitive Music Festival as parts of that.
Among others, she was also involved with the Whangārei Youth Orchestra and the Council of the Dominion Executive of the Federation of Society of Registered Music Teachers.
Busy still, Patterson is currently planning a music teacher trip to Austria and Germany – one of many, she has done already in the past.
Patterson said that she used to play frequently for her own pleasure; however, it had become more difficult with age.
"You lose facility in your fingers as you get older, no matter what you do."
Patterson has arthritis in her hands and in more than unfortunate accident, she broke her wrist late year, leaving her with limited mobility and pain.
"When my physiotherapist showed the exercise I was supposed to do, I had to laugh – it's the same kind of basic exercises I tell my students to do when they first start playing."
Currently, Patterson still has a few piano students; however, at 84 she feels it's time to let go slowly.
"It's not that I want to give up teaching, but it's time that I wind myself down. It takes a lot of energy to teach piano, and I feel like I wouldn't do a proper job if I didn't have enough energy to give."
Though she used to prefer teaching children, Patterson now also takes pleasure in lessons with adults – presumably, because she enjoys the challenges that come with it.
"Adults have very high, and often unrealistic, expectations – especially when they have played in the past, which can make it hard to work with them. Having said that, the odd child can also have unrealistic expectations."
The joy in teaching children is watching them develop and finding ways around problems – overcoming challenges, that was the exciting part, Patterson explained.
She said no matter who she teaches, her ultimate goal was always for them to become independent.
"I'd be terribly disappointed if a student plays the same way as I do. They have to work out a style of playing that suits them. Music gives you the freedom to be yourself."