A few years ago, if asked, Malcolm St. John would have said his greatest hope was to be a hockey player.
Now, after his first Canadian Music Competition, a national showcase of young talent across a wide variety of instruments, he is happy he picked a more artistic path.
“When I left Hay River, I wanted to play hockey,” St. John told The Hub on June 28, after having played piano for the crowd and judges the day before. “But then, I guess I decided that wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life.”
The St. John family had planned to take a year and live elsewhere in Canada in 2010 and chose Sherbrooke, Que., because of its vibrant cultural scene and various opportunities for Malcolm and his siblings. When given the choice of going to a sports-oriented school or a musical one, St. John gave in to his artistic inclinations and has not looked back since.
“I picked music and I played the violin,” he said. “I was walking by a music school in Sherbrooke in the fall of 2010 and I saw piano lessons advertised, so I decided to try that out, too.”
When the year was up and the St. John family was set to return to Hay River, Malcolm asked if he could stay back and continue his musical studies in Quebec. When a friend’s mother offered to rent him a room, the details were taken care of and the decision was made for him to stay.
“There isn’t much opportunity for music in Hay River,” he said.
As one of only eight 16-year-old piano finalists to play at the Canadian Music Competition, conveniently held in Sherbrooke this year, St. John did not expect to win, but was pleased with his performance nonetheless. Results were to be announced on July 3, followed by a final gala in which only the winning artists perform on July 4.
“It’s all the best young musicians in Canada who are here,” St. John said, going on to explain the preparation is the same for both a concert and a competition in that it’s all about focus. “It was cool just to be chosen and to play for all these people.”
His former violin teacher in Hay River, who now resides in Yellowknife, said she always enjoys hearing about former students of hers who have gone on to do great things in the music world.
“I remember Malcolm as being very driven,” said Andrea Bettger. “He worked hard and took it very seriously, and he is a very musical person. You can see it when he plays. You can see the music just flowing through his whole body.”
Bettger said that, beyond his technical ability, St. John was never afraid to try different styles and experiment with techniques, which helped him become a more well-rounded and capable musician. She also credits his parents with encouraging him and all his siblings to get involved in as many activities as possible.
“I worked at the school,” Bettger said. “And there was never an evening in which you wouldn’t see the St. Johns’ van going back and forth to activities several times a night.”
As for what advice the seasoned performer would give St. John, Bettger said she would tell him to focus and take time to breathe.
“It’s not really a challenge for him,” she said. “But I would say to centre himself and then just let the music flow through him.”
After two years at a Quebec college, and having completed programs in both music and pure and applied sciences, St. John isn’t sure what he wants to do next.
“I like science, especially biology and maybe medicine,” he said.
Whether he becomes a professional musician or not, St. John knows that music is in his life to stay.
— Sarah Ladik