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Grandmother composes her way to the top

Steveston resident's work reaches new heights, has admirers around the globe

Diane Chouinard reinvented herself in her 50s.

A mother, grandmother and former medical transcriber, today Chouinard is a published composer whose pieces have been performed around the world.

Just this past weekend, the Steveston resident's composition, Duo Scherzino, was chosen and premiered at the UBC's Roy Barnett Recital Hall.

"The duo also decided to record my piece in the studio," said the French Canadian. "I wrote it for two pianos and I was thrilled to hear Piano Pinnacle perform it."

This past July, Chouinard attended a premiere of her composition, Smooth Sailing, in Ontario.

Smooth Sailing went on to be published by the Canadian National Conservatory of Music (CNCM), in its Northern Light series, an exploration of Canadian piano music.

This marked her seventh piano composition to be premiered and published by the CNCM.

She is also this year's winner of the CFMTA (Canadian Federation of Music Teachers Association) competition for their grade five/six category.

"They have selected my piano composition, Aurora Borealis," she said.

The idea to pursue a career as a composer in her 50s is only surpassed by how difficult it is to break into the market dominated by men.

Many times, Chouinard said she is the lone female at music competitions.

"Only over the last decade have women been more accepted as composers," she added. "During last Saturday night's competition, it was nine men and myself."

The News sat down with Chouinard in her Steveston home. Center stage is her pride and joy, a century-old Steinway piano, handcrafted in Hamburg, Germany.

It wasn't until her late 30s that Chouinard decided to study music.

Her passion for classical music grew early in life.

"My father would put me to sleep to Beethoven or Chopin," said Chouinard. "Also, my grandmother was a great pianist who at 18 won the Grand Prix of Music in France."

However, life interrupted. Chouinard married a doctor, who moved his young family from Montreal to Boston, Geneva and Toronto.

"My daughter was two when I took piano lessons at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto," said Chouinard, whose daughter is now 37, and her son 41.

A professor took notice of Chouinard's talent for harmonies and steered her to composition training.

"He discovered I was good at melodies and pushed me to study composing," she said.

When her marriage unraveled, Chouinard went back to the University of Montreal to pursue her Master's degree in composition. She was 52.

The first time she ever heard her work performed live, Chouinard said, she was "exhilarated and nervous at the same time."

"In university, you don't know how your piece will sound by an ensemble of instruments so when I heard it for the first time I was thrilled," Chouinard added.

Unlike writing music for singers, where composers are often inspired by events happening in their lives, melodies don't just come to the Montreal native nor are they inspired by her personal life.

"Nature, First Nations legends and French Canadian folk music have inspired a large part of my writing, which has been described as impressionistic with a certifiably true Canadian imagery," she said. "I have always been fascinated by the amazing phenomenon of northern lights.

"Aurora Borealis is an attempt to translate into music the graceful and unpredictable arabesques formed by gliding and swirling diaphanous veils seen in Canadian northern skies."

It can take months for Chouinard to complete a concerto for an orchestra to mere days for a piano piece.

"My piece, Duo Scherzino, took 10 days to finish," she added. "I write music for any instrument, including the cello and piano."

She also writes music for children, although she said it's more difficult.

Chouinard works at least three days a week on her compositions, sometimes until midnight.

"I could be watching television and if an idea comes to me I have to write it right away," Chouinard said.

Her compositions have also been performed by the Montreal Chamber Orchestra and at Toronto's concert hall and recording studio, the Glenn Gould Studio, as well as internationally in Italy, France, Chile and the United States.

Meanwhile this fall, the associate member of the Canadian Music Centre has been invited to participate in this year's program, Composer in the Classroom, at McRoberts Secondary.

"I do this because it's a passion for me," she said.