Noreen Wensley and Karen King

A Tradition of Excellence: Three Generations of Canadian Women Achieve ARCT Diploma

The following article, recounting the impact of music education on the family of Saskatoon music teacher Noreen Wensley, was written only days prior to her sudden and tragic passing. Noreen was a lifelong Royal Conservatory teacher and CFMTA member, and was a pillar of music teaching in her community. With the permission of Noreen’s family we are sharing this story as a tribute to her, and to the impact of her family on music students across the country. 

When Noreen Wensley and daughter Karen King arrived at the Toronto Convocation Ceremony in February 2012, they were fulfilling a 60-year-old dream, a dream that began with Noreen’s mother Betty in 1951.

Born and raised in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Betty Wensley (née Horgan), pursued both piano and voice studies with The Royal Conservatory throughout the Great Depression and World War II. She performed regularly in local festival competitions, musicals, and operas. 

In 1949 Betty won the Royal Conservatory Silver Medal [now Gold Medal] for achieving the highest mark in the province for Level 10 Voice. She graduated in 1951 with her ARCT in Voice Performance, embarking on a busy career of raising a family, teaching music – including her own children – and performing.  Unfortunately, she was not able to attend the Convocation Ceremony the following year, nor did she ever have the opportunity to visit The Royal Conservatory in Toronto.

Daughter Noreen followed in her mother’s footsteps, taking up piano lessons with area teachers carefully hand-picked to take the young musician all the way through to the ARCT Diploma. “With a mother who was a singer who performed extensively around Saskatoon, I always assumed I would study music. It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t.” She continued piano lessons even while studying at the University of Saskatchewan.

She completed the requirements for ARCT Piano Teacher’s Diploma in 1985. Like her mother, Noreen did not attend the Convocation ceremony in Toronto the following year. She was unable to travel as she was expecting her daughter Karen, but still is proud of her accomplishment. “My ARCT diploma is a special one, because on it is a seal indicating the 100th anniversary of the RCM, which was in 1986.”

Daughter Karen showed early signs of musical aptitude and began formal studies at the tender age of 13 months. Like her mother and grandmother, Karen was headed for the ARCT Teacher’s Diploma, and successfully completed the program in May 2011. Sadly, Grandma Betty passed away before seeing her granddaughter achieve her ARCT.

When Karen’s invitation to attend Convocation arrived in the fall, she and her mother decided to make the trek to Toronto, even though regional ceremonies were also offered closer to home, in Calgary and Vancouver. They brought a cherished portrait of Betty with them. “The ARCT convocation in February 2012 was the first time any of us had ever seen The Royal Conservatory before. You have no idea how excited we were to be there, and to bring Grandma with us in spirit.”

Noreen points out that her and her family’s musical milestones align with significant RCM events. Her mother Betty graduated in 1951 on The Royal Conservatory’s 65th birthday. Her own diploma was issued during the 100th anniversary, and “25 years later, Karen completed her ARCT in 2011, when the RCM celebrated its 125th anniversary.”

Both women run their own private teaching studios, Noreen’s in Saskatoon, SK, and Karen’s in Calgary, AB. While they may have separate studios, mother and daughter share the same perspective in teaching music: “We teach our students that although you may never take the stage at Carnegie Hall, we want you to be involved members of the local music community who purchase season tickets to the symphony, listen to live jazz, attend the opera, and appreciate a higher standard of excellent music.”

Karen also emphasizes that the benefits of music education extend beyond learning to play. “When asked why we choose to play music, the answer is always quite simple: because those involved in music become better human beings.”