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THE POWER OF SONG

author: Denise Rudnicki / photography: Meg Botha

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Free violin and choir lessons bring music and magic into the lives of Northumberland kids

THE SEVEN-YEAR-OLDS CATAPULT from the school bus in a tumble, dragging coats and backpacks in a joyful stampede. Inside, they pounce on the after-school snack of biscuits and fruit, and head into the classroom in constant motion – spinning, jumping, twisting.

What has them so excited? Not the snacks, or crafts, or games. Not a chance to roll around on mats, or climb ropes, or hit a ball. “OK guys! Time to tune your violins.” The violin, which regularly tops lists of the hardest instruments to play, has these children raring to go.

Deborah Henderson is their teacher and chief wrangler. “Remember how to hold your violin? Gentle, gentle, marshmallow knees.”

Small chins are raised to nestle the instruments, fingers curl over the strings, faces scrunch in concentration, and bows touch down. Under Deborah’s patient direction, they play The Monkey Song in a chaotic cacophony, not all at once, not often with the right notes, but fearlessly and with gusto.

It’s 4:30 on a Wednesday afternoon, and inside the repurposed Grant Sine School in Cobourg, a group of dedicated Northumberland teachers and musicians are bringing music to children who might not otherwise have the opportunity to experience its transformative power. This is the children’s weekly violin lesson as a group, and they also have some one-on-one time with an instructor once a week.

“Music can change young lives,” says Marie Anderson, Artistic Director of Sounds of the Next Generation (SONG), a charity offering free violin and choral instruction and built on the idea that all kids should have the chance to learn and play music. “I know that given the opportunity, even the youngest children can experience the joy of producing artistic brilliance, fostering satisfying relationships, and feeling as if they are part of something important and greater than themselves. Our SONG music program does that.

”SONG is the only organization in Northumberland County that offers free, socially inclusive music programming several days a week, and the only string music program for children as young as six years old. They currently have about 70 children in the program.

Ten kilometres away, in Beatrice Strong Public School in Port Hope, Shannon Linton stands with hands on hips, examining her choir. “How would you sit if you were the worst choir in the world?” Fourteen children in Grades 1-3 slide in their seats in exaggerated slouches. “And if you were the best choir in the world?” Backs straighten, and faces are alert with anticipation. Shannon leads them in a rousing version of Dreams of the Sleeping Bird. One little girl, face flushed, can’t control herself and bursts out, “I love singing!”

Unlike the budding violinists, who are encouraged to practice at least five minutes every day, the members of the choir are not required to practice at home. “We know that the songs are looked up on YouTube, sung in the tub, at meals and around the house,” says Marie. “In a way, that is a kind of practice, as it reinforces the pleasure of singing.”

Shannon and Marie started SONG three years ago and bring a wealth of musical training to the project. Marie founded La Jeunesse Choir in 1988, developed and co-directed a choral program for almost 20 years, did a Master’s in Education with a focus on voice, and was musical director of Les Miz and The Secret Garden at the Capitol Theatre in Port Hope. She and Shannon have a musical connection that has lasted decades. Shannon started singing lessons with Marie when she was just six years old. At Marie’s urging, she joined La Jeunesse and then pursued a Bachelor and a Master’s in Music from the University of Ottawa. She also volunteered in Ottawa with OrKidstra, ran their choir for three years, and worked as an administrator with the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival.

Like OrKidstra, SONG has a social mission with roots in the poverty and desperation of the slums of Caracas, Venezuela. It was there, in 1975, that José Antonio Abreu founded El Sistema, the now famous music program that provides free instruments and musical training to low-income children. Abreu had a simple idea: offer children a way out of poverty through music education and community.

El Sistema is now a worldwide movement with over 400 centres and 700,000 young musicians practicing, performing, and experiencing the high of making music with other people. Canadian versions of the program exist in every province and territory, and there’s now an Ontario El Sistema Association in the works, which will bring together like-minded organizations across the province to share resources and learn from each other.

One of the Venezuelan program’s most famous graduates is conductor Gustavo Dudamel, who at just 28 years old became the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra (he’s now 35). An El Sistema youth orchestra from LA, comprised of musicians under the age of 17 from some of THE city’s less affluent neighbourhoods, played the half-time show at this year’s Super Bowl!

“Well, we are only three years old,” laughs Marie. “But someday, who knows? Maybe one of our young musicians or singers will lead an orchestra, or play on TV in front of millions.”

Principal Darlene Morra is in the front office of Beatrice Strong School, cheerfully and competently supervising a few after-school meltdowns, and happy to take a few moments to chat about the SONG program.

“It’s a hit,” she says. “I see some of the shy kids, who are quiet in class, and they go to SONG and they are singing and smiling and engaged. The kids look forward to it.”

Beatrice Strong and Terry Fox are the only schools in the entire Kawartha-Pine Ridge School District with a SONG program. Grant Sine is no longer in the school district, as it closed in 2014 and became a centre for independent learning. The school board provides free class space five hours a week in Port Hope, and busing from Terry Fox to the former Grant Sine four days a week. “This is an opportunity a lot of our kids would not have otherwise,” says Darlene. “We provide space and busing. That’s the least we can do.”

There are 74 elementary schools in the district, which includes Clarington, Northumberland and Peterborough Counties. Their website states, “The arts matter. Education in the arts is essential to students’ intellectual, social, physical and emotional growth.” But resources are limited. The district has just two arts specialists who support teachers in the classroom to provide instruction in dance, drama, music and the visual arts.

Music is still part of the Ontario curriculum in public elementary schools – children will sing songs and listen to music when they learn about other cultures, for example – but it’s not a core subject anymore and there are fewer and fewer trained music teachers on staff.

“In many ways, music in schools is incidental,” says Helen Evans, a retired teacher and principal with over 40 years’ experience in public and private schools. She says it was pushed out by a series of pressures, including budget cuts to public education and an emphasis on preparing children for standardized tests.

The cuts began in 1997 during Mike Harris’s term as premier, when the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) was established. Music, art and even physical education programs were reduced in elementary schools in order to channel resources into reading, writing and math, the subjects of Grade 3 and 6 provincial standardized tests.

“Eventually, the arts were considered an add-on in public schools,” says Helen. “The focus was on math, sciences and reading, and getting better scores.”

The irony is that music education can improve those scores; there are many studies that show that the brain grows in response to music training. But music education is about a lot more than improving academic scores.

The social and developmental benefits are huge, and this is what motivates Marie Anderson and the other members of SONG. They want to make sure kids whose parents can’t afford private lessons at $50 an hour, or the hundreds of dollars in fees to join choirs like La Jeunesse, have a chance to learn and play.

Marie emphasizes that SONG is not in competition with private music teachers or semi-professional choirs. “I had a social justice tug when we started SONG,” she says. “We go where we are needed. I’ve seen the effect music has on children and I wanted to make sure that all children have the chance to experience that.”

Back in Shannon Linton’s after-school classroom, the children are getting a little rambunctious. She has a very effective way of recapturing their attention. Clap, clap. Clap, clap, clap. With an almost Pavlovian response, the children stop talking and fooling around, and repeat the rhythm. Clap, clap. Clap, clap, clap. Order is restored. But something has happened while the children were distracted to upset one little boy. He is rubbing tears from his eyes and takes an extra few moments to compose himself and join in.

His mother says he has always been a shy boy, withdrawn and anxious, with his emotions close to the surface. But she says she sees a big difference in him now that he is coming to SONG. He is more outgoing and social. He’s coming out of his shell. “He loves this,” she says. “He comes three days a week and just wishes there was more. Even if he is sick, he will fight to go to school so he doesn’t miss it.”

“Listen louder than you sing! Now, we are little icicles, melting in the sun, can you see our tiny teardrops, falling one by one,” sings Lee Vittetow, assistant song-leader and kid-corraller. Bright, happy children reach to the ceiling, swaying and then rolling down to touch the floor.

Lee volunteers with SONG in Port Hope. A retired social worker with a long career in children’s mental health, he’s one of 40 volunteers who give their time to SONG. “I see these kids change,” he says. “They hold focus, are calmer, learn to cooperate.”

Vittetow’s observations are also supported by studies that show how music can bring out the best in children. It nourishes self-esteem and keeps them engaged. It teaches team work and collaboration. And apparently, it can keep a youngster out of trouble.

“The incidents of being sent to the principal’s office have been reduced dramatically,” says Lee, grinning.

Later, in Shannon’s classroom, 18 children in Grades 4-7 are practicing for their big spring concert. Shannon leads the 9- to 12-year-olds in a complicated warm-up exercise that combines hand-clapping and foot stomping, then they sing a nonsense-language song in two-part harmony, then a Spanish folk song, and a traditional southern spiritual. These kids have been exposed to a remarkable variety of music and styles in just 40 minutes of practice.

“Nice job. You guys are rocking it!” says Shannon. The choir beams.

“I live and swim choir,” says Marie. “That’s where I get my juice.” She says when children learn to sing in a choir, they learn many important skills, such as focus, cooperation, competence, awareness and commitment. They must make a commitment to come to rehearsals if they want to be able to perform, and performing is a big part of the SONG experience.

“Our first performance was chaos,” says Shannon. “We had 50 kids onstage at Victoria Hall in Cobourg, the kids thought they were in a castle, parents were climbing on stage to talk to them, everyone was waving. It was fantastic!”

The children are learning to be more disciplined in performance. They sing several times a year at community functions, school assemblies and in two major concerts, one in the winter and one in the spring. Right now they are practicing for SONG’s main event this year, an outdoor presentation of R. Murray Schafer’s The Spirit Garden that will be performed at Fifth Wind Farm in the Northumberland Hills on June 11 and 12.

“The children are thrilled and so proud to be a part of this once-in-a-lifetime performance opportunity,” says Shannon. SONG is working with the St. Mary’s High School Treble Choir, a class from Western University, a selection of professional musicians, and R. Murray Schafer himself.

“My first professional singing gig was a Murray Schafer opera set around a lake at three in the morning,” says Shannon. “It was an indescribably meaningful experience. I want every child in SONG to have that same experience of wonder, beauty, and being a part of something incredibly unique and special.”

It takes a village of supporters to pull off an event like this and to keep SONG humming all year long. Volunteers help in the classes, facilitate rehearsals, plan and execute events and concerts, run violin tutorials, and fundraise. TD Bank gave $25,000 to buy child-sized violins, the Trillium Foundation is supporting the production of The Spirit Garden with a $20,000 grant, and fundraising in the community allows SONG to pay their musicians and three staff members, travel to concerts and more. The passion of these people is infectious.

Late afternoon sunlight gives the geraniums on the windowsill in the classroom in Beatrice Strong School a jewel-tone glow. The volunteer instructor sets up music stands, selects sheet music, and gently chides the children to be careful with their violins and not to rush. The nine-year-old in the pink Just Dance T-shirt has been playing the violin for five months. She picks up her instrument with confidence, positions herself just so in front of the easel, and plays a lovely rendition of O Come Little Children.
She accepts a compliment with matter-of-fact ease and, with all the seriousness of a true diva, says why she loves taking violin lessons.

“The music is just in me.”

 

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