As the Toronto District School Board votes on major cuts to music education, the Star reconnects three successful musicians to their instructors to talk about music's impact.
The Star talks to musicians and their teachers, as the Toronto District School Board tables a plan to cut its music instructors.
By: Paul Hunter Feature reporter, The Toronto Star | http://bit.ly/10qjK3e
Sat Jun 15 2013 :: Troy Sexton provides the soundtrack to his own life, a constant rhythm of beats that not only define him, they saved him.
Sexton — who spent almost a decade touring the world with Stomp, the percussive stage show — is an inked-up, energized example of how music can rescue a young student.
Struggling at Humber Valley Village Junior Middle School because of dyslexia, Sexton was introduced to drums by teacher Les Dobbin in Grade 6.
Boom. Or make that boom-boom. Sexton’s confidence exploded. School was no longer a daily, confusing stress test.
“In very many ways, (music) kept me going to school,” a 29-year-old Sexton recalls now. “It kept me interested in school and excited. Once I started to learn the language of music almost every other class I did related back to that language and I could think of ways to relate music to all of my other classes. I’d start reading music books and writing book reports on books about artists or musicians that I liked.”
Sexton says his enthusiasm spilled into all his subjects.
It’s an opportunity he fears that, if proposed cuts to music education by the Toronto District School Board are approved, some kids might miss.
In an effort to shave about $2 million from its $27-million budget shortfall, the board has tabled a plan to axe all 24 of its itinerant music instructors in staff development. Their job is to go from school to school, working with students in kindergarten through Grade 6, while also training teachers over a two-year period to instruct in recorder, vocal and Orff instruments.
It would also chop the classroom time of another 83 itinerants in the enrichment programs who instruct strings, band and steel pan for the older elementary grades.
School trustees are expected to vote on the proposed cuts on Wednesday.
The opportunity to make a case for music education recently brought Sexton to John G. Althouse Middle School — Dobbin’s stomping grounds now.
The Star connected three students who went on to make a life on the stage with an influential teacher from their school days. Each reunion became a mini-summit on the power of music.
That sextet, combined with voices from the local arts community, passionately argue that music shouldn’t be dismissed as a frill to be chopped when times are tough but instead should be broadened because of all the benefits it provides.
“Look at the decision making when one goes to play an instrument,” says Dobbin, noting that, at his school, everyone plays one. “All the things that happen when you to go to produce a note is pretty phenomenal.”
But beyond the mental stimulation, he says there are benefits to society.
“A very important aspect of music is the performances, the teamwork where you’re working with a large number of students together — it could be over 100 students working together towards one goal — and this is a life lesson you’re going to use in any profession you go into.”
Sexton went into music. In Grade 10, he was part of Dobbin’s Etobicoke Youth Band, which travelled to a performance in New York. There he saw Stomp — “I get goosebumps talking about it even now” — and vowed he would one day join the troupe. At 19, he made it after his second audition. He achieved his dream, he says, helped by the self-esteem that grew out of taking music in Grade 6.
“(I didn’t) have the confidence to express myself academically because I was always nervous that I was going to be wrong,” he recalls. “When I went to music class it was the opposite.”
“Not every student gets to go on to be a professional musician. But the confidence, the pride, the group work, the teamwork, listening to each other, learning how to tell a story with music, you learn in the music room.”
“There could be so many people who could have been brilliant at something but they were never exposed to it. How much talent have we lost because they weren’t exposed to something?”
Jon Gallant, bass player for Billy Talent
As an ambassador for Musicounts, a Canadian music charity, Jim Cuddy has seen behind the curtain of our academic music programs and has read proposals from schools looking for financial help.
“When you see the state of the music programs, even before these proposed cuts, with kids trying to play on instruments that are 25 years old, saxophones with three keys broken, no sheet music … it’s pathetic,” says the Blue Rodeo frontman.
Musicounts awards grants of $5,000 and $10,000 to schools to buy new instruments and sheet music. This year alone, it awarded $190,000 in what it calls Band-Aid grants to schools in the TDSB.
The TDSB “has been a great partner of ours, making sure there is access to music in schools,” says Allan Reid, the charity’s director. “So any time we hear of cuts to music programs in schools, it’s concerning.”
Across the province, however, music has been scaled back, according to the advocacy group People for Education. A report released by that group in April stated only 44 per cent of elementary schools in the province have a specialized music teacher. That compares to 49 per cent in 2012 and 58 per cent in 1998.
That erosion is something Cuddy finds distressing.
“I can’t even imagine going to a school that didn’t have music. Will kids have to go to other schools to get it? The more difficult they make it, the more they cut it out of their lives. And it’s a travesty,” he says.
“It’s hearing, it’s imagination, it’s all these developments that I think are so crucial to these kids. When you see the kids — and I’ve seen the results — playing the new instruments in junior strings or the rock band or the dance band, there is a look of satisfaction on their faces that I don’t imagine all of them can get from a successful math exam or doing well on a science lab.
“I think music should be considered of equal value to academics. It’s a way in which kids can advance and that’s what our schools should be for.”
While there have been suggestions that 150 schools — those facing 100-per-cent elimination of itinerant music teachers in Orff instruments, vocal and recorder — will lose their programs, the TDSB argues the impact of potential cuts has been exaggerated and music remains, says a spokesperson, “an integral part of the curriculum.
The TDSB has 437 teachers who have their Honour Specialist in music and another 214 that have additional qualifications in music. The challenge is in how those teachers are distributed across the board’s 447 elementary schools.
“Music is alive and well at the TDSB and will continue to be alive and well at the TDSB,” says spokeswoman Shari Schwartz-Maltz. “It’s just a different way of delivering music, an equitable distribution of musical education across the system.”
There is also a plan for an additional 10 half-day courses of training for teachers. They may be offered as summer training, for which teachers would pay $450 each, so more instructors can be qualified to teach music.
The itinerant teachers argue that there is no mechanism in the school staffing process to ensure those certified teachers are in schools currently taught by those itinerants, who are typically professional musicians. And without staffing assurances, schools could indeed lose their programs.
If students “haven’t had a chance to try it, like they do with math, like they do with science, like the do with French, they will not know when they get to secondary school what choices they could have made,” says David Spek, a longtime itinerant strings instructor and vocal advocate for the union.
In the enrichment programs — the board has 83 musical instructors that teach strings, band or steel pan — the staffing hours would be cut from about 1,266 to 948 per week. Spek estimates that could eliminate up to 30 teachers.
“You’re looking at the decimation of the whole program,” says Spek.
Reid of Musicounts, who attended a recent school trustees meeting to make a case for music, believes this debate isn’t about developing professional musicians but about keeping programs dynamic and fully available.
“This is simply about creating a far more well-rounded society,” he says. “One that has the benefits of music education which teaches you teamwork, it teaches you discipline and it’s proven to make you better at math. We also call it the great equalizer. For kids who aren’t necessarily athletic or maybe aren’t the most social, oftentimes music class is that place where they can excel.”
While the TDSB is looking at cutting back the money it budgets for music programs, the Ontario government recently pledged $45 million to the music industry over three years to nurture talent and promote music tourism in the province.
And, on Thursday, a coalition of local musicians, promoters, studio owners and recording executives got behind the lobby group Music Canada in an attempt to brand Toronto as a music city. With the slogan “4479 Toronto: Music meets world,” the group will try to make Toronto an international epicentre of music production, music tourism and performance.
“Music education demonstrably improves academic achievement, behaviour and attitude. Through music, kids learn how to have constructive relationships with other people, how focus counts, how application produces results, how to dream and most of all, how to feel true joy.”
— Canadian record producer Bob Ezrin, who worked with Pink Floyd, Alice Cooper and Kiss
. Long before he was in Barenaked Ladies, Jim Creeggan was the tall, solemn kid on bass at the back of Trish Howells’ Grade 6 strings class.
“He was always serious about his playing,” Howells recalls of those classes at east Scarborough’s Charlottetown Junior Public School. “If there were antics in the classroom, I would look at the back and Jim would just kind of shaking his head.”
“He was always the steady guy saying, ‘I don’t know what’s going on here, but I’m not liking this.’ ”
Creeggan laughs at the long-forgotten memory of his 11-year-old self.
“I was the guy saying, ‘C’mon guys, let’s play “When the Saints Go Marching In” one more time and get it right.’ Maybe that’s my role in Barenaked Ladies as well. ‘C’mon guys, let’s get down to it.’ ”
Creeggan, now 43, hadn’t seen Howells for more than three decades but at a reunion one recent morning at the bassist’s Toronto studio, they spoke easily and passionately about how exposure to music at a young age turns out well-rounded citizens with increased brain power no matter what career path they select.
“It really is applied academics. When you play a musical instrument, the spacing, the patterns, it’s all math,” says Creeggan.
Howells says for some students, the music room is the only place they get to shine in a school environment and that studies have shown music instruction helps all students, including those with learning challenges, process information.
“Their reading increases as does their ability to comprehend because music is full of patterns, as is language and mathematics,” she says.
Creeggan worries that as music instruction erodes in the schools, it will further widen the educational gap between those students who can afford private lessons and those who can’t. The playing of music in this country could become an elitist pursuit.
“You’ll have kids that can afford private lessons outside of school, play music and enjoy it. But the kids that go to that school and can’t afford that will have no connection to it. That happens on-going, especially in rural areas where (the numbers of) music teachers are declining fast.”
For Creeggan, it just isn’t just lip service.
He’s part of a group that has refurbished ukuleles at nearby Givins/Shaw Jr. Public School and helped purchase new ones. He’s also donated a small bass like the one he used to play.
Creeggan volunteers at the school and he recalled one telling exchange with a boy who showed no interest at all on first meeting.
“He wasn’t into anything … not into school at all,” recounts Creeggan. “I went back a week later and I said, ‘Do you play sports?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I’m a goalie.’ I was like, ‘Okay, let’s play a little game here. Let’s pretend with this ukulele, I’m the forward on the other team and I’m going to take a shot on you. If you can repeat what I play on this ukulele, then you’ve saved the goal.’ So I played a little melody and he had to play back what I played. (There was) a spark in him I hadn’t seen in a long time.”
Creeggan says he has since seen that same boy in the band program.
“Some people look at music education as an add-on or a hobby. I think we have to change that mentality a little bit and make it a career option, because it is a career option.”
—Ian D’Sa, guitarist for Billy Talent
It only seems as if Mireille Asselin was born to become one of this country’s top young sopranos. Classical music was a constant on the radio at her childhood home in Saint John, N.B. She eventually flourished at a French arts school in Ottawa, followed by a BA in music from The Royal Conservatory’s Glenn Gould School, then a master’s in opera at Yale University. A recent graduate of the Canadian Opera Company’s prestigious Ensemble Studio program, performances at Carnegie and her upcoming opportunity to cover a leading role at the Metropolitan Opera only confirm an impressive career arc.
“But it was in school that I really got the bug,” says the 29-year-old. “It was through choir that I discovered a love of singing. Then I took piano lessons on the side, then I took voice lessons. It just sort of snowballed from there.”
Those roots, and how they formed a basis for a blossoming career, have made Asselin a fervent supporter of children’s music education, something that was clearly evident when she recently sat down with former teacher Monica Whicher, a faculty member at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory.
In today’s economy, Asselin believes the creativity fostered through music will become almost essential for people who have to generate their own opportunities for employment.
“I think creative education in schools encourages the creative development of a child’s brain and encourages them to think outside the box and feel they can create and be non-traditional and have that be a positive thing, a kind of entrepreneurship in a way,” she says.
“(That is) really critical in today’s society in the way that you need to create work for yourself and just be open-minded.”
Asselin sees a two-pronged benefit for children who are exposed to music. The student develops self-control through hours of methodical preparation and then expresses that study in a creative manner.
“The more time you put into it, the greater the satisfaction when you get to the end of it. I think that’s a crucial lesson to learn in anything that you do. If you’re studying for the bar, you need to know how to be alone in a room for hours on end, memorizing and honing the particular skills that you’ve chosen to hone.”
Asselin feels that music is “an integral part of our society that I think we take for granted.”
“You look at the city of Toronto,” she says. “And the reason it is considered this vibrant city is because you’ve got a vibrant arts scene. People all over the world seek out neighbourhoods and cities that are artistic and have a lot of creative energy.”
Whicher picks up on the theme that music is the lifeblood of modern society and wonders why it becomes vulnerable when budgets become an issue.
Music education “always comes up as the thing that is not necessary,” she says. “What’s not necessary about creativity? What’s not necessary about open-mindedness and very specific skill building? What’s not necessary about working as a team in an orchestra or a choir? What’s not necessary about following a leader who is an expert in his or her field?
“Singing is great for you physically; playing an instrument, likewise. It keeps brains nimble. It keeps bodies nimble. It gives you something to do at a very young or a very old age. I think it’s imperative that people understand that. It’s part of our fabric. It’s not a frill. It’s not a frill.”