Before school was officially over for the summer, I met up with Glynis Dawson, Department Head of Fine Arts, at Belmont Secondary School and Maureen Garry, a music teacher at David Cameron Elementary School to talk about music programs in their schools. Glynis also arranged to have the Belmont sax combo and a grad combo on site and prepped for a photo shoot for our August cover.
I wish you could have been with us for that photo shoot. The rhythm section started jamming in the background as we were setting up. Immediately, everyone in the room became more animated. What could have been a boring hour adjusting positions and attitudes for the camera, became a choreography of instruments filling up the room with an energy that made you feel like there was nothing else in the world that was more important—or essential—at that moment. Brilliant!
Q: How different is it teaching music in elementary school today?
A: [Maureen] Back in 2008, there wasn’t much consistency in music education in the elementary schools. 6 years ago, our local music association met with Superintendent Jim Cambridge to talk about directions for our music programs. In 2013, Jim recommended that all elementary schools [in School District #62] would have access to music instruction. It was a very bold, brave move. With no music resources in some schools, Jim found some District money that first year—about two thousand dollars per school. Since then, we’ve just been growing and building, mostly due to the generosity of our PAC. We went from few resources at my school to having two music rooms equipped with sets of Orff instruments, ukuleles, a variety of rhythm instruments, and keyboards. Other schools have seen the same growth. Without his initiative, we wouldn’t have been able to do it. In the past, children were not as willing to participate in anything [musical]. Now, my students will do anything: sing, play [instruments], dance and perform with anything that you put in front of them. For example, I brought some of my grade fives to join Glynis’ choir last fall and they were totally engaged with older students, as engaged as they are with an easy hand clapping song we do at assemblies with kindergarten joining in. My choir includes about one hundred fifty singers now— almost half of the school population. I have a long list of students willing to lead ‘O Canada’ at assemblies every week. Before, it may have been only a few. Teachers tell me that students sometimes burst into song on the school buses, too! There’s no question about it, music is something that kids just do, like science or any other subject. It’s definitely [evolved into] a singing culture.
Q: Have these curriculum changes had an influence at the high school level?
A: [Glynis] I think it probably has had more of an impact in middle school. The seeds are sown in elementary school and nurtured in middle schools. I think a love of singing happens at the elementary level. That’s where that interest is born. Choir is one of the things I teach, and a passion of mine. I also think BC curriculum, in general, has been getting closer and closer to what we do in the Arts. Over the course of my career, it’s not so much a matter of reinventing the wheel as it is just making the wheel better. The Core Competencies are constantly essential to every music rehearsal, every performance: working as a group, building self-confidence, communication, creative and critical thinking, identifying personal and cultural identities. All of that. For most, it creates a sense of belonging with a group that they truly value.
Q: How do students transition with their music skills from elementary through to high school?
A: [Maureen] It depends on where schools are and how families of schools connect with each other. For example, Glynis and I have done a couple of things together this year. Every year, we introduce elementary kids to middle or high school performers so that they can see where they’re going and maybe feel that ‘this could be me’!
A: [Glynis] Our winter concert was really cool with Maureen’s grade fives in there with all the towering grade twelves, putting some of them to shame with their dance moves. Also, we’re really well supported here by our administrative and counseling teams. That’s demonstrated with the first visit for the incoming nines next year: they come straight into the theatre, for a display of performing arts options available to them as Belmont students.
Q: Any final thoughts?
A: [Maureen] I find that the kids want to do more [with music]. I started three little rock bands going by just asking if anybody wanted to play in a band—and they signed up. For this one group, I brought in a bass guitar that was my son’s for one of my grade five boys. Only four notes, but he loves it. Students in the other bands are playing keyboard, drum kit, tympani, and ukulele. They chose their instruments and the song and I helped them decide what parts to play.
A: [Glynis] Elementary school is where teachers can have the most impact on kids. Those are the critical years for students to form attitudes and feelings about themselves and music. By the time they get to me, they often already know whether they like it, hate it, what to do with it or whatever. So, from my end of things, really, all I’m doing is opening a door and providing some opportunities for kids to step into themselves and things they’re already interested in. Our program provides students with a community of music student colleagues, equipment and a space to rehearse. Sure, they need me as a resource and a conduit, and of course, they need me to crack the whip at certain times! But, sometimes—literally—they just need me to unlock the door. That’s my role here, to just facilitate [their learning]. These are great kids, doing great things with other great kids, for all the right reasons!