Public School Music

I know this area is usually used to write about the history of a particular act, but I’d like to take a slightly different turn. There is often a lot of talk in education funding circles everywhere, be it Canada, the U.S., or even here in Sweden, about arts funding and specifically funding for music in schools. Everytime I hear that kind of mindless chatter it sets my blood to boiling. Why on earth anyone could consider music as some kind of extra program baffles me to no end.
I was blessed with the good fortune to attend an inner city public school in downtown Toronto early in the 1970’s. Now I don’t know if people were smarter and more broad thinking then, or if there was more money around, or if it was just the result of a driven few, but my public school consisted of a wonderful music education, from many different angles, and is what I remember more from my school experience than any other aspect.

Firstly there was some sort of visiting artists program. I graduated from grade 8, which is the upper end of public school in Toronto, in spring of 1976. So these happenings took place before then. When I was in either grade 5 or 6 I remember we had a group come in and play just for 2 classes together. The only song I can remember they played for sure was The Band’s The Weight. The next week however they appeared live on Rollin’ On the River, which was the variety show hosted by Kenny Rogers and The First Edition, which was recorded in Canada. Now that performance was very intimate, and took place down in the playroom which was in the basement of the school. Slightly smaller than a regular classroom. A bigger event was a concert that took place the same year, which was held up in the large auditorium, and the whole school attended. I remember that vividly. The whole school sitting on the floor, and one man with a guitar, who chose not to sit up on the stage, but rather on a chair, on the floor with us. Unfortunately I don’t recall the whole setlist (always admired people who could do that, but hey, I was probably about 10). The one song I do recall absolutely is Jim Croce’s Rapid Roy. Looking back on some notes about the Kenny Roger’s and The First Edition show I see that Jim Croce actually appeared on it, and I now realise I may actually have seen Jim Croce. I don’t know what that means to you, but I find it surprisingly moving.

One performance I know for sure moves me was a very special one. They took two of the classrooms to The Imperial Room, at The Royal York Hotel, which is across from Union Station down on Front Street. There may be bigger and grander places now, but there sure weren’t then. We were wide eyed as they marched us through the plush lobby and into the theatre. We crowded around the foot of the stage, just standing in a large group, and then as natural and friendly as could be out came Ella Fitzgerald. I recall that it was about an hour long performance, and she sang A-Tisket, A-Tasket. Absolutely magical.
Just a couple blocks away from The Royal York Hotel stands the Royal Alexandra Theatre, known by everyone in Toronto as the Royal Alex. As well as having the opportunity to see musical acts as I’ve described, we also got to see a lot of theatre. The obvious one that jumps to mind was the musical production Grease, which would have been around 1975. I’m forgetting tons of others, but I know we often saw The Nutcracker by The National Ballet at The O’Keefe Centre, as well as The Famous People Players. We also had theatre troupes come to the school, and in the same auditorium where I may have seen Jim Croce, I saw my first production of Midsummer Night’s Dream, when I was 13 in grade 8.

In addition to these presentations and outings was an arts program brought into the schools by the Inner City Angels. A group of artists that focused on inner city schools and provided mini-courses for selected students in film, music, painting, etc. Music was also provided for directly in the curriculum, with music class holding its own along side all of the other subjects. We had a huge choir, conducted by one of my favourite teachers over all of the years, Mr.Paul Brisley. Once a week we had Music Appreciation class. For that class we could bring in whatever music we wanted, our own records, and we would play them in class and discuss them. I think he had a soft spot for me because I used to get my music largely from my godmother’s daughters, Theresa and Mary-Louise, who were 4 and 6 years older than me respectively, so it was usually something a little different than what all the other students were bringing in. What really sticks with me from music class though, is not the chance to play our own records, or to perform in the choir, but the simple way in which Mr.Brisley absolutely burned with a passion for music. He would get equally excited talking about the complexities of American Pie, (which I remember we studied in detail) as he would be with getting us to pick out instruments by ear that we heard in classical pieces, or getting us to write parodies of popular songs. He would also bring in stuff for us that he found fun and interesting, like Allan Sherman’s Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah, or Eight Foot Two, Solid Blue (has anybody seen my Martian gal). It was truly a diverse class in terms of teaching.

Now that I’m all growed up and play myself, I make it a point to play for and around children as often as I can. I have no desire to be a children’s performer, but they don’t need that as much as they need to see and feel and experience live music as much as possible. They need to get infected with a love for it. I did, and it may not only have been from my public education, but that played a large role, and I am eternally grateful for anyone who played a part in bringing it to my life.

One thought on “Public School Music

  1. One of my most treasured memories of childhood was our elementary school’s auxiliary music class (lack of a better term). One Saturday a month, a brave chaperone would take her herd of children into the city (via the regional rail) to the Academy of Music in Philadelphia.

    We would be treated an orchestral performance structured for children. It was sheer bliss and inspired me to hurry home and pick up my violin.

    With all of the evidence pointing to how music education improves overall performance by students, with all of these loving memories, it pains me to see a program gutted in the name of saving a dollar. I don’t want to knock funding for athletics because I firmly believe that you learn a lot about teamwork but I wish there was a better sense of parity there.

Words, words, glorious words! Give me all of your words!

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