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The Bridge Program

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Start with three drum kits at the front of the music room. Put a twelve- or thirteen-year-old kid at each kit. You’ll have more than a dozen wannabe drummers left over. Give them sticks so they can keep time on a desktop.

Add four young upright bass players, and a couple on electric basses. There’s one piano and about seven kids who want to play it. Cosy the piano up behind the basses, and sit three kids at the keyboard. One can reach over and play in the angel zone for the moment—they will trade places shortly. Add in the school’s resident guitar hero on his electric. If there are still unclaimed kids, they can grab one of the acoustic guitars and pick along with the bass line.

Expect a racket—these eager kids all have access to sticks or strings or a keyboard, after all. Steve tames them down, then gets the drummers to hook into a single tempo. It takes a couple of tries, but these kids are determined. It’s not a perfect lock, but it’s pretty darned good, especially since a couple of them picked up sticks for the first time last week.

The basses and guitars are in position. Steve raises his arms to cue, and the whole gang kicks into action. These young musicians are playing the blues. Steve hollers out the changes, but by the third cycle, many of these kids have got it—they are not only producing the right pitches or chords on instruments that are new to them, but they’re hearing the bigger song structure and are predicting what’s ahead. It’s not exactly beautiful, but it’s certainly alive. When we cycle to a halt, everybody is ecstatic: they’ve made actual music together!

This is the Bridge Program, the Faculty of Music outreach initiative that started this January at Hugh John MacDonald junior high on Bannatyne. Twenty or thirty kids, most of whom have had little or no music instruction, race up to join Steve and Curtis Nowosad and me on Wednesday and Friday afternoons. Every couple of weeks, the senior jazz pedagogy students are there to meet them too. The Hugh John kids are lively and warm and dying to learn. We spend an hour or so working on basic skills, then we gather and jam. It’s wildly intense, it’s wonderfully fun, it’s absolutely inspiring.

Once I would have added incredible to that list, but these kids are teaching me something important: if we believe in them, they will prove us right. By the time Jazz on Wheels season rolls around, expect to meet a few of these young players on the bandstand!

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