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The Bridge: Into Year Three

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I began the 2012-13 edition of The Bridge on October 12 with no less than sixty-eight students arriving in the theatre at Hugh John MacDonald School. Together with my assistant, talented trumpeter and gifted educator Simon Christie, we illustrated swing, bebop, and improvisation. We auditioned students on saxophones, trumpet, trombone, flute, and clarinet (along with drums, piano, guitar, bass and vocals, instruments reserved for the after school portion of class). And we stressed, above all else, the importance of playing in time with each other – that’s vital for any number of musicians, but especially when sixty-eight of us are playing together!

While the number of students in regular attendance has naturally leveled off, participation is strong in year three of the program and it has been a busy start for core members of the Hugh John MacDonald Orchestra. Amazingly, we’ve performed twice already: once for a Community Supper on November 27, and once for CBC television cameras on November 14. The result of that performance was a 90-second segment that aired ten days later and wonderfully captured the hard work, dedication, and talent of Bridge students. (You can see a longer version of that video at CBC Manitoba Scene: www.cbc.ca/manitoba/scene/music/2012/11/21/the-bridge-program/)

We have one more performance before the holiday, a school pep rally in front of the entire student body. Our goal is to perform three songs and we’re close; three more focused rehearsals should do it! It’s gratifying to see the band tackle performances in front of their peers with so much enthusiasm and confidence—a byproduct, I think, of practice, preparation and, for many, the experience gained from a second year in the program.

The Bridge is a voluntary program conceived by Steve Kirby and offered through the U of M’s Marcel A Desautels Faculty of Music. As such, these junior high students are afforded the unique opportunity to work with aspiring professional musicians enrolled in the Jazz Studies program. Among others, drummer Aaron Sabasch, vocalist Joanna Majoko, bassist Mike Cann, and trumpeter Phil Collins have spent some valuable time working with students in the music theatre at HJM.

There is a jazz slant to The Bridge program. Thus far, we’ve tackled music by Kenny Dorham, Stevie Wonder, and a traditional New Orleans second-line. Goals for each piece include discussing jazz history and key figures in jazz, roles for each instrument in a jazz ensemble (albeit a very LARGE jazz ensemble!), basic harmony, improvisation, and rhythmic concepts like swing and syncopation. While note reading is by necessity a part of what we do on a week-by-week basis, a large portion of the course is learned by ear and by imitation.

I love this organic approach to learning music and it’s particularly effective for The Bridge because so many students are new Canadians from diverse locales like Portugal, Egypt, Nepal, Iraq, Syria, the Philippines, and Senegal. English is, more often than not, a second language and it’s easier to learn by doing—and to teach by showing rather than explaining.

It’s a common expression that music is a universal language. I know from first-hand experience that it’s true! At The Bridge we’re proving we can all speak to each other through music.


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