The Bridge: Learning for Life is a voluntary, not-for-credit music class at Hugh John Macdonald School that uses a rhythm-first approach to learning music. It is a privately-funded course offered through the school division’s Children’s Heritage Fund, with the support of private donors and foundations. Those are the program’s credentials, but for me, the Bridge has been an endless stream of revelation, surprise, and wonder at the incredible, transformative power of music. After five years I still find myself shaking my head in disbelief at the impact this music class has on me and my students at HJM.
As the program has developed and grown, we’ve found it necessary to split the students into three groups and I’d like to tell you a little about my Wednesday class. The bulk of this class is made up of ELA (English Language Acquisition) students, the majority of whom have only recently arrived in Canada. Students here hail from all over the world. Kenya, Cameroon, Thailand, Somalia, and Namibia are among the countries represented—this from a quick poll I took as instruments were being set up the other day. Roughly half the class is made up of children from Syria, refugees from the most volatile and war-torn part of the planet. One of my students, a boy who plays alto saxophone in our band, arrived last year. I asked him what life was like for him and his friends in Syria. “It was scary,” he explained. “We used to play outside at night because it was safer then. And then you couldn’t even do that anymore because there was always fighting.”
At this stage most of these students are still learning to speak English and I speak no Arabic (nor any of the other languages spoken in the classroom) so it is here that we truly test the adage that music is a universal language. My Syrian-born students are playing saxophone, trumpet, trombone, flute and guitar, and one by one, they’ve learned how to set up, hold, and make a sound on their instrument.
Our method of teaching technique is completely song-based. Our current song, “Don’t You Worry About a Thing” by Stevie Wonder, requires horn players to know four notes. Breaking it down into small chunks, I play and have my students echo. We don’t talk about it—we just play! I don’t tell them the rhythm they’re playing starts on beat two, is heavily syncopated, and implies a different meter (making it tricky to put in the right place). We just do it. Once we’ve got the first half of the phrase we work on the next group of notes. I play first and students copy what they hear. I move around the room and adjust fingerings and embouchures. As though we are playing a musical game of charades I gesture to show hand position, finger movement, and sound. Wordlessly I’m saying, “More air! Breathe from your stomach.” I dance to illustrate groove. They laugh at my terrible dancing. It’s cacophonous, organized chaos—but it is so…much…fun!
Interestingly, a handful of my more advanced students have started showing up for Wednesday classes, showing the kind of work ethic, leadership, and teamwork that are fringe benefits of learning a musical instrument. They happily and enthusiastically play Stevie Wonder’s 1973 hit over and over again with my group of new learners, providing a solid rhythmic backdrop for our practice, showing newer students note combinations, and demonstrating good sound. Quickly, the group as a whole is playing together rhythmically and gosh darn it if they don’t sound great.
I can’t imagine what daily life was like for these kids in such a difficult, frightening environment but here, in the theatre at HJM, I’m grateful to be a positive part of their new lives in Winnipeg, using music as a vessel to welcome and include them in our community. I asked that same boy if he was happy to be in Canada and he looked at me, grinning from ear to ear. “Oh yes,” he said. “I love Canada!” —Neil Watson