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The CanU Jazz Academy: Playing Hard

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Right from day one back in October, I knew that the CanU Jazz Academy was going to be more than just part of my Jazz Pedagogy class. Now that the session has ended, I know I was right—it’s been one of the most amazing, challenging, and completely inspiring experiences of my life.

CanU is an outreach program that brings bright 10- to 12-year-olds from underserved neighborhoods down to the University of Manitoba to experience enriched learning opportunities in various fields. This year was the first time out for the CanU Jazz Academy, an initiative that offers intensive music instruction using jazz methodologies. Steve Kirby was our fearless leader, and all of us students in his Jazz Pedagogy course became hands-on Jazz Buddies, mentoring a group of around twenty kids from Sister MacIntyre and Ryerson schools.

The idea of the program was to allow the kids to play different instruments, many of which they would never have seen before, with the end goal of being able to pluck, tap, hit, or strum their way through some of their favourite pop songs. Along the way, we offered a number of band builder workshops on some of the fundamentals of music. We even managed a little composition. Of course, the main goal of the CanU Jazz Academy was for the kids to have fun, so all of the learning happened in ways that were engaging and exciting for them.

A typical session at the CanU Jazz Academy would begin with a band builder exercise, then we’d move on to some singing! We’d project the lyrics to the day’s song up on a screen and sing along with the recording. This got them excited and ready to learn. Then we would split into instrument groups coached by the Jazz Buddies, and work on learning the parts. Later we would gather into bands of kids and Buddies to play through the song of the day. It wasn’t always pretty, but it always spirited!

I often think about that first CanU gathering in October. All of us Jazz Buddies were a bit nervous when we got up to play the first pop song the kids were going to learn. It was “Rolling in the Deep” by pop singer Adele, and I was on vocals. The moment I uttered the first three words, all twenty kids’ faces lit up. Some began to smile, others giggled with excitement, almost all began to sing along. To make that kind of connection was a powerful moment for me!

Thirteen meetings later, the kids have learned half a dozen songs. They have amazing facility on their instruments and they’re eager to perform for one another and various people who wander in to listen. They’ll have a chance to play for their parents and all the other CanU participants at their wrap-up early in March. It’s amazing!

There have been many memorable moments at the CanU Jazz Academy—far too many to count. But it’s the kids’ own observations that stick with me the most. “I wish CanU was every day,” one said. “It’s the best part of my week!” Another said his favourite part about CanU was “being a part of a community.” How do you not get emotional hearing that?

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