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The Bridge: Starting Strong

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When I see my students’ enthusiasm at rehearsal and the joy they take in performance I find myself questioning why more people don’t learn to play a musical instrument. Why doesn’t everyone want to do this? Readers of this space will be familiar with my mantra when it comes to teaching: success breeds enthusiasm. And my goal has always been to give my students a taste of that success as quickly as possible.

On Wednesday, October 12 we began year six of The Bridge, a music class for youth in Winnipeg’s inner city who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to learn a musical instrument. It’s a voluntary class that takes place three afternoons a week at Hugh John Macdonald School. Saxophone, trumpet, trombone, flute, clarinet, keyboards, electric guitar, bass, drums and vocals are among the instruments students can choose to learn. The first class is our opportunity to meet the newly arrived students at HJM—it’s our one chance to pique their interest and get them excited about joining The Bridge. For that hour our goal is to give students packed into the school’s theater an idea of how amazing it is to make music with a band.

We do this by giving all the students in the room some instant success. Yes, they make music—together—on Day 1! We focus on rhythm, the oh-so-important foundation of all music and the starting point for everything we do at The Bridge. One third of the room are our drummers. One third “plays” bass, and the last group plays keyboard. Three separate rhythms are played at the same time.

Drum rhythm


Bass rhythm


Piano rhythm


We practice clapping and stomping until each group is playing on the same underlying pulse. It’s an extraordinary, exhilarating sound that reverberates throughout the school. It’s like hearing fans stomping and clapping to “We Will Rock You” at a hockey game, only here we have three interlocking rhythms being played simultaneously.

Now the fun part. Volunteers from each section—and there are many!—come up and get a quick technique lesson on how to hold a drum stick or pluck a bass string, or what notes to play on piano. Then they play that rhythm on their instrument while I improvise a melody on my saxophone. Presto! In one class students are making music. With some early success there is a ton of enthusiasm for The Bridge and the year ahead.

While that Day 1 experience is very much an introductory class, it is the basis of everything we will do over the course of the school year. Rhythm always remains our primary focus, and everything else—scales, sound, harmony, note-reading—will come from that foundation. It is, in my experience, an incredibly effective, organic, and fun way to learn music. Students achieve remarkable success quickly and that success kicks off a lifetime of music-making.

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