The Magic of Music at George Webster ES
By Louise Brown
There's music magic at work at a school in Toronto's east end. Juno award-winning trio The Good Lovelies have dropped by twice to share their harmonies and help students here at George Webster Elementary School learn how to write a song.
Canada's global orchestra "Kuné" delighted a gym full of kids with their international instruments and songs, and hope to come back for workshops with smaller groups of students.
And the school's brand new choir won an award of excellence in the latest CBC Music Class Challenge for the way they performed "Human," the official song of the International Year of Indigenous Languages. Part of the challenge included students having to learn some lyrics in Inuktitut.
Yet George Webster isn't a special school for the arts. It's simply one of many neighbourhood schools across the Toronto District School Board where the arts, including music, are seen as a foundation of learning. For the 720 students here, music is not an add-on; it lies at the heart of school life and is embedded into many subjects. It's why the principal made a point of hiring two music specialists – one full-time for Kindergarten to Grade 8 and a second half-time for Kindergarten to Grade 3.
"Oh, there's a lot of music happening here," boasts 10-year-old Ayman Sulieman. He's in the Rise Up Choir for Grades 4 to 8, not to be confused with its primary counterpart, Young Voices, or the separate vocal ensemble in the works for just Grades 7 and 8. His sister Ahlam, 11, is in the "Step Percussion" group, whose budding rhythm aces perform using speech and body percussion, clapping, stomping, and snapping their fingers in unison. The school also has two violin groups, a ukulele ensemble, and they are looking to create a guitar and Orff ensemble in the near future. Even the staff formed a pop-up choir.
"Music is a vital part of the culture of the school," explains Principal Lise Medd, who believes music is important in nurturing a sense of well-being and confidence, and that all children benefit from music.
"Kids love singing and being able to perform; it makes them feel good about themselves, and also supports student mental health."
Other types of art also thrive at George Webster. Grade 8 students designed a mural that was inspired by indigenous history and the students' personal journeys. The school has a "sensory walk" down one hall for students with sensory needs, developed by an occupational therapist, a speech therapist and an artist, and based on an indigenous story. A Grade 2/3 class is studying the work of beloved Nova Scotia folk artist Maud Lewis.
Still, the role of music here is huge, especially since full-time music teacher and powerhouse Elizabeth Seo arrived last year. To her, music can help connect us to each other, and the larger world.
"Music can be a powerful vehicle for building community. My focus is to create a space where students can build a musical foundation while learning about themselves and others through shared music experiences. How can we celebrate the voices in our community?"
Seo says her students don't just sit in chairs while she presents information. "We're singing, moving, playing instruments, and through that, we're creating. Before we get to musical notation, I want them to experience music; it's really experiential learning."
In this largely South Asian community near Victoria Park Ave. and St. Clair Ave., Seo borrowed a set of Indian percussion kits last fall from the TDSB for students to try, with the help of a visiting musical expert. The TDSB has a number of international instrument kits available for loan to schools – Cuban-Brazilian, Ghanaian, Korean, Gamelan (from Indonesia) – and visiting experts to lead an interactive workshop on the instruments.
"We started off the year with an exploration of Indian classical music," she says. As students got to learn the specific eight-beat patterns and particular rhythms of classical Indian music and try out such Indian percussion instruments as the Dholak (drum) and Manjira (finger cymbals), "they were able to make connections between music and culture." At the school's winter concert, several students found a way to integrate their classical Indian dance experience with what they had learned in class.
It's an example of curriculum reflecting student experience.
"Music education goes beyond the walls of the music room," says Seo. "We can integrate music with different disciplines or create partnerships with other schools, long-term care homes, and musicians from the community through collaborative projects. And when stakeholders are invested in the whole process, those connections become more meaningful and rich."
That is why five of the 11 members of Toronto's Kuné orchestra came to George Webster for a school performance recently. All are musicians living in Canada but born somewhere else, including a drummer from Peru, a Sitar player from Pakistan (whose mother is from Afghanistan and father from India), a percussionist from Brazil, an Iranian who plays a lute-like instrument called the tar, and a Turkish clarinetist who specializes in music of the Roma people, which is the background of some of the students. Between them, the musicians speak Spanish, Portuguese, Pashtun, Farsi, Urdu and Turkish.
"Who was born in another country, like we were?" asks Peruvian drummer Matias Recharte, and a sea of hands wave in the air.
"Who has parents who were born in another country?"
Almost every hand shoots up.
"Who speaks Urdu?" Up go some hands. "Hindi?" A few more. Hands go up for Farsi and Spanish too.
"And just like we speak different languages, we can also speak different musical languages with our instruments," says Recharte about the unusual blend of international styles that has endeared this group to Canadian audiences.
He says Kuné has begun to visit schools "because we want students from all different backgrounds to see themselves on stage, working together; people of different attributes having to negotiate, share and be flexible - yet maintain our roots."
In Kuné, players share the experience of coming to Canada and leaving friends and family behind, and they talk to the George Webster students about bringing treasured items with them to incorporate into their new life story here in Canada. It's something many of these young new Canadians understand first-hand. These tales of immigration fit with the theme Seo has chosen to frame her program this year; music as a map.
"We can look at the map of music from different perspectives. From a music and language lens, we explore the elements of music such as dynamics, rhythm, and pitch. From a science lens, we explore how different instruments work, particularly in an ensemble setting. From a social lens, we explore the stories of our community, past and present."
Music can be a map to social justice. One morning during Black History Month, Grade 7 students arrive for her class to find an image of Martin Luther King projected on a large screen, which then morphs into a sobering map of Underground Railroad routes that Seo obtained from National Geographic's educational resource website. After a brief discussion about the Underground Railroad, Seo hands out copies of the musical score for "Stand Up," the powerful, Oscar-nominated song from the recent movie Harriet, about slave activist Harriet Tubman. As students listen to the moving anthem, Seo asks the students to use the visual and audio clues to try to follow along in the musical score – to read the musical map.
"If we're not starting the class with a vocal or body percussion warm-up, we might begin with questions, quotes or audio or visual clips" to prompt discussion, she says. Songs such as ‘Stand Up' for her intermediate classes, or ‘Follow the
Drinking Gourd' for junior classes serve as springboards to discussions about trailblazers, and how music can be used to communicate a message. Over time, the class can think critically about what it means to be a trailblazer in music, what it means to make ‘good' songs, and who decides what is a ‘good' song in different contexts.
"Bringing it back to the students: ‘Who are the trailblazers in your life and in your community?"
These are broader discussions than what Seo believes some people think take place in a music class, which is "just singing fun songs."
"The way she teaches music is more interactive, so you can see it more clearly," says Grade 7 student Helen Dereje, who is in Step Percussion. "It makes learning more fun than just sitting down and listening to the teacher talk." That's exactly what Seo wants.
"The foundation of the music program is based on a ‘sound-before-symbol' approach; you experience the music first, then break it down. This way, students can effectively create music, and develop music literacy skills. Students also learn about teamwork, discipline, commitment, communication and other skills that transfer to everyday life."
When the time comes to review music theory, Seo tapes the lines of the musical staff - "EGBDF" - on the classroom floor with masking tape, and has teams of students race to see who can stand on the right line or space. "It's one of the many things music teachers already do to reinforce certain music concepts while keeping students engaged and active," Seo says.
"It's really fun," agrees Grade 5 student Lahana Dahal, who has joined the Rise Up Choir. "I thought learning music would be boring, just writing down stuff, but it's not."
In the classroom next door, part-time music teacher Laura Huang also believes in the power of music.
"Music literally touches every single subject. With younger children who don't necessarily know how to read, music helps them understand that a symbol (a written musical note) makes a sound, just like the letter A makes a sound. And you read music from left to right, just like reading."
Music can help us remember, so she has students use tunes to learn French.
"In terms of math, there's a lot of fractions in music (half-notes, eighth-notes) and understanding how to count at a steady beat involves math. If you want to learn history and culture, you can use world music. It's cultural education. It's geography. It ties in where the music comes from."
You can even use music to understand science, argues Huang. "We can learn why bigger instruments are going to make a lower sound, and why a longer instrument sounds lower. I show my little students what happens when I shorten one of the strings of my guitar: "Oh, the sound goes up!"
Principal Lise Medd wants parents to recognize the educational value in the arts, and believes music speaks to children's hearts and mental health in a way other subjects sometimes don't.
Grade 5 student Aprasha Pudasaini agrees. At 10, the Rise Up Choir member suggests "if you're sad, music can help you calm down and feel better. It can help you learn how to control your feelings and even change them. When you get older and get scared or depressed, maybe listening to music can help."
Ms. Medd wants to ensure that all students have access to the Arts through school, "so having it embedded into everyday programming is really important."
Ahlam Suleiman, who is in Grade 6, agrees. "And when you get older, you could even get a music career."
Maybe as a music teacher.