The value of teaching music

View from the back of the Agincourt Collegiate band … with music teacher John Rutherford conducting. (May 1967)

Most of the time I sat among the back seats in the rehearsal room. But that’s OK. As long as I kept one eye on the music charts in front of me and the other down front where conductor John Rutherford stood, I knew I’d stay in step with the rest of the group. I just had to wait for Mr. Rutherford’s downbeat and I was part of the performance. And that meant a lot to me. He’d often begin the rehearsal with the same words of encouragement.

“OK,” Rutherford would say. “Let’s make a little magic.”

Strike up the band

View from the back of the Agincourt Collegiate Institute band... with music teacher John Rutherford conducting. (May 1967)
View from the back of the Agincourt Collegiate Institute band… with music teacher John Rutherford conducting. (May 1967)

I really had no idea what was going on. I was a long way from being in the front row, or being in the know. As a member of the supporting cast, I didn’t really understand the point of the exercise. But then band leader John Rutherford invited me down to the front where he stood and instead of having me play my instrument, he asked me to listen to everything from where he stood. And after he led the band through the same musical number again, he explained.

“You see, Ted, while you’re going um-pah, um-pah, um-pah, um-pah,” he said imitating my trumpet part, “the rest of us are down here playing Howard Cable’s ‘Newfoundland Rhapsody.’”

I had to admit, sitting in the back row of the third trumpet section of the school band, I had no idea what the rest of the student musicians were playing. I was just reading my part as diligently as possible, making sure I didn’t lose my place in the music and (most important) ensuring I didn’t play any of my “um-pahs” in the wrong place. John Rutherford knew I’d never amount to much of a trumpet player, that I had achieved in brass-instrument performance terms the equivalent of the Peter Principle. More important he understand that, up to that point, the orchestral results of our rehearsal were kind of lost on me. But in that sudden Eureka moment, our band leader and music teacher, Mr. Rutherford, realized if I could see and hear how I was contributing, that I would realize the value of my input, in short, why I mattered.

Memories of Rutherford and our Agincourt Collegiate Institute concert band came rushing back to me this week as I read some rather disturbing statistics about the decline of music in Ontario elementary schools. For example, according to a report on “The Arts in Ontario Schools,” just issued by the People For Education (PFE) lobby group in Toronto, while in 2012 nearly half of all grade schools in the province had a teacher dedicated to instructing music, last year (2013) that number slipped to just above 40 per cent. Is that significant? Sure it is when you consider that in the late 1990s as many as 60 per cent of schools had specialist music teachers such as Mr. Rutherford.

The study goes on to say that those of us in the Greater Toronto Area may have it better than in rural Ontario. It points out that about six in 10 GTA schools have some kind of music instruction going on. In northern Ontario learning about bass and treble clefs, key signatures, melody and harmony is restricted to just over a quarter of all schools. And while the study is designed to sound an alarm about how music training has declined, Annie Kidder, a spokeswoman for PFE, warns that a fading music curriculum may also have an economic impact on society.

“When you talk to people in business now,” she told Canadian Press, “they feel that capacity to think creatively, to innovate, is a core part of being an entrepreneur – being able to lead a change in a knowledge economy.” In other words, Kidder says music gives kids 21st vocational century skills.

I wholehearted agree. Anybody who can read music charts, pick up tempo, translate that to a motor skill and make the results come to a musical conclusion, must have an arithmetic capacity. And that can’t hurt when it comes to deductive reasoning or motivational capacity either. Good musicians can certainly make successful business leaders.

But I think the value of music goes beyond quarter notes and time signatures. Music, some say, also heals. I know a dozen years ago, when my own father suffered a series of strokes in the last year of his life, resulting in aphasia and limiting our ability to communicate with him, that music helped us get through to him. If we played a bit of Jean Sibelius or Benny Goodman into his headset, that music almost always brought a smile to his face and a sense of calm to his demeanor.

Occasionally, a student musician got a chance to substitute conduct. That certainly built a kid's self-esteem!
Occasionally, a student musician got a chance to substitute conduct. That certainly built a kid’s self-esteem!

Just this week, Toronto played host to a conference on music and health research. Dr. Jane Edwards, who works with neuro-scientists in Europe, told CBC Radio that her members are exploring ways in which music is used as a standard treatment against depression and even as means of assisting young people to fight cancer.

“Teenagers in music therapy have an increased resilience against the disease,” she said. “Doing such things as music videos during traditional cancer treatment, helps them get back to school and get on with their lives.”

Whatever other tangible things music delivers, as a young person, I will never forget how maestro John Rutherford and his music teachings gave me a sense of self-esteem and belonging that sitting in the back row of the trumpet section had always escaped me.

Why we teach

Each spring, when students graduate, those of us who teach get to share their sense of accomplishment.
Each spring, when students graduate, those of us who teach get to share their sense of accomplishment.

It came out of the blue. I hadn’t really expected to hear from this former student ever again. But there she was, contacting me by email several years later. And it couldn’t have come at a better time. The college year is just about done (as are we the instructors at the college done in more ways than one). But her words made all the tough teaching moments of the year evaporate in an instant.

“I’m not sure if this will reach you,” she said. “I just wanted to say thank you for not giving up on me and giving me more determination than I could have imagined.”

Janet was one of those college students for whom nothing ever came easily. Whenever my colleagues at Centennial College and I asked Janet and some of her classmates to come up with story ideas, it often proved as difficult as teaching them to swim in deep water. Then, there was the problem of finding sources for her stories; nobody was ever available and none of the leads we offered seemed to yield the information she needed. In addition, there was always plenty of adolescent angst swirling around her as she battled to balance schoolwork with life.

And deadlines always loomed large for her; there was more than one occasion when just one more extension for delivery of the news story was one concession I wasn’t prepared to give and she wasn’t prepared to lose. As her editor, I found that Janet required attention and coaching nearly 24/7. But she eventually passed the course. She went on to enroll in yet another course in corporate communications and public relations and she eventually landed a permanent job in the public service sector.

That’s not to say that teaching young people is ever totally rosy. This past winter semester proved a trial for a lot of my fellow journalism instructors and their students. Many more students than I care to tabulate had psychological difficulties, including such illnesses as attention deficit, depression and even post-traumatic stress. A number of our students had to cope with oppressive home situations – perpetrated by a dominant parent, a troubled sibling or sometimes even an out-of-control roommate.

More and more these days, the problems of the home end up in the classroom and those of us who’ve emigrated from being journalists to teaching journalism are not always up-to-date on the latest effective techniques for dealing with student psychoses or trauma.

I guess my least favourite moment involved an undergraduate student (not Janet), studying both university level academics and journalism at the same time. She was struggling with a news story about a long-standing strike in Toronto. I had suggested to her, in order to deliver the perspectives of both management and labour in her story, that she ought to go to a corporate representative for the management view and then to walk the picket line to listen to average employees explain their side of the story.

“That seems like an awful lot of work,” she said.

“Journalism is often like that,” I said. “You wear out a lot of shoe leather trying to get close to the subjects of your story.”

“But I’m just here for the marks,” she said. “I don’t want to be a journalist. I want to go on to law school.”

I didn’t quite know how to answer that one. But if she was paying attention, the young woman must have sensed my frustration at trying to steer her in the right direction only to learn she was only studying journalism like a minor subject and really just wanted the quickest way out.

In truth, we teachers often complain among ourselves. But what helps those (who’ve been teaching many more years than I) come back to the front of the lecture hall or the classroom semester after semester, is the hope that among the freshmen in the class will be gems in the rough.

As some of you know, I’m a stickler for the proper use of language. Just ask my daughters or my writing students. Some call me a “CP Style fanatic.” All journalism in Canada begins with the “Canadian Press Stylebook” for proper spellings, grammatical forms, rules of punctuation, structure for quoting sources, methods of attributing interviewees and when to use abbreviations and when not. The smaller version of the 500-page CP Stylebook is a companion volume called “CP Caps and Spelling” for thumbnail references to all the correct English usage in Canadian journalism. For some, including my former student Janet, coping with the rigid rules of language was never easy. But as she concluded her email to me last week she paid me the ultimate compliment.

“I am now the content manager for (a large Canadian charity,)” she said. “Sitting on my desk … are my Stylebook and Caps and Spelling. I use (them) every day.”

Sometimes, it’s the small victories that mean the most.

A government by any other name

Everything close to the Prime Minister's Office
According to the Canadian Press, public servants from four different departments said the instruction to refer to the Canadian Government as "The Harper Government," came from “The Centre,” i.e. the Prime Minister’s Office.

There I was – planted in front of the TV – minding my own business the other night and it happened. Up came this image of a girl playing soccer. Then there was a couple painting a living room ceiling. A guy working in his wood-working shop. And an elderly couple pleasure skating… All the while, the upbeat announcer told me about the many and diverse ways all those average Canadians were saving money thanks to Ottawa’s new tax cuts program. Finally, the ad wrapped up with this tag line:

“A message from the Government of Canada.”