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How music builds community

Music Alive Program visit at Carry the Kettle First Nation in 2008

In 2006 the National Arts Centre began sending musicians into schools in rural and remote communities in Alberta and Saskatchewan.  

Developed in consultation with local boards of education, and using NAC-created teaching resources based on classical music composers, the Music Alive Program also helped create links to local orchestras.

Nine years later, the program is active not only in Alberta and Saskatchewan, but also in Manitoba and Nunavut, and it continues to evolve. The NAC introduced “team teaching,” pairing classically trained teaching artists with indigenous artists, including Sherryl Sewepagaham, who in 2010 won Aboriginal Songwriter of the Year at the Canadian Folk Music Awards.  Last year the teaching unit, called “Listen up, Canada!”, was based for the first time on a Canadian composer, R. Murray Schafer. All told, the Music Alive Program has reached an astonishing 85,600 children in more than 525 schools across Canada.

New Indigenous Arts Program

New this year is the Indigenous Arts Program in Alberta and Saskatchewan. It’s led by indigenous teaching artists who are trained in collaborative student-centred learning, a positive approach to education that emphasizes students as active participants and views a student’s voice as central to the learning experience of all. The teaching musicians are also encouraged to share their personal stories about how the arts have influenced their lives.

Acclaimed teaching artists

“Through our experience working with rural communities, we have come to appreciate that the role of the teaching artist cannot be confined to the musical content they present,” said Geneviève Cimon, Director of Music Education and Community Engagement at the NAC. “The teaching artist has the opportunity to empower young people and be a role model, demonstrating through music that how you communicate, how well you listen, how inclusive you are with others can help build a strong community.”

One of those teaching artists is Walter MacDonald White Bear, a Cree singer-songwriter originally from the First Nation of Moose Factory, Ontario now based in Calgary. His music is a reflection of his personal journey as a First Nations person in Canada, and has appeared at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival, The Chiefs Summit with Tom Jackson, and the World Indigenous Peoples Conference on Education. Walter is also an educator, performer and speaker, and has given keynote addresses on issues such as social services, justice, education, wellness and the environment.

Edmonton-based fiddler and violinist Daniel Gervais is another teaching artist leading the Indigenous Arts Program. After completing a Master of Music degree at the University of Alberta, he is a sessional faculty member at MacEwan University, and actively performs and records.  He has toured internationally with Zéphyr, a French-Canadian dance group, including at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C., and Festival Interfolk in France.

NAC resources

The NAC developed a resource guide with award-winning songwriter Olivia Tailfeather and Juno nominated Sherryl Sewepagaham, in consultation with educational experts and leaders[c2]. “The need for indigenous programs was clear, and schools were eager to participate,” Cimon said. “The curriculum is now paying more attention to indigenous culture. We are offering this program to 20 schools this year. There is more demand than we can fill.”

Through the program, the teaching artist spends the day at the school, working with two groups of students in longer, in-depth sessions that culminate with a performance for up to 150 students. Cimon sees the program evolving still further with partnerships with other organizations, to help extend its reach. Her ultimate goal is that schools will not only see the value in music education, but act on it.

“I would love for this program to be a catalyst for a school to hire a full-time, indigenous music teacher. That would be my dream.”