In children’s hands: Music Alive Program meets the music of R. Murray Schafer

Map carry the kettle  6
Music Alive Program visit at Carry the Kettle First Nation

Every year Calgary trumpeter Samantha Whelan Kotkas performs for about 1,100 schoolchildren who live mainly in rural Alberta. As a teaching musician for the National Arts Centre’s Music Alive Program, she’s done sessions on making music, and about classical composers like Vivaldi, Mozart and Beethoven.  

This year’s presentation, called Listen up, Canada!, meant the program’s teaching musicians would be introducing kids – and teachers – to the work of Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer, in honour of his 80th birthday.

We were all a little reticent and scared by it at the beginning, because it was modern. But it’s by far my favourite program, and the most creative. And teachers love it. They say it’s really inclusive and understandable.”

Inspired by nature

Many of Schafer’s works are inspired by and performed in nature, which resonates with the students.  Whelan Kotkas begins each presentation with one of Schafer’s “ear cleaning” sensory awareness exercises.

“It’s two minutes of silence, and listening for everything you can hear, and I challenge them to take that to their home life – to take two minutes and just listen. Schafer connects to how we should listen to nature, and in so many of the places I travel, the students are much more attuned to the earth. Then I tie that to the music.”

Whelan Kotkas, who plays trumpet with the Red Deer Symphony and guests with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, has taught with the Music Alive Program since it was launched in Alberta and Saskatchewan in 2006. Created in consultation with provincial school boards in response to shrinking arts budgets, the program sends local musicians into mostly rural schools that have limited access to music education. The program is also active in Manitoba and Nunavut.

It’s taken Whelan Kotkas all over the province, from as far north as Wabasca to Lethbridge in the south. In First Nation schools, she teams up with award-winning Aboriginal musician Sherryl Sewepagaham for longer visits, performing for and working with several classes. Over the course of three years Whelan Kotkas will visit each school three times, becoming a valuable resource to teachers.

Listen up, Canada!

For the Schafer unit, she begins and ends each presentation with two pieces from “The Wolf Project,” (Patria the Epilogue: And Wolf Shall Inherit the Moon), a work performed in nature over the course of one week.

“One of the wolves is a trumpet player, and the Aubade is for the beginning of the day, while the Nocturne is a sunset piece. After the Nocturne is played, Schafer says you can hear the forest will echo the music for hours.”

She layers in another Schafer concept – the soundscape – by playing the trumpet part with a recording of forest sounds.  Then she plays the piece again, this time with the sound of an ocean.

“Then I ask them, ‘Is it different?’ And they say, ‘Yeah! It’s totally different!’ And then I ask, ‘But am I playing the same notes?’ And they say ‘Yes!’”

Putting Music in Children's Hands

Whelan Kotkas says the Music Alive Program is about putting music in children’s hands, and letting them see what they can do.

Schafer is famous for his graphic scores, which can contain any number of non-musical notation symbols, even a dragon with fiery breath in a percussionist’s part, from which the percussionist has to infer what to play.

Whelan Koktkas shows a score marked with circles, squares and lines; the score helps give structure for the students to create a musical piece of their own. 

She invites them to look at a painting called “Midnight Lake” by Alberta artist Chester Less, and compose music about it using anything in their vicinity – their bodies, their voices, Aboriginal drums.

And then Whelan Kotkas relates their creation back to Schafer.  

It’s about being a spark, she says.

“I think that anytime a child is exposed to any kind of presentation where the presenter is passionate, it makes them feel like they can do it too. It can turn them onto anything, not just music. With the Schafer, it might make them think about being an environmentalist. When I’m doing the Mozart, which is about him being a prodigy, they learn that their voice has meaning, even at their age. And with the Beethoven, they hear that it doesn’t matter how much adversity you have, that you can do anything.”

The Music Alive Program in Alberta and Saskatchewan is supported by Major Partner Encana Corporation, Supporting Partners Sasktel and Total E&P Canada Ltd., and by the NAC’s National Youth and Education Trust.

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