Music as a tool for cultural exchange in schools

The National Arts Centre and the Prince Edward Island Symphony Orchestra join forces to celebrate Indigenous culture 

Since 2019, classical percussionist and PEI Symphony Orchestra member Ryan Elliot Drew and Mi’kmaq musician, dancer, and storyteller Richard “Eagle Dancer” Pellissier-Lush of Lennox Island First Nation, Prince Edward Island (PEI), have been touring to schools across the island province to share their passion and vision for music. 

These cross-cultural workshops, which are part of the NAC’s pan-Canadian Arts Alive program in association with the PEI Symphony Orchestra, are also an opportunity to celebrate Indigenous culture. 

Intercultural workshops in schools 

The objective of this Arts Alive (formerly Music Alive) partnership is to pair a classical musician and an Indigenous artist, to create and deliver workshops based on a common theme, while incorporating their different cultural and artistic perspectives. 

During the workshops, and through a different theme each year, each artist shares his vision of music and culture to spark the young people’s interest in and passion for music.

“When different cultures are presented in schools in a collaborative way to show the strengths and particularities of each, the impact is enormous. The children and teenagers are given the opportunity to open their eyes and be inspired to create their own music or even start a career in music. It breaks the cycles of ignorance and racism.” 
Richard “Eagle Dancer” Pellissier-Lush

“The reception is really fantastic, especially when you combine concepts that the kids haven’t necessarily associated before. Most of the time they’re already familiar with these ideas; we just bring it all together in creative and thought-provoking ways,” says Ryan.

A multi-year partnership

During this third year of the partnership, the two artists visited nine schools between May and June and met with no fewer than 1,900 students from kindergarten to high school. They sometimes gave eight or nine workshops in a single day!

And the welcome they get from the young people is deeply satisfying. “The children are very excited when they see us arrive. And one of the reasons for that is our drums. The drum is an instrument that naturally generates a lot of enthusiasm among young people… and not-so-young people too,” says Ryan with a chuckle.

“Teaching children lessons in the Mi’kmaq language, or teaching them the protocols of our drums, is important. We provide a safe learning environment,” adds Richard.

Two approaches, two components

While most PEI students already receive music instruction in school, the two teaching artists in the Arts Alive program offer a different approach.

“We bring our own musical and educational backgrounds into the classroom. And we try to create a learning experience that involves both our visions, through both discussions and musical performances.” 
Ryan Elliot Drew

“We talk about the same theme, the same concepts, the same ideas, but we alternate between these different perspectives. And we invite young people to be part of that conversation,” says Ryan.

Those themes, concepts and ideas include music and nature, the land, wildlife and the elements around us, and the importance of music in socialization.

Together with this more abstract and theoretical aspect of the workshop, the two teaching artists also offer a practical component during which they play their instruments. The students can in turn try out the drums and other instruments made available to them.

A legacy for future generations

Matching experiences to encourage cultural diversity is also about sharing, learning, and handing down a passion to the next generation.

This spring, the musical duo also had the opportunity to return to four schools they had previously visited—a warm reunion for both the teaching artists and the students.

“When we see them again after two years, and they remember us, it makes our job even more rewarding and fun,” says Ryan.

And the two teaching artists hope that that their work together will continue to grow.

“We’d like to reach as many young people as possible! We believe in our workshops. We want to see the program grow and have an impact across the country,” concludes Richard.

The National Arts Centre Foundation would like to thank Arts Alive’s National Partner The Azrieli Foundation. Arts Alive is also generously supported by and the John and Judy Bragg Family Foundation.

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