Free piano lessons strike a chord in Pointe St. Charles
By Jim Hynes
This classroom at St. Gabriel’s School in Montreal’s Pointe St. Charles district is like any other elementary schoolroom – it has simple tables and chairs, a few posters on the walls, and the ambiance is mildly chaotic…in a good way. But with eyes and ears open you quickly find it’s actually a very special class, indeed. The giveaway is the 10 digital pianos that have been pushed up against the walls, and the tinkling piano notes that just barely rise above some very lively chatter.
Oh, and instead of a math problem, someone has scrawled “Piano Rocks!” on the chalkboard.
A handful of Grade 3, 4 and 5 students are here in St. Gabriel’s music room on this snowy late February morning, sharing piano stools with volunteer music teachers from McGill. They’re all part of the Montreal branch of the Heart of the City Piano Program, a national initiative that provides free music lessons to students in inner-city elementary schools. The program, which was launched in Saskatchewan in 1995, is now in Montreal, Ottawa, Regina, Edmonton, Saskatoon, and several other smaller Saskatchewan towns.
The Montreal branch is entirely run by McGill student volunteers. Twenty of them, a number of whom are from the Schulich School of Music, give weekly piano lessons to the kids at St. Gabriel’s and at the French language École Champlain in the city’s Centre-Sud district.
“My favourite thing about the program is how everyone involved gets something out of it,” says Bettina Choo, the Director of the Montreal branch and a McGill Medical student. “Not only do the kids have a great time, but the volunteers do too. For many university students, music was a very important part of their childhood; but practicing becomes time consuming. Many end up giving up formal training. The program lets them stay in touch with music and allows them to share their passion with a child who might otherwise not have the chance. And seeing the kids happy and proud of themselves despite the difficulties they might have at home puts things in perspective.” Choo says.
Back at the keyboard, volunteer co-ordinator and teacher Carmen Tong, 22, a McGill Piano Performance and Physiology student, is helping 9-year-old Jenna, who keeps inserting an extra G into the beginning of Ode to Joy.
“Shake it out, shake it out” says Tong, as she and her Grade 3 pupil shake their hands in the air, urging the musical mistake to go away. “Let’s practice until we get it perfect.”
Jenna and her schoolmates Jyoti, Aliyah, and Vanessa have come up to the music room at lunchtime for their weekly 15- to 20-minute lesson. They follow lessons in music books, 20 of which were provided free of charge by Steve’s Music store. Yamaha Music Canada donated the 10 pianos. The kids must follow a lesson plan overseen by their teachers and are encouraged to practice as much as they can.
“Some of the kids are very gung-ho about practice,” Tong says. “Every week I come here and it’s always the same kids. Some of them really love practicing and there are others who need a little more encouragement. But in general the kids in this program want to play piano, they want to be here. And the ones who practice improve a lot. They’re very smart,” Tong says. “And they’re very keen on practicing and learning, especially on the theory. They pick it up very quickly.”
The kids and volunteer music teachers aren’t the only ones enjoying the lessons.
“We’ve had a lot of great feedback from the schools and the parents,” Choo says. “Some of the kids are really proud of what they can do at the piano and it sort of becomes part of their identity. A few parents have mentioned to me that they’re really appreciative of the program because their child has always wanted to take lessons but they just couldn’t afford it.”
This is the second year the Heart of the City program has been at St. Gabriel’s. The program celebrated its first year with a recital back at the Schulich School of Music’s Clara Hall last spring. Another recital is planned this year.
“Some parents were so impressed [with their kids playing at the recital] that they went out and bought keyboards and upright pianos for their homes,” Tong says. “And many of these families aren’t exactly well off.”
The Montreal branch of Heart of the City organized a benefit concert at Tanna Schulich Hall last February. The concert raised approximately $3,000, which organizers hope to use to expand the program into another school next year.
For more information on the Montreal branch of the Heart of the City Piano Program, visit www.heartofthecity.ca/montreal