Thirty-six years ago economist-musician José Antonio Abreu began the now fabled music-as-social-healer program in Venezuela and the Nepean Symphony Orchestra was laying the groundwork to largely staff the Symphony School and perform dozens of in-school concerts annually in Ottawa.
How absolutely marvellous that David New’s Teaching the Life of Music focusses both on the still thriving South American training ground (spawning, most notably, conductor Gustavo Dudamel—cross reference below) and the recently established (2007) The Leading Note Foundation which aims to provide disadvantaged inner-city youth in Canada’s capital with an outlet for their musical expression. Realizing that one of the movers and shakers in this ambitious enterprise partook of the Nepean experience all of those years ago conclusively proves that once bitten by the music bug at an early age, lifelong involvement in our most universal art frequently results.
Looking back at my formative years, after-school music classes (group lessons, weekly) were well attended. A paper-only assessment came back with the news that “clarinet” would be best for me (more likely a case of instrumental supply theory). But there was little enjoyment until that magical day in Grade 9 when I had my first private lesson from a senior student who actually knew how to remedy my considerable deficiencies. In those heady high school years of the ‘60s, senior bands were typically one-hundred members strong, the annual music festival competitions had more real drama than any season of So You Think You Can Dance and international concert tours were not unheard of (in our time, a four-week visit to Europe made an unforgettable impression on a seventeen-year-old …).
Sadly, for a host of reasons (budget cuts, computer mania, lack of qualified teachers, egocentric arts funding), widely taught serious music withered on the vine, forcing other organizations to pick up the torch and attempt to bring music to the masses.
Throughout the film, for some, there will be an overwhelming sense of déjà vu as the various systems in both hemispheres attempt to mould young minds into pitch-sensitive performers whether destitute, refugees, broken-home survivors or all of the above.
Highlighting the visit to Toronto by the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra in 2009 (where the main event took place not in Roy Thompson Hall but the Rogers Centre) provided many fine moments of orchestral excellence and pizzazz. With their flashy jackets and inventive choreography during the zestier numbers, the mood and feel becomes that of U.S. college football. In place of buxom, chanting cheerleaders are a number of interviews and panel discussions with Abreu, Tina Fedeski (TLNF’s executive director), members of the Canadian Brass (Gene Watts giving the quote du jour: “There are really rich kids that need this” spoke volumes), the visiting musicians (~250) and their neophyte admirers.
Let’s hope the film is placed on the agenda of every school board, arts funder, education department or social enterprise organization that purports to have the interests of children front and centre in their mandates. If music can be as healing, binding, invigorating and universal as the filmmakers believe, why is it left to NGOs to take on the enormous burden of handing down our most precious art? JWR