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Let Them Play On

Every time you hear about school districts having budget problems, the first thing they seem to cut is their music and arts programs. Now, I’m a guitar teacher and musician, so I’m biased. But why are these programs always the first to get cut? Why isn’t it football? Basketball? Home Economics? Typing? (Yes, I know, I’m dating myself now.)

But seriously.

I don’t think some people know how important music is. For everybody, I mean. Not only is it great for you to learn an instrument at any age, but it does amazing things to your brain, even if you can’t play brilliantly! A lot of people consider playing chess or doing sudoku puzzles as a great brain exercise, but playing an instrument is actually a full brain work out.

I’ve seen it in action. Sometimes it takes all of a person’s focus and energy to learn a new piece. They are in the zone, and the rest of the world, all of their problems, are on the other side of the closed studio door. Sometimes they are in shock when they realize the lesson is over.

Being able to play an instrument stays with you all of your life, regardless of your mental capacity. There are countless stories of people with dementia, unable to remember what they had for breakfast, but well able to play the piano or the flute as beautifully as they did when they were younger.

According to classicfm.com in their article explaining why you should take up an instrument, it enhances verbal memory, spatial reasoning and literacy skills. The science says it makes you smarter. Isn’t that what we all want?

Beyond what it does for your brain, playing an instrument can relieve stress, build confidence and can even help you improve your social life. Well, maybe not the social part right now, since we’re trying to keep physically distanced.

But why would school boards or districts even consider taking all of these positives away from their students?

Maybe some of them think playing an instrument is only for musical snobs. Or the exceptionally talented. They’ve probably never paid much attention to their school bands, like the one I played clarinet in when I was in school.

We were pretty mediocre. We occasionally entered into competitions with other high school bands in the district. But as soon as the other bands would start playing, we knew where we stood. Dead last.

Mr. Parkinson, our high school band teacher, was in the British military for a long time and did his best to keep us together playing those marches he loved. The theme to Hogan’s Heroes was my favourite. We didn’t actually march when we played, yet we still managed to have two musical left feet. But that wasn’t the point.

Because what I remember the most was the feeling of being in the middle of all of that music, especially when we had those moments where we pulled it together almost perfectly. It was not only uplifting, it was transformative. We played, we laughed, we tried again.

Some of the friends I made back then I still keep in touch with to this day. In fact, I married the snare drummer.

Both of my daughters used my clarinet when they had their turn playing in the school band. They also tried the strings program, and took private lessons in other instruments.

But not all parents can afford to send their children for private lessons, which is why the music programs in schools are so important.

It isn’t about children becoming virtuosos, it’s about giving them the chance to have a really positive experience. It’s about taking them away from their electronics for just a little while and doing something that they may very well remember for the rest of their lives. If music is not for them, that’s okay. At least they had the chance to try.

I’m hanging onto that clarinet and waiting for the day when I can pass it on to my grandkids. Let them play on!

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Canada Day – A Different Way

Last week, I asked a few of my students what their plans were for Canada Day. Usually, that’s just a casual question you ask when a holiday is on the horizon. This year, however, the responses were decidedly different.

They would stop for a second, stare off somewhere, maybe chuckle, and shrug their shoulders.

Some had definite plans. “We’re going fishing,” one said. That seems safe enough. “Off to our cabin for a couple of days,” said another.

But most had no plans at all. No picnics or barbeques, no street parties, no fireworks or live shows to watch. Not even the usual Canada Day show from a stage set up somewhere in Ottawa, with all the Canadian stars and politicians in attendance.

Oh, there were other shows. Some live streaming and some on TV. But we’re getting used to those new formats now, aren’t we? They’re either live from their living rooms or some kind of “virtual” celebration. Or ninety-three people singing Oh Canada on Zoom.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. We’ve come up with a lot of wonderfully creative ways to celebrate special occasions lately, from solitary graduations to drive-by birthdays and weddings, and holiday car or bicycle parades. Where there’s a will, there’s a way to celebrate, and we Canadians love to do that. Especially on Canada’s birthday.

Normally, our family would either go down to the lawns of the legislature and be a part of the living flag, or maybe over to Fort Rodd Hill to celebrate our nation’s birthday there. At night, from our back deck, we always hear the fireworks going off. And the inevitable screech of seagulls flying above as they escape Armageddon.

My husband and I decided that this Canada Day it was time to see and be with our friends. In person. We have a great group of four couples who golf together, spend Christmases and birthdays together, and have done so for many years. It’s very unusual for us to go any longer than a month or two without seeing each other in person, but the last time we had been together as a group was last Christmas. That’s more than six months.

So we decided to host a back yard get together at our home on the afternoon of Canada Day, where everyone would bring their own appetizers and beverages, and we’d all sit an appropriate distance apart and just spend some time together. And it was great. It was wonderful to laugh together again, to share our COVID stories and experiences, to catch up on each other’s news and views. It lasted about 3 hours and it was perfect.

Three years ago, on Canada’s 150th birthday, I wrote a blog about having recently returned from Europe on our first big vacation there. I remember, very vividly, seeing Labrador through the plane’s window on the flight back, marveling at how massive Canada is and how little I’ve seen of it. It was a wonderful European vacation, but it was an especially warm feeling to come back home.

But this year, on Canada’s 153rd birthday, to be honest, I was really just happy to be here. Weren’t you?

We Canadians might have our disagreements. Okay, who am I kidding? We have lots of disagreements. We are certainly not perfect and still have a lot to work out for ourselves. But in spite of our differences, I think most of us would agree that we are darn lucky to live in this great country. And that has become so much more evident in the last few months as we’ve negotiated this strange new and frightening pandemic.

One very important reason for our luck is that we’ve had some well educated and intelligent people leading us through it all. And our humanity has been brought to the surface; instead of fighting each other, we’ve come together to help each other. We’ve learned to follow the protocols, listened to those who know what they’re talking about, and put up with new, uncomfortable rules. It’s been rough on a lot of us, and we’ve still got a long way to go.

But, Oh, Canada! I’ve never been prouder to stand on guard for thee.

Estipod Rocks the ‘Monds

Poster for the 2002 re-release of the Last WaltzImage via Wikipedia

Like many teenagers, I was in a garage band in high school.  That’s when garage bands actually played in the garage, or the basement, or in our case the loft of one of our members parent’s house.  There were eight of us in the band and I was the last to join, although we did add another member a few years later.

I was the only girl in the band when I joined…so there were seven guys and me.  And the reason I joined was because I had a crush on the drummer :-).  The reason I was ALLOWED to join is still a mystery to me.  I think they needed a singer.  I got kicked out when I tried to play guitar.  I guess I wasn’t very good then, or, at least, I didn’t play the songs that these guys played, so it didn’t work out.  But they still needed a singer, so somehow I was allowed back.  It was customary to kick somebody out of the band every now and then, just to keep it fresh 🙂

We had a funny name:  Estipod.  It was a sort of bastardized version of a Welsh word meaning a group of musicians.  The drummer found it in the dictionary when we were looking for a name and nobody could think of anything else.  Actually I wasn’t in the band then, otherwise I’m sure I would have come up with something more memorable.  Ahem.

Well as soon as you put a band name on posters, you’re kind of stuck with it.  And even though we tried several times to change it, we could never agree on anything else.  So Estipod it was.  Over time I think we realized that we could never change that name;  it was who we were.

Most of our practices were at the parent’s place of two of our members.  They had an odd sort of house;  it was a split level which they had built on top of to create extra rooms…essentially it looked like someone had just dropped a barn on top of a house.  But we would cram ourselves in there and blow a fuse or two almost every weekend.  A few times the neighbours complained and we ended up with the police knocking on the door.  The father of the house was occasionally known to turn off the power in the house when he’d had enough of us.  I don’t know how they put up with us really…we had a full drum kit, tons of amps and several brass instruments and mics pounding away on top of them for hours on end sometimes.

It was a little strange being the only girl in the band.  First of all, I never got their jokes.  There was always some reference to something the guys had seen or done together that I was just not privy to.  But I’d laugh along and pretend I knew what they were talking about.  Then there were the songs.  Most of the cover songs we played were written for a male voice and the topics were often around female love interests, and there was little I could do to re-word the lyrics to fit me (ie David Bowie‘s “wham, bang, thank you ma’am” from Suffragette City particularly annoyed me), but I would belt them out as best I could.  I never could hear myself anyway.

We really didn’t get anywhere other than playing a few gigs in a couple of roller rinks (that’s when people actually tied on roller skates and skated around a rink to live music) and pizza joints and the odd backyard performance for our friends.  Eventually we all went our separate ways, some off to higher education, others to jobs, moving out of our parent’s neighbourhoods and off on our own.  And at some point, we decided we should have a reunion.  This was around the time when The Band released “The Last Waltz”, so we decided to call our reunion “The Last Polka”.  I think we held this event about 4 or 5 times in as many years.  We  rented a hall and invited all of our friends, some of the guys’ girlfriends made lots of food and we got a liquor license so we could have beer.  It was great fun…probably the reason we kept doing it.

Over time, even the polkas fell by the wayside as we all grew up and got married (I married the drummer) and started families.  In more recent years with most of our kids grown and some nostalgia setting in, we’ve have a few more reunions and they’ve always been great fun.  When we can find an excuse together, we do.  And an excuse came a few weeks ago when we heard that the barn-house was going to be sold (well, probably leveled, actually), and we decided to get together for one last jam in the same room, just the eight of us.

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So there we were a little older (okay, a lot older) crammed into the loft once again, two elderly parents downstairs, one with a set of headphones on so he could tolerate us, and the other upstairs with us, thoroughly enjoying the idea of all of us being together in her house again.  We played poorly but we laughed well 🙂  And a few times we actually sounded like something…we rocked the “Monds.  The “Monds” was our nickname for the subdivision the house is in…every street name ends in “mond”, as in Desmond and Trumond.

We took lots of pictures and video (hopefully they’ll never show up on YouTube!), and kept it down to about an hour.  In the end, we thanked the old folks went our merry way.  And we told ourselves that we are going to do this again.  Soon.  It’s amazing how quickly soon goes by…

The members of Estipod, laughing at some inside joke…this time I think I get it 🙂