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After-School Music Lessons at St. Teresa of Calcutta

Doing what is best for the children.

Students perform at the instrument graduation at St. Teresa. Leah Rempel

Every school day, 30 students at St. Teresa of Calcutta School gather between 3 and 6 p.m. to practice choral singing and learn to play a musical instrument. This program, called Youth Orchestra of Northern Alberta-Sistema, is funded and managed by the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra.

The “Saint T” students, in grades 1 to 3, start with cardboard replicas of violins and cellos. When they have learned the parts of the instruments and how to respect them, they graduate to real instruments provided through donations.

Site Manager Kristin Swirles keeps it all organized. She ensures that the children have snacks and a bus ride home, takes them outside during breaks to play and burn off pent-up energy, communicates with parents and teachers, and much more.

The day this writer visited St. Teresa, the children were in choir practice. The lesson included chanting exercises, singing together (not faster or slower than others, as the group leader explains), clapping in unison, volume up and down (with the musical terms forte and piano introduced), and telling a story with your voice (a version of charades).

The activities are designed to allow extensive physical movement and provide emotional support and encouragement. “We’re very proud of you,” Stephanie Urquhart tells the students. Urquhart is an accompanist who works alongside the teaching artists hired by the ESO to deliver the program. “The teachers and staff have an astonishing amount of patience,” says D.T. Baker, the ESO’s musicologist and interpreter.

In keeping with the El Sistema philosophy (see sidebar), Baker says, “Participants are chosen on the basis of interest and need rather than musical talent.”

“Several members of the ESO are very committed to the program,” Baker says, “as is President and CEO Annemarie Petrov.” They have promoted it by contacting school boards, and working to ensure that funding and donations make the program available at no cost to the families.

“The program is very popular and very successful,” Baker says.

Edmonton’s YONA-Sistema program serves a total of 115 students. In addition to the St. Teresa program, the main YONA-Sistema site is at St. Alphonsus School, where the senior orchestra is based. St. Alphonsus is also home of the woodwind and percussion sections. At Alexander First Nation, a modified version of the Sistema program is offered twice a week during school hours.

On January 24, students from all three sites who had graduated to the full YONA-Sistema orchestra (La Bruyere Orchestra), performed at a free concert at the Winspear Centre.

About YONA-Sistema
YONA-Sistema is modelled on the El Sistema project developed in Caracas, Venezuela during the 1970s. In this city – one of the poorest in the world, with accompanying social issues such as gang violence – Dr. Jose Abreu used music instruction to promote social change and teach the values of unity, harmony, and mutual compassion. Abreu encouraged other cities to adopt or adapt his idea, and Edmonton’s became the third such program in Canada, established in 2013 at St. Teresa of Calcutta.

Anita Jenkins is a retired writer and editor who lives in Boyle Street.

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