Boyle McCauley News

Since 1979 • February-March 2024 • Circulation 5000

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Music Program a First for Edmonton

Children at Mother Teresa School with their new violins. Gary Garrison

“It was a dream come true!”

So says one of the 20 Mother Teresa grade two and three students who graduated to real violins after four weeks on cardboard violins they’d made and decorated themselves.

On November 4, parents, teachers, students, and supporters of the YONA-Sistema Program gathered in the school gymnasium to watch the children perform on their cardboard instruments, demonstrate how much they’d learned about music and violins, and then play a real note together. (The YONA part of the name stands for the Youth Orchestra of Northern Alberta.)

A big part of what the children learned was how to care for their paper instruments. When the students’ names were called, they proceeded one by one across the stage, placed their old instruments on a table, signed a detailed promise about violin care, and then received their real violins. Once they’d all returned to their places, they put the violins under their chins, raised real bows, and stroked their first note. For the children and for everyone else in the room, it was a magical moment, a new beginning.

The kids’ enthusiasm has been evident from the start. The school’s hallways are alive with laughter, song, rhythm, and music five days a week for three hours after regular classes are over. The children are clearly having fun, despite being at school for longer days than many people with full-time work are on the job.

According to Tommy Banks, an Edmonton musician who has won Juno and Gemini awards and performed around the world, the program “has nothing to do with turning out professional musicians . . . It welds their creative synapses in ways that help them throughout their whole lives and makes them better students in every subject.” He says that’s not just his opinion; it’s been proven time and again.

“They also know how to solve problems better,” he adds. “Most importantly, they understand interdependence in a way that others don’t. When you’re playing music with people, they are absolutely relying on you to do what you’re supposed to do, and you are absolutely relying on them.”

Jose Antonio Breu founded El Sistema in Venezuela in 1975 as a means of positive social change. Since then, nearly a million Venezuelan children have been through it, and it has spread around the world. Mother Teresa School is the first in Edmonton to host El Sistema. The instructors are professional musicians from the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, and program sponsors include the Edmonton Community Foundation, Rotary International, and the Edmonton Inner City Children’s Program.

Tommy Banks’ hope is that this program “will grow and grow and grow and there will be more people in it in this school and eventually in every school.”

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