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Volume 18 Issue 2 - October 2012

  • Text
  • Toronto
  • October
  • Choir
  • Arts
  • Jazz
  • Concerts
  • November
  • Theatre
  • Musical
  • Orchestra

BEHIND THE

BEHIND THE SCENESRichardMarsella andthe MusicalLife ofRegent ParkBY REBECCA CHUAWhen the students of theRegent Park School of Musictook to the stage with PinkFloyd’s Roger Waters at Toronto’sRogers Centre this past June, theywere performing for an audience of40,000 — no mean feat for 15 studentsfrom a little community music school.Not that these particular students arestrangers to large crowds. After all,they’ve performed at Blue Jays openers before. But this time around,their rousing rendition of Another Brick in the Wall was, in fact, areprise of several sold out concerts two years ago.That first time, when Waters contacted the school in 2010, they weregiven such short notice that, armed only with a copy of the lyrics anda YouTube video, the students virtually practised in the bus on theway to the concert at the Air Canada Centre. Still, that was a demonstrationof the kind of sterling professionalism (and gusto!) worthy ofany serious musician — and the kind of challenges that these studentshave surmounted before.For the children of Regent Park, the challenges have never been simply,or even predominantly, financial. When the music school first beganalmost on a hope and a prayer in 1999, the neighbourhood’s name waswidely used as a synonym for “gangs and drugs.” As a scenario it wasnot so very different from the slums of Caracas in Venezuela in 1975,where one of the giants of music education in our time, Jose AntonioAbreu, hit on the plan of luring children of poverty away from crimeby providing free musical training.El Sistema, the voluntary music education program Abreu founded,and for which he was awarded the Glenn Gould Prize in 2009, begandismally, with just 11 students. Today, it has close to 370,000 studentsand boasts 125 youth orchestras, 31 symphony orchestras and the celebrityof alumni like conductor Gustavo Dudamel. What’s more, it’s anenduring testimony to the transformative power of music.While there’s no denying that El Sistema started out as a social rescueprogram aimed at the most vulnerable members of society, Abreuwould argue that it is far more fundamental than that: as a microcosmof social life, it develops self esteem and counts on individual contributionsto achieve collective goals.Richard Marsella, director of the Regent Park School of Music, andthe focus of this month’s column, would be the first to scoff at beingcompared to Abreu. But on one thing they agree: “Music could save lives.If you connect with a child, that could change their life!”Within days of opening its doors in a church basement 13 years ago,71 children had been enrolled in the Regent Park School of Music. Fastforward to 2012 and 800 children are taking lessons, not only at RegentPark but also at satellite locations, Parkdale, Jane and Finch, and LawrenceHeights, in collaboration with local schools and both York andToronto universities.Marsella has written an ambitious five year plan that would see 3,000students by the year 2015. “Ten years from now, we could have anotherhub at Lawrence Heights,” he muses. This is a man who is not afraidRichard Marsella.Above right, Lollipop People live.to dream big — and with good reason. After all, he has just shepherdedthe Regent Park School of Music into its spanking new state-of-thearthome, in the Regent Park Arts and Culture Centre, at the heart of areconceived, revitalized, you-won’t recognize-it-now neighbourhood.It’s a home he had a hand in designing. Jennifer Mallard, Diamondand Schmitt’s project architect for the Arts and Cultural Centre, wherethe music school is tucked away on the second floor, recalls his infectiousenthusiasm about every detail, from which direction the doorsshould face, to whether a storage room would better serve as a studio(since it has the right acoustics anyway). He’s the kind of hands-on guywho measures the size of the screws to fit the shelves in his office andthinks nothing of driving to Staples to pick up a few supplies.You might think that screws and nuts and bolts are not the stuff ofmusic making, but you would be wrong. In 2001, Marsella spent threeweeks at Queen’s University with composer R. Murray Schafer, his formersupervisor in the Masters program at the University of Toronto,building a museum of smells, going on a blindfolded walk and workingon what Marsella candidly describes as “a bizarre production of SnowWhite.” To this day, he’s not sure if what Schafer was doing was necessarilymusic education, “not in the standard sense anyhow,” althoughit certainly resonated for him and developed in him a healthy respectfor the completely unorthodox.It was Schafer, after all, who introduced not just the notion of soundscapebut the very word into our vocabulary. There are, according toSchafer, three elements to a soundscape. First there is the keynote,which is created by geography and climate (sounds like the wind, orother hardly noticed ambient noises, or sounds that are more intrusive,even if always in the background, like traffic). Second are soundsignals, which are in the foreground and are obvious, like bells, hornsand sirens. And finally there is the soundmark, the sonic equivalent ofa landmark, which is what is unique to what Schafer calls “the acousticlife of the community.”For the then Brampton-based Marsella, it was a formative experiencefor what he was already plotting: a “constructive anarchist event with700 grade four students” that was eventually christened “The Paradeof Noises.” Over a period of five years, Marsella would lead this annualprocession of children brandishing such home made musical instrumentsas styrofoam guitars, shoebox banjos, water bottle drums, tincan bongos, whoopee cushion organs, clay ocarinas and plastic trombones,marching through the main street of Brampton, making joyfulmusic in conjunction with a hundred professional musicians he’d persuadedto come along for the ride.12 thewholenote.com October 1 – November 7, 2012

AIR’LETH AODHFINMarsella had a great team in his corner.Henk de Graauw, a man who builthis own mechanical organ and whomMarsella affectionately calls a retired Nortelgenius, helped out. One year, Schaferhimself got involved in some of the planningmeetings, and, of course, Marsellacould count on the music faculty at U of T,where he was a student. Then there werethe teachers of the 35 schools that turned up every year and their equallyenthusiastic students, not to mention the staff at the Brampton Theatre,the Peel Board of Education and the Mayor of Brampton, who actuallymarched in the parade herself.Yes, it takes a village: “To engage with a community, you need toinclude everybody, from parents and children, to the local garbage man,to the water-bottling plant,” acknowledges Marsella. “From restaurants,we were given sauce cans by the hundreds, from the bottling plants, 18Lwater buckets that we’d transform into drums and from Waste Management,everything from pipes and buckets to heating grates. Everythingturned into music, led by the imaginations of 700 nine–year-olds.”Marsella’s role then, as now, was never far from the “nuts and bolts”end of things: things like spending many a night in his tool shed deburringthe ends of copper pipes, to ensure that no children lost any fingerswhile making their instruments.Nor has he ever forgotten what it means to engage with community.To that end, he sees the value of diversifying the school’s programs andmoving away from what he calls the Royal Conservatory model. Thisentails adopting a group approach, without entirely abandoning oneon-oneclasses. The school works with both paid staff and volunteerteachers from the community. A member of the local church makesphone calls to connect with students past and present. Graduates ofthe school come back to teach, mentor or just help out.Connection is what Marsella does best. In 2010, before he took thehelm at the school, he organized the Olympic Torch Relay on ParliamentHill and was able to connect with both the prime minister andthe governor general.In the same year that the Regent Park School of Music opened itsdoors, he started the Brampton Indie Arts Festival, booking artists whomight have been considered, in those days, unusual, unconventional,even controversial. In the intervening years, it has showcased such actsas the Nihilist Spasm Band, Marc Ribot, Ron Sexsmith, the Rheostaticsand Scott Thompson.Friendly Rich: Many musicians make no secret of the fact that theonly reason they have a day job is to enable them to indulge their realpassion for music. Marsella makes no such distinction, but feeds hismusical passions both day and night. As Friendly Rich, he fronts hisown band, the Lollipop People, which this summer “began an eightyearTuesday residency” at the Cameron House on Queen St. W. indowntown Toronto.Visiting the Cameron on a recent Tuesday night, it was not difficultto imagine a consistent philosophy of musical connection at work.In between songs, a member of the opening band, the House Plants,ribbed him about his hirsute resemblance to the Mexican painter FridaKahlo, then proceeded to sing a song about being dumped by a girl.And when the Lollipop People took to the stage, it prompted the audienceto spontaneously hug each other in a wildly rhythmic paroxysmof applause, jumping up to bop. When the late night hurdy gurdy mansang, it sounded the way opera would if Elvis sang I Pagliacci, exceptthat it was in English and irreverent, with rude references to peopleand places and events we all knew and some we didn’t. It was soaringand wild and infectious and the crowd cheered for more.It’s what he calls “a culture of artistic risk taking” and he hasbrought it with him to the Regent Park Music School, where as hesees it “delivering quality music education means recognizing thatexperimentation leads to innovation, fostering volunteerism and communityinvolvement.”That, one might say, is the nuts and bolts of it.X AVANT VIIE X P A N D I N G C I R C U I T SBoB ostertag/Pierre HeBert x elaquentJP Carter x JoHn Kameel FaraH x sHigetosandro Perri x and muCH more...OCTOBER 12–21tickets: on sale aug 15 FRoM TickeTweb.caFestival pass: (a 45% savings)Rebecca Chua is a Toronto-based journalistwho writes on culture and the arts.October 1 – November 7, 2012 thewholenote.com 13

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