By Autumn Fox

How many people do you know can claim Yo-Yo Ma taught them the cello in their after-school music class? Be it through movies, cartoons, lullabies, parents, older siblings, or an in-person tutorial with Yo-Yo Ma himself, early exposure to music provides a vast number of developmental benefits — be it cognitive, intersocial, motivational, emotional, or physical.

However, faced with evolving challenges, schools often have the difficult task of juggling core curriculum with opportunities for skilled expression. Students in marginalized communities are even more at risk of losing access to music education, as cost of living expenses trump extracurriculars like music lessons. 

Through their education programs, the Calgary Philharmonic offers ways for parents and educators to bridge these gaps, creating opportunities for children and young adults to learn and experience orchestral music firsthand. 

Launched in 2015, PhilKids is modeled after El Sistema, a Venezuelan music program developed to teach at-risk youth how to play a musical instrument, while concurrently offering a safe space for them to express themselves and develop effective interpersonal skills.

“I love the idea of connecting with kids and giving those kids a chance that they might not have otherwise,” says Heather Wootton, Lead Teaching Artist of the PhilKids program and Assistant Principal Horn with the Calgary Phil. “We were talking about doing something of that kind, bringing music to the more disadvantaged schools in some way, and this idea came up.” 

Currently, the PhilKids program is offered at no cost every week throughout the school year to 100 students from grades one to six and runs out of two Calgary schools; Keeler Elementary in Forest Lawn and Falconridge School.

First and second-grade students — ‘pizzicatos’ — learn music fundamentals in each session through singing, ‘bucket band’ drumming and using Orff instruments — non-pitched rhythm instruments like shakers and sticks.

The ‘glissandos’ — students from grades three to six — are then free to select an instrument to learn, free of charge, throughout the school year; with flute, trumpet, violin, and cello as options.

In addition to music fundamentals, they receive instruction from Calgary Phil musicians on their chosen instrument. And in some cases, they get the opportunity to learn from world-class instrumentalists, like cellist Yo-Yo Ma. 

“He’s a huge proponent of music education for kids and exposure to classical music,” says Heather. “And he volunteered to visit the program when the Calgary Phil presented him in 2017. He observed some of the classes, played for the kids, and worked with the cellos.” 

“I always loved music. But when I joined, that love grew.”

Heather says watching students find their voice with an instrument is gratifying. Some stick with one throughout the program, while others like the challenge of learning something new each year. Sometimes it’s just a matter of finding the right fit. “Some kids who struggle with one instrument really flourish with another.”

T’Svon, 12, just finished his final year with PhilKids. He started playing violin in grade three but switched to flute the following year. “I just liked the way the violin looked, and I liked the way it sounds. So, I wanted to try it out. But I wasn’t that good of a violin player. I tried the flute, and I was surprisingly good at it,” he says. So good that he was performing in weddings by age 10. He’s now easily playing compositions by ear and is enrolled in an arts-focused junior high school in the fall.

Bea-Marie, also 12, played the violin all three years. “I like how it sounds, and also like the way it sits in your arms and how you can play multiple notes at once. Both students have developed a deeper appreciation for music and say they now notice music everywhere around them, especially in films. T’Svon cites Who Will Know, an operatic piece by Shirō Sagisu for the 2016 Japanese reboot, Shin Godzilla, as his favourite piece of music, while Bea-Marie fell in love with Japanese composer Joe Hisaishi’s Merry-Go-Round of Life from Howl’s Moving Castle.

“I always loved music. But when I joined, that love grew,” says Bea-Marie. Both young musicians’ parents came from musical families; Bea-Marie’s grandfather was a touring musician, while T’Svon’s grandfather was a disc jockey. T’Svon’s mother, Debralee, was a multi-instrumentalist as a student — also settling on the flute.

Debralee says there was always an assortment of new pop records in her home growing up, as well as reggae, owing to their Jamaican background. Heather says one of the goals of PhilKids is to commit to presenting a broader spectrum of music and cultures to students. The program introduces orchestral music from the likes of Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart, but PhilKids aims to also incorporate a wider culture of music into their curriculum.

Heather notes the systemic underrepresentation of orchestral musicians from minority groups and marginalized communities at the professional level. “If we want to have more diversity in orchestral music, we need to start at the very, very root of where you start to learn.”

Having two kids enrolled in the program, Debralee can’t speak highly enough about PhilKids. “The program has evolved so much since when they first started. Evolved in the sense that it’s incorporated more individuality — so, understanding where your place in music is. It’s not just your standard playing the notes and playing the music. It’s about feeling the music, understanding the rhythm, learning about the melodies and harmonies, and coming together as a unit.”

“We’re not trying to create little Beethovens,” says Alysha Armanious, the Calgary Phil’s Education + Outreach Manager. “We’re interested in social development and creating more opportunities and avenues for self-expression. The data shows that students continue to go to school — especially in some of these high-risk areas — when they have classes that allow for self-expression and creation.”

But PhilKids isn’t where the Calgary Phil’s mandate to enrich and engage students through music ends. Symphony Sundays for Kids, Education Concerts, and Open Rehearsals are all accessible and affordable options for parents and educators to introduce children and young adults to the orchestra.

“Symphony Sundays for Kids is a great avenue for families wanting to take their little ones to the orchestra for the first time,” says Alysha. “We have an Instrument Discovery Zoo in the lobby, so kids can try a variety of instruments. We always have strings; we always have percussion. We’re trying to reintroduce some wind instruments. There are also composition stations where kids come around with bingo daubers and smack some colours onto a staff, then take it to a musician, and they imagine a melody from what the kids have put on the paper. It’s just a cacophony of the most wonderful noise you’ve ever heard in your life.”

This season’s Symphony Sundays for Kids series features a performance of Dr. Seuss’ The Sneetches, a drag story time narration of Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, The Da Vinci Code’s Dan Brown’s zoological introduction to each family of instruments, Wild Symphony, and a time-travelling escapade to 18th-century France with Saint-Georges’ Sword + Bow.

The Calgary Phil’s Education Concerts series allows schools and educators to experience the symphony firsthand at a reduced cost and in an educational context. The 2023/2024 Season’s already in-demand performances include a collaboration with the Alberta Ballet School, a journey through the world of orchestral music featuring pieces from Beethoven, Antonìn Dvořák, and Iman Habibi, led by guest conductor and El Sistema alum, Andrés González, as well as Dan Brown’s Wild Symphony.

Open Rehearsals are geared towards middle and high school students, often partnering with schools with an orchestra or concert band program.

From Symphony Sundays for Kids to our PhilKids program – the Calgary Phil’s education initiatives are designed to bring music into the lives of children and young adults from across Calgary. These programs come at a significant cost, but you know like we know how vital music education is.