Music for social change at St. James Music Academy

Music students at St James Music Academy in the Downtown Eastside. | Photo courtesy of SJMA

St. James Music Academy (SJMA), located in the Downtown Eastside (DTES) of Vancouver, has been providing free music education for children in the community for more than a decade.

It is a charity organization that is mostly backed by private donors and it provides children from grade one onwards after school free music education based on demonstrations of financial needs.

The Academy was established 13 years ago by Kathryn Walker, a long-term resident of DTES, out of her own need to find quality music education for her children, which was lacking in the community. After finding local support, she modeled the school based on the renown Venezuelan music organization “El Sistema” in recent years, with a philosophy of “music for social change”.

Music for positive social change

“El Sistema’s philosophy is not about making musicians, but for everyone to be able to play music,” says José Cerón Ortega, the school’s orchestra music director and an expert practitioner of El Sistema’s methods.

He explains that consensual discipline is the secret to teaching music to young children and it is a good message for their long-term future.

“The orchestra is like a community where people work together for something, in this case, music,” Ortega says. “You have to follow the direction but not do whatever you want to do, as just one person can make the whole thing not work. If children at the beginning of their lives can understand doing something good with effort and following rules, they will become great people for their community even if they don’t end up becoming musicians.”

Cynthia Friesen, a choir teacher at SJMA also shared her thoughts on what has been fostered at the school.

“It is this light that you see in their eyes, they are part of something much bigger than themselves.” she says. “Because of my own performance background, I have to say sometimes I think there is no way this choir ensemble I am working on is ready for a performance, but they understand intuitively what a gift it is. They always rise to the occasion.”

The school also creates a sense of home away from home according to Friesen. She says a few of her former students have come back to volunteer at the school after they graduated because SJMA has become their family.

“It is about building relationships and you can’t put a value on that,”Friesen says. “Sometimes there is not a word that can express the things these kids are going through in their life. There might have been some trauma; they really lean on the music to strengthen their resilience. Sometimes I also don’t have the words to comfort someone but there is a song that will do that job for me. The music ends up being this incredible communication tool.”

Keep calm and carry on

Although it is temporarily closed because of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, the school and its staff are still working hard to keep music education going during this trying time. According to Sarah Godoy, Acting Executive Director of SJMA, the school is taking multiple initiatives both to keep the continuity of its education and to help the community alleviate the impact of the crisis.

“Downtown Eastside is considered a ticking time bomb for the coronavirus. There are many homeless and under-housed people, the residents don’t have a lot of money, there is limited access to cleaning and hygiene supplies. Also many people are very isolated. So these are very vulnerable people and some of them are family of or neighbours of our students,” Godoy adds.

Teachers at SJMA are reaching out directly to students through good old telephone calls for a short lesson or just to keep connected. The school is also moving its music education online, though, as Godoy recognizes, there are some obstacles to be overcome.

“The online group lessons will be fun for the children to see each other’s faces. However, we also know that some families don’t have online access. We are looking to see if there is any way that any sponsor can help families to get online, so those children who are among the most marginalized will be able to get access.”

The school is looking for ways to get books for children to address their emotional and psychological needs when schools are closed. It is also working on an emergency supply initiative that helps provide food and hygiene supplies that residents urgently need.

“Our plan is to try to include everyone so no one will fall through the crack, and hopefully we will come out on the other side and will still be cohesive as a community,” says Godoy.

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