About this time of year, the O’Rourke-Ross gymnasium at Tillsonburg’s Glendale High School would be overflowing for a holiday-theme Wassail concert by the school’s music department.
“A year ago Christmas, we had a packed house,” said music teacher John Lam, head of the school’s performing arts department. “We get good crowds to our concerts.”
This year, there will not be a Wassail concert and possibly no spring concert.
“No concerts at all – unless things recover by June,” said Lam. “And I swear, the minute they tell us we can, I’ve told the kids I’m having a rehearsal…
“Whether it’s adult bands that I conduct or whether it’s kids, we were meant to perform together. Music might be our first language. Those who have had the performance music experience here are really missing it, and when the time comes for us to get back together, that’s going to be a great day. And I don’t care what level we’re playing, I don’t care if it’s Hot Cross Buns. I just want to get these kids back in the room (playing) when it’s safe.”
Lam always says there is something more than the sum of its parts when you play in a band, orchestra, or sing in a choir.
“You are committed to the group and you build really strong ties with the people that you sit with, and the performances that you bank over the years. Kids will remember last year when we played this piece and something special happened in rehearsal, and even more special in performance. Sometimes you can’t even put those experiences into words, but you will sure feel that when we come back together, the kind of hope that will be restored.
“Our job is to keep these kids… knowing that we are poised to come back (and perform together) the minute we are allowed to.”
The music program at Glendale changed with the introduction of COVID-19 restrictions in September. Students play their instruments at home, not at school.
So far they have adapted well, said Lam.
“I think the telling will be in enrolment – in any high school arts program – in years to come. Music is very relational, so the synergy in the department is derived from the teacher-student relationship in the rehearsal experience. You’re instructing, you’re learning music, and things a little more than the sum of its parts happen when you get a good group together. You get that sense that ‘this is bigger than all of us’ and there is a real energy there. That’s hard to replace.”
On the plus side, music is taught as a comprehensive subject at Glendale. There are other activities for music students, including theory, deep listening and creative projects.
“They have always been part of the curriculum,” said Lam, “so that continues… and maybe we’re going to cover a little bit more of that than we used to in the past.
“The instruments go home with the students and we are adjusting. It is not perfect.
“So I’m not saying we have the answers, but we’re doing some creative things. It’s good that the program was not solely based on performance before, so the kids are not in shock when they get handed some theory to do.”
Lam recalled a Google Meet video meeting with his entire Grade 9 class that was “fun,” but did not go as well as hoped.
“It was crazy. It’s hard enough when you’re in the room, but when they are on the other side of the computer, and somebody’s cat is running around…”
The new quadmester system also provides challenges for the music department.
“Teaching a semester of music in 10 weeks is like asking a kid to have a growth spurt in a matter of days,” said Lam. “It’s kind of what I would call spiral learning. You keep coming around to them every day until they develop.”
The focus is on delivering the essentials and constantly developing new methods, said Lam, noting money was spent on a class set of ukuleles because that instrument can be played.
“So, where the kids have their wind instruments at home, my senior class wants some type of music-making experience and we’re going to have a lot of fun.
“They know how to learn their instrument, they know how to practice because they’ve had two years of it already. So I can say, ‘do these scales, do these pieces, if you need my instruction I can make myself available on a Google Meet.’ So if you have a problem you can play for me and I can talk to you on the other side of this computer.”
Only one music credit was lost this school year at Glendale (repertoire band), but Lam expects it to return when conditions improve.
“The community is very much in support of our arts programs here. But we’re just a little bit worried about our enrolment into our Grade 9 sections from elementary schools.”
Glendale Music Council announced Nov. 9 that it would be preparing a ‘Holiday video,’ which would be shown to the school and posted on Facebook and Instagram.
“We’re just trying to keep the spirit of the department alive, we have a really good Music Council,” said Lam. “Over the years that we’ve been here the council has kind of run itself and we (teachers) act as a resource for them. I think they’re just trying to keep recruiting and keep spirits up.
“Any positive awareness that we can have in the community over the next few months, to keep this alive, and bring it back when it’s time. We have a very large population of musicians for a high school this size.”