When the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s School of Music opened its doors in the downtown core this summer, many thought it would rattle the music education cage in the metropolitan area.
And yes, the VSO School of Music’s enrolment level has surpassed its expectations of having 300 students registered by June 2012, something it managed to do in less than six months. What it didn’t know was who it would draw the most attention from: children and seniors.
Of the 300 students registered at the school since it opened (total capacity is 1,500), 100 are enrolled in the early childhood program. “We knew there was capacity for classical music instruction in Vancouver,” VSO School of Music executive director Shaun Taylor said. “We weren’t expecting the early childhood program to take off as fast as it did. “For the last couple of years in downtown Vancouver, you’ve seen more strollers and there’s an elementary school approved to be built in the International Village area. According to Statistics Canada, where we’re located in the downtown core [on Seymour between Robson and Smithe] is the area that has seen the most growth and is anticipated to have the most residential growth.”
The VSO School of Music is often misconstrued as a training ground for the VSO itself. However, although the school boasts 54 contracted faculty members, 30 of whom are fulltime VSO members, the goal of the VSO School of Music is to provide casual music training in the form of classes and private lessons to students of all ages and ability levels. While Taylor said the early childhood program is “the most highly subscribed program at the school so far,” the truly strange statistic is that 40 per cent of private lesson students are seniors.”That is extremely atypical for a community music school,” Taylor said. “Typically, five or 10 per cent of your students would be seniors. We always knew that getting school-age students to take lessons here would take time. Lessons started in September, so by the time we opened, most of these students already knew what they were going to study this year.”
Ironically, the opening of the VSO School of Music, which Taylor said has attracted students from all over the Lower Mainland, from Abbotsford to Tsawwassen to Squamish to Bowen Island, and the launching of programs that will reach students all across the province via long-distance teaching, have done little to hinder other community music schools in the Vancouver area. They have helped bolster the confidence level of the 18 community music schools working in tandem via the British Columbia Association of Community Music Schools, of which the VSO school, the Vancouver Academy of Music and the Langley Community Music School, among others, are members. “All 18 of us are in regular communication,” Taylor said. “And we all have the same goal: Advancing the quality of music instruction in the province.”
At the Vancouver Academy of Music, located in Kitsilano near Vanier Park, attendance is also up since the VSO School of Music has opened its doors, having increased by 22 per cent over the past six months. “When the VSO School of Music opened, there was probably some apprehension on both sides,” newly appointed VAM executive director Joseph Elworthy said. “But now we feel like the waters have calmed, and we’re doing really well. “We share so many things, starting with faculty members that teach at both schools. I’m a member of the VSO as well, so I think there definitely is a spirit of collaboration between us. For example, the Vancouver Bach Children’s Choir rehearses at both locations. There’s a lot of positive interaction between schools. There’s not reason to have any competition because we’re both here to stay.
The city has proven, through its expansion and growth, that it can support more than one significant music schools.” Recent changes at the VAM, many of which were implemented after Elworthy was appointed, have also played a role in the recent spike in attendance. “We’ve made internal changes – a new website, new programs, new initiatives,” Elworthy said, pointing out well over 1,000 students now attend the academy, which has eliminated waiting lists and seen a 40 per cent increase in its orchestral program enrolment. “We also brought on key faculty members that have drawn a lot of attention, like Andrew Dawes, the director of the Chamber Music Institute, and Leslie Dala, the newly appointed director of the Academy Symphony Orchestra. “I really wanted to reclaim our seat at the arts and culture table,” he said. “I wanted to bring us back to our roots.”
At the Langley Community Music School, the ripples caused by the VSO School of Music opening are few and far between, though the establishment has experienced a bit of a decline since 2008. “The circumstances in Langley are quite different from Vancouver,” LCMS principal Susan Magnusson said. “Because of the location of our school in our community and where all of the new development in the area is, we’ve seen an impact.” Magnusson points to the longevity of the school’s piano program, but as younger families with smaller living quarters come to enrol their children at the LCMS there seems to be a shift toward smaller instruments, which have become more popular at the LCMS. One striking difference between Langley and the Vancouver community schools is that the popularity of the early childhood programs doesn’t seem to be as full-on as it is closer to the metro core.
In the suburbs, parents may still prefer to send their children to private lessons for the sake of convenience.
“We don’t have quite as connected a transportation system,” Magnusson said. “Langley is a huge geographical area. I think there certainly is room in our community for both [private lessons and community school education].”
For Ken Hsieh, the Vancouver Metropolitan Orchestra’s music director, the success of the VSO School of Music and the high demand at various community music schools in and around Vancouver does not come as a surprise.
Hsieh argues the trend may be about parents moving away from the private-lesson environment and opting for more congenial, less strenuous school programs, especially when it comes to children of second generation Asian-Canadians.
“My mother and father expected their kid to have some kind of music training,” Hsieh, 30, said. “The downfall was that they would do it to compete. Asians love to compete against each other.
“What I find very encouraging is that the second generation – my generation – is starting to have kids. The first generation was all about private one-on-one lessons. This second generation is more flexible, more open: They are encouraging their kids to learn music for the love of music, and the community school environment really helps.”
Hsieh said he felt so much pressure as a kid that he eventually quit music altogether.
“My mom would always compare me to other people. Maybe she was doing it for motivation, but I always felt a little restrained and that I had to beat the other person. Quitting music was the greatest thing that happened to me. It made me realize how much I enjoyed it. I find the second generation remembers their parents beating on them. A lot of them quit at 18 when they got into university.”
Though Hsieh doesn’t have children yet, he said he would most likely send them to community music school if they ever showed a desire to learn how to play music.
“First of all, there is no way in hell I’m going to teach my own kids,” Hsieh said with a laugh. “I want them to develop a passion, and it’s more fun to learn in a group setting.”
Hsieh’s argument certainly seems to hold water, and some families are not waiting to ensure their kids get their music training from a community school environment.
At the VSO School of Music, Taylor confirmed that while the oldest student is 77, the youngest enrolled student isn’t even born yet.
“I think it was an early birthday present from grandma,” Taylor said with a chuckle.
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