We’ve had a crash course, this week, in the political power of youth and music.

With José Antonio Abreu here to receive the Glenn Gould Prize, and bringing with him Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Youth Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, people who don’t care about youth and music – even people who, except for when handing out campaign promises, would rather forget about youth and music – have taken notice.

It’s been very good to see the political stock of an education in music getting a small amount of the credit it deserves.

I’m here today to give credit to another organization which has been doing similar work almost completely without fanfare, across an ever-expanding territory throughout the world, for 64 years.

Jeunesses Musicales began in Brussels in 1945, in a Europe flattened and starved by war, and embarked on what must have seemed an unlikely mission at the time: "To enable young people to develop through music across all boundaries." You wouldn’t think music would matter to a society in a situation like that, but history shows very clearly that it does. The growth and success of Jeunesses Musicales is the proof: their programmes have spread to 45 countries, with related organizations in another 35, and reaching some 5 million musicians aged 13-30.

That means projects in struggling economies like Ethiopia, Indonesia, Kenya and Ecuador… and it means programmes in wealthy and very comfortable economies like ours in Canada.

Unfortunately, that wealth and comfort is no guarantee of anything when it comes to a musical education. Our standard of living may afford us modern schools with modern equipment, but that doesn’t mean every Canadian kid has access to a good music programme.

In fact, as it turns out, in comparison to an impoverished place like Venezuela, our own public systems – with slashed budgets and dwindling programming – are a comparative source of shame.

That’s why Canada needs Jeunesses Musicales: every year 800 concerts in 200 venues across BC, Quebec, the Maritimes and Ontario, reaching an estimated audience of 100,000 Canadians.  And the music in those concerts is made by young Canadians for whom the support of  Jeunesses Musicales makes an enormous difference.

I’m here because 22 years ago I was bass trombonist in a brass quintet called the Great Lakes Brass. We had a good thing going. We’d started as members of the National Youth Orchestra, and then we were out in the world, launching our touring career.  That meant in our first season we bagged a week-long tour in Nova Scotia, five weeks in B.C. and the Yukon and… um… an Easter gig in April.  If you’re counting, that leaves 46 weeks with nothing booked, and no place to rehearse.

Fortunately, somebody in the group knew about Jeunesses Musicales of Ontario. They found us a temporary rehearsal space, they gave us the chance to play for presenters, and from that we got an Ontario tour that, as I recall, meant I could spend another three months that year as a musician – to practice, to write arrangements, to learn about the business of running a career, to rehearse – instead working as a cook or a legal temp or a tour guide, or whatever else was going to be necessary to keep the wolf from the door.

We had a good run after that, and even though that particular group didn’t go on to a spectacular career, its musicians did: one, Guy Few, is a noted soloist on trumpet and piano (www.guyfew.com). Another, Mary Jay, plays in Stratford, and Rachel Thomas plays in Kitchener.

Not every musician, though, who goes through a program like Jeunesses Musicales ends up playing for their living.  Another alumnus of the group started a wonderful programme that pairs professional musicians with teenagers who are developmentally delayed, and for whom a weekly music session is sometimes the only meaningful communication in their lives. That is John Jowett, and his programme is Keys to the Studio (www.keystothestudio.com).  And yet another former member and this is telling is Lise Vaugeois, a doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto, studying Social Justice and Music Education.

So, the work being done by Jeunesses Musicales doesn’t only nurture musical talent – it nurtures a benevolent and caring and enlightened society. One wouldn’t think that a corruption-addled impoverished South American state would be able to compete with an secure and established nation like Canada on that front, but the right to the opportunity of a fulfilling life for each citizen, and the role of music in establishing that life, is something even the wealthiest country cannot afford to go without.

Tom Allen, host of Shift and Radio 2 Morning on CBC Radio 2tom-allen-photo


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