There is mounting scientific evidence to substantiate what just about everyone who has studied music knows to be true, that making music makes a difference to the quality of one’s life. Studies now abound indicating that playing an instrument causes the cerebellum to develop in ways that it just doesn’t in the absence of music, that music makes us more intelligent, prevents the deterioration of mental functions in the elderly and that it makes a difference in the way we relate to one another.

“If you put an instrument in the hands of a child, he will never pick up a gun,” said Dr. José Antonio Abreu, founder, El Sistema.

1904 - seeing orangeI am reminded of one Valent Lesso, a multi-talented Toronto musician who traded his violin in for a handgun at a pawn shop, changed his name to Steve Suchan and joined the notorious Boyd gang around 1950. He subsequently shot and killed a Toronto policeman. It seems Suchan’s need to belong to a gang outweighed his love of music.

This need to belong is central to the thinking behind El Sistema, the ensemble-based music instruction method developed in Venezuela by Abreu. It is significant that El Sistema rejects the “traditional” method of one-on-one instruction and daily solitary practice, in favour of group instruction five days a week for three hours. Co-operation, collaboration and mutual support are front and centre in the method.

El Sistema’s most tangible goal is to train musicians. To say that it has been successful in this endeavour is an understatement: Gustavo Dudamel, a graduate of the program and now the conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, is only one of many examples of this success. Its mission, however, goes well beyond this goal. Sistema Toronto’s mission, for example, is “to build and sustain an intensive social program ... to inspire children at risk to realize their full potential as students, musicians and citizens.” In Abreu’s words, “The huge spiritual world that music produces in itself overcomes material poverty. From the minute a child is taught how to play an instrument, he or she is no longer poor.” El Sistema sees itself not primarily as a music program but as a social development program that uses music as a way of transforming children by teaching them the habits, attitudes and practices of people who lead fulfilling and successful lives.

Abreu was awarded the Glenn Gould Prize in 2009. A little less than two years later, in September 2011, the fledgling El Sistema Toronto began its first classes.

New Horizons: Although music education in Ontario public elementary and secondary schools has generally lacked the intensity of El Sistema’s three hours a day it used to have a profound effect on many who experienced it. Out of this past success a new and equally remarkable musical enterprise has come into existence, the New Horizons Band program, under the direction of retired music teacher, Dan Kapp, now in its fourth year at Long and McQuade’s Bloor Street complex. The concept, Kapp told me, is “a safe group environment where mature/retired adults can come to learn to play a musical instrument for the first time or reconnect with one they haven’t played in decades.” With bands at three different levels, ranging from absolute beginners to advanced players, the average age is about 60, with members as young as 36 and as old as 90. What motivates them to participate, according to Kapp, is “their love of playing music in a band,” going back decades to their “fond memories of band in high school, the excitement of performing, travelling, close friends and the sense of accomplishment when you get a hard passage under your fingers.”

“Playing a musical instrument is one of the very few things you can do that engages the whole mind at one time. It involves and develops memory, problem-solving, physical co-ordination, gross and fine motor skills, muscle use, lung capacity, mental focus/attention span and self-discipline. It also addresses the need to care for our emotional well-being, self-esteem, self-worth, and social interactions with friends who genuinely care for you.” Many of the mature adults in Dan’s bands acquired skills and habits in high school band classes that have helped them throughout their lives. They are participating in his programs in order to continue to develop those skills and habits. It’s too late for Steve Suchan, but if you’re reading this, it’s not too late for you!

So the New Horizons program grows and thrives: “In the short term we are making sure the program is addressing the needs and expectations of our members, so that the NHB remains an exciting and welcoming place to make music. In the mid-term we are planning a big trip to Europe for the summer of 2015 and the long-term goal is to stabilize the program at seven bands. Perhaps, somehow, a fourth goal could be to make the public aware of the value of music as a part of every child’s education.

Because while the evidence grows that music has an important role to play in the development of the mind, music programs in our schools continue to be cut, with the support of an administration and populace woefully out of touch with the facts. It looks as if you can either have music or “special education,” and if you don’t have the former then you will need the latter.

What, I asked, can be done to “stop the rot” in public school music education? The attitude that needs to be changed, Dan observed, held both by parents and educational administrators, is that “it’s just music,” and it’s not important. He was once told that his weekly time with his grade 7 and 8 music classes was being rolled back because “they were getting too much music.”

Dan thinks the only thing that can stop the erosion of school music programs is parents. Only when they see that the lack of music in the school system is hurting their kids in the long term and only if they demand its restoration, will anything happen.

The truth of Dan’s observation has already been noted in September’s “Education Watch” when a June groundswell of community murmuring stopped the Toronto District School Board from cutting funding for itinerant music teachers. One powerful voice was that of the Coalition for Music Education. The article quotes from the Coalition’s public statement opposing the proposed cuts. (Read it online at thewholenote.com, or on page 57 of the September issue).

But there is much each of us can do to make a difference to the state of music education. The coalition’s website (musicmakesus.ca) offers resources to support the cause. There’s an advocacy video, a message which can be printed in concert programs (or in music magazines), an order form for program inserts, a page where you can sign up as a supporter, an invitation to apply to serve on the board of directors of the organization, and much more.

So please, don’t just read this. Go to the Coalition’s website and get yourself up to speed on the state of music in the public education system.

And while you’re at your computer vote for El Sistema Toronto’s bid for the Aviva Community Fund. And then vote every day, for 10 days. It takes minutes. Together we can make a difference. 

SISTEMA TORONTO IS COMPETING in the Aviva Community Fund, an annual competition in which several charities and community groups across Canada share in a $1 million prize. Sistema is in the running for $150,000, which would be a major boost in its efforts to sustain its two current “Playing to Potential” programs, and to expand them to other GTA neighbourhoods. Winning the award is determined by popular support from voting online from December 2 to 11. Anyone can vote by going to the main Aviva Community Fund webpage. You’ll need Sistema’s contest code which is ACF16874. Each voter gets ten votes – one for each day of the campaign – so voting every day is essential. Voting ends at 12:00 midnight on December 11.

Allan Pulker is chairman of the board of The Wholenote.

61-63-seeing-orange-cartoon-3315In march this year we published our first “Orange Pages” directory” — a collection of profiles written by private music teachers, community music schools and summer music programs of various kinds. Their goals and ours were, and remain, the same — to put music teachers with something to offer in touch with prospective students wanting to learn. The grand vision, of course, would be to come up with a resource that would do for lifelong music learning what our concert listings do for the live music scene — a “one stop shopping” destination in the quest for a music teacher or school.

A grand vision indeed, but the reality is that even the grandest edifices are constructed brick by brick. There is no short cut to what we are trying to do. We realized early on that profiles wrfitten by the teachers are only part of the answer — that what is also needed is some way of gathering comparable data from all the participants —
so that someone looking for a teacher can go online and find a teacher in a specific town or in a particular area of music.

A dear friend of The WholeNote, a retired music professor, helped us draft questionnaires for various kinds of music teaching — private, community-based, fulltime — and, once again, as the saying goes, we were “good to go.” All we had to do was put the survey up on our website and, presto, there would be our hoped for panoramic vista of all the educational possibilities out there.

Or would it? We took the precaution of running our draft questionnaires by a cross-section of active music teachers and educators.Were we asking the right questions or not? What others might we ask? We asked for feedback and, boy, did we get it!!!!

“The whole premise of these number-crunching questionnaires seems all wrong to me ...”; “I would certainly never take part in it, and I consider myself one of the best independent teachers in town”; “Perhaps examples would help generate responses”; “The queries seem far too intrusive for the typical private music teacher to care to answer” were some of the more extreme, along with a host of really practical suggestions, seeing the usefulness of what we were hoping to do, and how to improve it.

One response though seemed to hit the nail on the head:

“None of the questions I see tells me anything about the potential studio teacher/music student relationship or philosophy, and that’s really all that matters in choosing a teacher.”

The central issue is that studying music is all about the relationship between teacher and student, and this was the fundamental difference between our idea for an Orange Pages directory of music schools and teachers and some of our other directories.

Letting the teacher or school say what they like about themselves is clearly not enough. Trying to turn them into ciphers on a questionnaire (“like the long-form census” as one exasperated commentator put it) is not the whole answer either. But somewhere in between there’s still, we think, a useful role for us to play — a way of gathering and correlating information so that the searching student can compare “oranges to oranges,” in the search for the right teacher — while at the same time giving individual teachers the opportunity to give voice to the things they most prize and value; to say in their own words what they believe they have to offer.

All the private teachers and community-based music schools who participated in our March 2013 Orange pages are represented by a single “brick” in the wall that lines these three pages. If you imagine this wall growing, brick by brick, into the “grand edifice” I alluded to earlier, it’s not hard to see how overwhelming that wall of information would become. So somewhere in the not too distant future, as the wall grows, brick by brick, we need to figure out exactly how to arrange things so that if you “click a brick” it becomes a window into what some individual teacher or school has to offer; and that you have ways of sorting out which bricks to click in the search for that one teacher who is right for you.

Meanwhile, in the midst of all these realizations and revelations, we recognized that so far we have left out of the equation the most important player in the quest for the right teacher or school — you, the reader who is looking for opportunities to deepen the place of music in your life or the life of someone close to you. Maybe the way to the “right questions” for teachers is via the questions that you, the prospective student, would like the answers to.

So, please, go to our website (TheWholeNote.com/OrangeSurvey) and participate. You will be able to rank the importance of the questions we have already thought of. You will be able to add questions of your own that you think teachers and prospective students should ask of each other and themselves. And most important of all you will be able simply to say what you think of all this; how you think we can best be of help to you in finding the right teacher or teachers for your personal musical needs and desires. 

Allan Pulker is chairman of the board of The WholeNote.

Tale Of A Lively “Like”

57-seeingorange music-belongs-in-public-schoolsThe WholeNote posted the accompanying poster, advocating music in public schools, on our Facebook page last March 19, with a suggestion that our friends “share the post if you agree.” We were expecting a decent response — after all, what’s not to “like” about that? But the actual response was jaw-dropping: 41,233 “shares” (and still counting); well over 1 million views across the English-speaking world as far away as Australia and New Zealand — five cities with more than 200,000 views — Los Angeles and Toronto neck-and-neck for the lead. The response, and the hundreds of comments that came with it, reveal the passion behind the issue of music education and opened our eyes to the potential to harness the power of social and new media to the cause of music education in Canada, the U.S. and beyond.

RANDOM STATS

If you google “music belongs in public schools,” 700 million results appear in 0.17 seconds. If you search on bing.com, you will be presented with 80.4 million links.

Reprieve for TDSB music programs

57 photo2It took one such groundswell of community murmuring back in June to stop the Toronto District School Board from cutting funding for itinerant music teachers from its budget for the school year about to start. One powerful voice among the many was that of the Coalition for Music Education (musicmakesus.ca), tireless advocates for the necessity of music in a rounded education. It’s worth quoting from their public statement, issued as the crucial TDSB trustee meeting loomed.

“The Coalition for Music Education, Music Canada and MusiCounts [music education charity associated with CARAS] believe in the importance of music education for all young people in schools. We are joining our voices together to urge the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) to keep providing a comprehensive education that includes quality music instruction for all students, taught by individuals with a background and training in music. Research has proven that music education provides far-reaching benefits to the lives of young Canadians, to our communities and to our culture. We believe that decisions minimizing any aspect of the TDSB’s music program will have a long-term negative impact on the lives of Toronto students and on the community.

Music is essential to education and to life.

Music education:

57 photo◆ teaches students to think creatively and critically,

◆ develops skills that are essential in the 21st century workforce,

◆ opens students’ minds to diverse perspectives and thinking,

◆ bridges languages, cultures and generations,

◆ unites us through shared experiences,

enriches our sense of beauty and imagination, and

◆ supports student success.”

As stated earlier, sometimes it helps to make music, and sometimes it helps to make noise! Two days later the TDSB voted, for now, to keep its music programs alive.

INTERNET RESOURCES

The Children’s Music Workshop website has a wealth of material (childrensmusicworkshop.com/advocacy): articles such as “When to Start Playing,” “Playing Music Tunes the Brain” and “Music and Young Minds,” and many other resources such as Music Links. One click on that button will open up a vast world of educational institutions, journals and magazines, and articles on various musical instruments.

The International Society for Music Education is gearing up for the 31st world conference on music education to be held in Porto Alegre, Brazil, next year. Their website (isme.org) provides links and bookmarks of interest as well as an advocacy quotient. 

Send ideas and links to education@thewholenote.com.

orange pages coverDear David,

Congratulations on breaking through the “Education Barrier” at last! The inaugural version of the Orange Pages in your March 2013 issue is a long-awaited step forward for your magazine, and for all of us in the GTA who have come to depend on its monthly calendar of musical events. Great to see the less glamorous but still essential activities of teaching and learning finally represented — so readably, and nicely illustrated too — as an integral part of The WholeNote.

Almost every one of your readers, I would bet, is involved somehow or other in music education. These days, most working musicians, whatever their specialty, probably derive at least part of their livelihood from giving music lessons; while the number of publicly or privately supported schools offering music instruction in every corner of the GTA seems to increase each year. Anyone attempting an exhaustive catalogue of musical training opportunities here would probably need a whole volume of orange-hued issues to cover them all.

Read more: Brave New Whirl - A Letter to the Publisher, The WholeNote Magazine

A trio of computing innovations (and tumbling prices for these innovations) has assembled, ladies and gentlemen, and desktops and laptops are poised to become a primary music source for discriminating listeners.

First, much more space for storage at much lower cost is now available on hard disks that run faster and quieter.

Second, that information can now be drawn into computer chips that: gobble up bigger chunks of audio information at higher speeds; get their directions from increasingly sophisticated, user-friendly software; and run in rigs that draw off considerable electronic heat without making a racket.

Third, affordable external “DACs” (digital-to-analogue converters), that can be plugged into computers without fiddling about and tearing of hair, are now available. This means victory over the electrical impulses and vibrations which take place within computer cases and create a poor environment to go about the task of converting discrete digital signals of 1 or 0 into analogue electrical waves that produce analogue physical waves for the human ear.

Let’s start with the storage challenge, which has been handily met. For under $150, we can now get a quiet 1 Tb external hard drive that spins at 7200 rpm, and cools itself without recourse to a noisy fan.

That’s what I paid after walking around the corner to a good local computer shop; choosing a fanless Vantec external hard drive case that had a fast Firewire 800 connection for my Mac, and an even faster eSata connection for my Windows machine. I then got whatever high quality drive was on sale that week, and popped the case open to insert the drive.

That 1 Tb capacity translates into roughly 1400 CDs in full fidelity sound contained in a gadget that’s smaller than the average hard cover book!  Make that 2800 albums if the files are stored in a format like Apple Lossless or FLAC (Free Audio Lossless Codec) that uses computational techniques to cut file size in half without sacrificing one bit of sound.  (For comparison, you could get more than 10,000 albums on that same hard disk if all you want is anti-hifi, highly compressed and sonically impoverished MP3s.)

But move over, iPod.  We’re in another world here. Who needs 10,000 MP3s? Even with “only” 2,800 albums on the drive, if you got a full-time job to listen to them all, 8 hours a day for seven days a week, and no vacation to boot, it would take you a year to get through all this music.  And by that time your employer would hand you a new hard disk with double the capacity for the same price, and tell you to report back in two years!

So what’s the value of having so much music to listen to, or a single hard disk that holds more music that most people can afford to buy in a lifetime?  One example that comes to mind is an aspiring opera singer, or a serious listener preparing to attend a live opera performance. One can invoke software options creating a playlist of the top recordings of a given aria, rather than finding and then loading and unloading ten CDs. Or one can rapidly compare how a Mozart concerto sounds when played on the pianos available to the composer in the later eighteenth century, vs. the sound of the metal-framed behemoths that were created during the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century.

The possibilities and pleasures are legion.

Since few people have the means to buy all the recordings that can fit on ever-larger hard disks, the eventual solution will probably be subscription services that put recordings on subscribers’ hard disks, but render the files unplayable if the subscription is dropped.

A final note on hard disk music libraries: for times out of the office, I also selected a smaller fanless hard drive case that uses 2.5” notebook drives as opposed to the 3.5’ drives used in desktops.  This time I used mail order to get an especially robust case from Other World Computing.

Moving now to the second dimension, decoding, there are ads in every weekend’s papers offering computers yielding ever more clout for fewer bucks. The threshhold for decoding full-fidelity audio files without splutters was reached a while ago. Now the challenge is playing HD video and high definition audio minus burps. That currently requires discrete graphics and audio cards, with their own chips and memory, to take over intensive AV work from the computer’s main chip.

The third dimension of audiophile computing, affordably converting digital signals to analogue electrical waves outside the computer case, has gained critical mass during the past two years. Headroom’s “Total Bithead,” one of the best bargains, period, in quality audio, is a solution that I’ve  tested over the last six months.  Roughly $200 gets you a combined external DAC and headphone amplifier.  When the Total Bithead is plugged into the USB port of a computer, it’s powered by the computer as well as bypassing the computer’s sound card to draw direct digital information  If you plug an iPod or other player into the Bithead, it runs on battery power. As you can see from the photo of the Total Bithead juxtaposed with the cover of the Virgin Classics DVD of Stravinsky’s Le Rossignol, the combination DAC/AMP is just about the same size as an iPod Classic.

I plugged a pair of Grado SR125 headphones into the Bithead. They cost about the same as the DAC/AMP. For equivalent quality sound from standard amps and speakers, you’d have to spend at least five times as much to get the same accurate, uncoloured sound suitable for reviewing CDs.  Plus the Total Bithead and SR125’s weigh in together at under one pound, and fit comfortably into a laptop case.

DAC processing seems, at first, to be a straightforward affair:  engineers move processing outside the computer’s electrically and mechanically noisy innards to an external box.

In fact, doing this right is the opposite of easy, especially if one is trying to come up with a product that mere mortals can afford.  You have hundreds of thousands of rapidly flowing on-and-off electrical signals that have to be decoded into continuous electrical waves.  On the receiving side, decoding must be tightly coordination with the signal source.

If that coordination is just slightly off kilter, you get, literally, the jitters: microscopic gaps in timing between source playback and DAC translation that are leveraged into larger disjuncts that muck up sound quality.

The Total Bithead does the basic digital translation amd signal coordination job very well indeed. It stays within standard “Redbook” parameters: 16 bits of sound information sampled at 44 Khz per second.  More advanced DACs impute greater depth (more bits in samples) or higher sampling rates to smooth out the sounds, or work directly with newer high definition recordings.

The Total Bithead, combined with quality headphones, has more than sufficient capacity to give a sonically accurate, transparent and pleasurable reading of standard CDs and DVDs.  I literally don’t leave home without it.

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