Singer Sarah McLachlan helps bring harmony to childhood.
t is not always the case that someone with the voice of an angel has an angelic perspective on life. But with Canada’s favourite chanteuse Sarah McLachlan, the symmetry is complete. Today, she is helping others to find their voice by providing free music education.
ECHOES OF CHILDHOOD
Through her storied career, McLachlan carried the memory of how music writing and performance was her safe place in childhood. Coming up for air after her groundbreaking Lilith Fair concert tours, McLachlan was aware of music programs being slashed by school boards. She was looking for a way to bring more children into her safe space.
In a warehouse in East Van, she created the no-cost Sarah McLachlan School of Music (SOM) — which has gone on to bring hope to so many vulnerable young people in Vancouver, Surrey and Edmonton. This year, 1,000 kids will experience the transformative impact of music lessons.
MUSIC FOR YOUTH
Around the world, doctors are beginning to prescribe music-making as a socially therapeutic treatment; SOM has been ahead of that curve for almost 20 years. Haute spoke to Jen Rose, Executive Director, and began by asking her what makes SOM so effective.
The first thing to get straight is that SOM is very far removed from an elite music school or conservatory.
“While we do have students who end up studying at the Grade 10 RCM-level and are extraordinary musicians, we really focus on community and allowing the students to choose their own goals,” says Rose.
“Our program is based on group music-making which makes us very unique. Other programs haven’t really cracked the code on how to have kids at a bunch of different levels, interests and ages in the same group class. And we have. We have some really beautiful big group classes Grade 4 to Grade 12: samba-afro drum troupe, musical theatre, music production for songwriters, and hip-hop.”
GROWING A MUSICAL COMMUNITY
The effect on kids is remarkable. Right now, for example, there’s a student who has been homeless for over a year. She comes twice a week to SOM even though she won’t go to conventional school. SOM is the only place that she’s connected to — it’s nothing short of a lifeline. So how do kids and parents find out about SOM?
“We started in East Van back in 2002 in a warehouse on 7th and Main. Those local schools were our demographic — so we just invited everybody from those schools because of the neighbourhood they lived in. Over ten years that changed. In 2011, the Wolverton Foundation gifted us 16,000 square feet: a brand-new space that was retrofitted for all of our needs,”
“We quickly started to see that if we were going to grow into that space, we needed to put more thought into how we were going to meet our mission. Because Sarah was adamant it wasn’t just music lessons for free; it was music for kids who needed it most.”
“We recognized that we needed to make a shift and to form partnerships with social and youth workers, psychologists — anybody who was already working with those vulnerable kids. The support we’ve received from those people is amazing — they are basically community heroes. They’ll volunteer their time to ensure a child will be successful in another program. So we set up partnerships with over 35 other community organizations. We don’t advertise. It’s all through networks.”
So why does music have such a powerful effect on children going through tough times?
“When you’re playing music with others, you’re activating all of the skill sets that are positive for mental wellbeing, active listening, participating, breathing — all the things that naturally connect us with ourselves and others,” explains Rose.
“Our staff are so incredible; they take groups of kids and arrange parts on the fly for each student to be just challenging enough to unlock access to creative flow.”
THE MUSICAL MIND
“We are currently embarking on a partnership with the University of Ottawa Music & Health Research Institute who will assist with researching our outcomes. What we see is that there’s a real healing connection point for kids who are struggling. Aside from sports, music is most young people’s favourite pastime but we’re trying to evaluate exactly why that is — it’s an innovative field. We’re constantly searching for that data.”
There’s the potential to build a national network of music schools so that the success of SOM can be shared all across Canada. Here’s hoping that every community that needs a SOM gets one in the years to come. As Vancouverites, we can help by supporting SOM’s fundraising efforts — and maybe putting Sarah McLachlan’s greatest hits on a Spotify loop wouldn’t do us any harm either.
Photo credits: Hyphen Communications