Music teacher wants high school students to let loose

Three Toronto high school’s are expanding their concert musical programs into uncharted – and unscripted – territory.

Under the guidance of 22-year-old Toronto musician, teacher and entrepreneur Mitch Wong, students at De La Salle College, University of Toronto Schools and St. Clement’s School are learning how to jam.

Unlike traditional conservatory-based programs, which are based on composition and performance, Wong puts an emphasis on spontaneous collaboration, improvisation, and creative expression.

“Jamming is such a fun thing to do, it’s so easy to do,” Wong said. “Its just a matter of giving (students) a course, taking them by the hand and showing them how to do it, and then let them free – let them play!”

The three private school each ran distinct pilot versions of Wong’s Music As a Second Language class during the past academic year, allowing Wong to fine tune the program; he’s hoping to gauge the interest of larger, public school boards such as the TSDB.

The public board is no stranger to innovation. It currently boasts 19 alternative elementary schools and 22 alternative secondary schools, several of which have a focus on the arts.

UTS music teacher Ronald Royer said there’s “a real need” for more creativity in the music curriculum. He handed control of his music class over to Wong for one period a week during the spring term and said that there’s been a positive effect on each and every student’s performance.

But despite the promise, Royer notes that resources and funding for new pilot projects in the public sector are limited. “Getting them logistically to work it all out,” Royer said, “I think is the biggest hurdle.”

Offering the jamming classes to students in high school, Wong says, will hopefully inspire them to think the possibilities for making music differently.

“Jamming usually happens with a guitar, a bass, drums, maybe a piano…very rarely in that group will you see a saxophone player or a clarinet player.”

At De La Salle College, meanwhile, only three students were selected to take Wong’s program as an enrichment experience, and only two of them agreed to give it a shot.

Sixteen-year-olds Johnathan Chan and Alethea Song are already practising upwards of six-hours a week as part of their intensive musical regimes. Despite their rigorous training, they agree that the program offers them a new way experience music.

“Its different than just playing notes on a page,” Johnathan said.

Wong has also volunteered to teach the program on Saturday mornings at Regent Park School of Music but the school’s director, Richard Marsella, is hesitant to confirm the program will proceed.

The board of directors at RPMS has been unwilling to accept volunteer teaching staff, Marsella said, and is still finalizing the year’s budget.

“We value to work of our educators,” he said, “and we think it’s important to ensure a standard (by paying them.)…We work with volunteers in so many other ways, but we don’t encourage volunteer teaching.”

Marsella did say that he was thoroughly impressed by Wong’s program, and that “there’s a definite interest.”

In the meantime, Wong is planning to open a studio in midtown Toronto in September, where he can try out the teaching approach with members of the general public.

“This is the heart and soul of music,” he insists. “I would like to see this is wide spread as possible.”

To hear Mitch Wong’s thoughts on the program and the sound of a live lesson at De La Salle, listen to the audio clip below.

Mitch Wong at De La Salle College, April 2010.


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