Inner-city music program builds community of sound without common language

Story Take from CBC

When Neil Watson first started teaching music at Hugh John Macdonald School, the students struggled to play the simplest tunes.

Then Watson realized what was wrong: He was teaching from a book and using words to instruct his students, and they simply couldn't understand what he was saying because many of them didn't speak very much English.

"We abandoned that approach altogether and just decided to learn by doing, learn by ear," Watson said.

"Two months later, they're playing Superstition by Stevie Wonder like it's nothing. They're handling it perfectly."

The Bridge: Music Learning for Life is not only teaching music to kids who might not otherwise have an opportunity to attend lessons, but it's helping them build community and connections and find positive ways to express themselves.

The Bridge is a University of Manitoba faculty of music program that helps at-risk and low-income children get extracurricular music education at Hugh John Macdonald School. Watson has been its program director for six years.

There are 80 to 90 kids in the program at the Grade 7-9 school in Winnipeg's West Alexander neighbourhood, which has a student population of just under 300.

"We have kids from all over the globe speaking tons of different languages," Watson said.

They now have a language in common, though — music. A cacophony of piano, horns, guitars and drums reverberates out of the school library as students practice during the lunch hour.

Hugh John Macdonald principal Vinh Huynh says the program benefits the community the students live in.

"We offer the program again and again so our students can have that sense of belonging in the community — of students and staff who love music," he said.

"You can't start belonging until you feel a sense of belonging."

They also learn to deal with their problems, Watson said.

One of the kids he taught habitually cut herself as what Watson called a "cry for help."

She learned to sing and it helped her deal with her emotions and curb her cutting, he said. She's graduated but she still sings and she recently posted on social media that it's been five years since she last self-harmed.

"It's more than just the 12 notes on the scale," Watson said about the lessons.

In fact, he has learned from the community he's teaching.

He now thinks music should always be taught by focusing on the rhythm instead of the notes — the students start playing music faster than if they learn from a book.