Performing arts give youth an edge in life

By Bonnie Van Toen

When Mark Johnston sits in his chair on a Saturday morning at the Ottawa Music Academy, it seems to swallow him up — even though it’s a kid-sized chair.

On this particular Saturday, his string ensemble is preparing for Discover the Arts, a free open house being held at the National Arts Centre from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on April 5. The Ottawa Music Academy is one of the hosts, along with the Ottawa School of Speech and Drama, the Ottawa School of Dance and the Ottawa School of Art.

The event is meant to showcase the benefits of arts education for children.

Johnston, a Grade 6 student at Mutchmor Public School, has been playing musical instruments for more than five years.

He started with the violin, but he also plays piano, sings in a choir and is part of an African drum/dance troupe.

On top of lessons and hours of practice, he composes music of his own.

“Most of (the pieces) are short, really short, like about a page,” says Johnston, sprawled on the couch of his Glebe living room. “But I’ve got about 300 or 200.”

His latest piece, inspired by van Gogh’s painting “Wheat Field with Crows,” is a modern-style strings composition. He’s performing TGIF, another piece he wrote, in the Kiwanis Music Festival.

Johnston already has quite a reputation, and a more impressive repertoire than many people twice his age.

But for him and most other arts students, the rewards of working in the arts are the same: social skills, teamwork and self-confidence.

Alexa Sulwnko, who attends Lisgar Collegiate, plays trombone in the academy’s junior youth orchestra, and hopes to one day become a lawyer.

“It gives you a really good ear,” she says, adding that’s a skill that is especially needed in law, along with teamwork and good social skills.

Sulwnko says music is hard work. Practice sessions can be long and can interfere with seeing friends. But she adds that she has made new friends through the orchestra.

“The worst part is not being able to sleep in on Saturday.”

For many of the students in the academy, the arts have opened doors. Students get to travel abroad for training or performances. For many the valuable experiences take place closer to home.

Paul Casey, who plans to be a musician one day, is part of the same strings ensemble as Johnston.
“I played at an old folks’ home and it’s really fun,” he said. “They’re just really nice at the old folks’ home and then they give you candy and stuff like that.”

Patricia Brawn’s son Matthew, who turns nine in April, has been a student at the Ottawa School of Speech and Drama for four years.

“What motivated me to enrol him in the first place was if he gained confidence, some skill in presenting himself and deportment, he would do well in life,” says Brawn.

She says the trick is to teach kids these skills while they are still young and impressionable.
It helps that Matthew is having a good time.

“We do lots of creative stuff like plays and stuff and act out,” he says. “I like acting ‘cause I get to act.”

Behind the fun and games, performing and practising teach confidence and self-expression to the students, say organizers.

“These are children who are able to speak up for themselves, courteously and articulately,” said Diana York, an office administrator at the OSSD.