Ottawa Symphony reaches out to young people

By Diana HarT

The Ottawa Symphony Orchestra took time out of its busy schedule to play a series of special shows for some of its youngest new fans.

Late last month, in the old Ottawa Technical High School’s auditorium on Albert Street, some of the city’s best musicians gave five performances to over 4,000 fifth and sixth graders from across Ottawa as part of its Symphony For Schools program.

The seven-year-old program, in which the orchestra introduces instruments to students, is growing.

Originally, there was only a spring performance, which exposed fifth-grade students to string instruments. This is the second year the students, now in the sixth grade, were invited back for a fall show to learn about woodwind and brass instruments.

Ottawa Symphony Orchestra music director David Currie, who helped start the program, conducted the orchestra for the performances.

He showed students what each instrument sounded like, using some familiar songs including the theme from the Pink Panther, which had students giggling and snapping along to the beat.

Currie says reaching out to young people is an important role of the orchestra.

“I see anyone in the arts as being an educator,” he says. “If you don’t bring this to kids, you are never going to have an audience in the future.”

Each school was invited to attend the free concerts. The concerts were sponsored by the Anonymous Foundation, EDS Canada, and several private donors.

Currie says the program ensures the city’s underprivileged kids will not miss out.

“You are not going to have equal access if a kid has to pay 10 bucks and doesn’t have 10 bucks, then the poorer schools aren’t going to come,” he says.

He says the orchestra is especially trying to bring the program to students who are new immigrants to Canada and students from low economic backgrounds.

This outreach to all Ottawa students is why Cheryl Potvin, a sixth grade teacher at Roch Carrier Elementary School in Kanata, says the program is special. She says it was a chance for kids to experience something they may have never seen before.

“A lot of the kids don’t have the opportunity to go to the symphony,” she says. “Their parents are busy or they may have other activities or they may not be able to afford it.”

She says that although the classical music the symphony played was new to most of her students, they seemed to love learning about a new kind of music.

“Some of them love it right away,” she says. “For others, classical music is going to be an acquired taste, but we want them to acquire it at a young age.”

This was the second Symphony for Schools’ concert for Susan Morris, an oboe player who has played with the orchestra for the past 20 years. She says the program’s two concerts help students connect with the orchestra.

“It’s great how kids get to see the string instruments in the spring and then they’re back in the fall for the wind and brass,” Morris says. “It gives them a whole picture of an orchestra, but not all at once so they’re not overwhelmed with information.”

Currie says he hopes to give the students a fuller picture of the orchestra.

He says if they are able to get enough sponsors, he wants to add a third performance in the spring to show students the orchestra’s percussion section. He adds three shows would give the students a good basic understanding of the orchestra.

Currie says with the commercial music kids are exposed to daily, it is important to show them a classical musical alternative.

“If you offer people junk food, they’ll eat junk food,” he says. “But if you offer them nutritious, delicious wonderful things, then they’ll opt for it. It’s the same way with music.”

The performance helped inspire the curiosity of several students at the concerts, with many coming to the front of the stage to ask Currie questions, like how they could become conductors.

At the end of the Tuesday morning concert, Cole, a sixth grade student from Evelyn Alternative School, was pulled up on stage to conduct the orchestra.

He says though he was surprised, he had a great time.

“That was so fun. I got to wave the stick around and everything.”