The words of George Balanchine, legendary ballet choreographer and founder of New York City Ballet, are known to lovers of the fine arts everywhere. They were supposedly spoken in response to Lincoln Kirstein’s question about whether George Balanchine would come to the United States to found a ballet company. First, Balanchine said, would come a school. He did just that, founding the School of American Ballet. Balanchine’s philosophy–his placement of an infrastructure for training and education above a professional organization–speaks to his values, and it is no accident that the massive ballet boom in the United States has George Balanchine’s stamp all over it.
It seems that classical music is taking a leaf from Balanchine’s book, and the Vancouver Symphony is among the latest to throw its hat into the educational ring. In what has to be one of the most welcome and optimistic news stories of the end of 2011, this past summer saw the opening of the Vancouver Symphony’s School of Music in downtown Vancouver, BC, and this year has seen a boom in music school enrollment in British Columbia itself. The VSO School, while not a training-ground for the VSO itself, is staffed by members of the orchestra: 30 out of 54 contracted staff members are full-time members of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. The school’s goal is to provide casual music training in the form of classes and private lessons to students of all ages and ability levels and to bolster the rate of musical instruction in the Vancouver area. The opening was much-anticipated, but the results of its first six months of enrollment are enough to warm the heart of even the most pessimistic of music pundits. The VSO’s School of Music quickly surpassed its goal of 300 students enrolled–accomplishing the goal in half the time they had allowed for it. Most heartening of all is perhaps the fact that fully one-third of the enrolled students are young children in the early development program, a figure that can only bode well for future generations of classical music lovers. Interestingly, another 40% of the enrolled students are senior citizens.
The VSO School of Music also offers distance-learning programs to reach students across Canada. Despite the ability to teach and effectively poach students from other provinces, the VSO School has not had an adverse effect on enrollment on music schools in the surrounding area. In fact, since the opening of the Symphony’s school, enrollment has been up for the 18 surrounding community music schools as well.
Most remarkable, though, is the spirit of cooperation between the community music schools in British Columbia and the well-being created by the environment. According to Shaun Taylor, executive director of the VSO school, all 18 community schools in the province remain in communication with each other about key issues. Executive director of the Vancouver Academy of Music Joseph Elworthy says of the arrangement, “We share so many things, starting with faculty members that teach at both schools. I’m a member of the VSO as well, so I think there definitely is a spirit of collaboration between us. For example, the Vancouver Bach Children’s Choir rehearses at both locations. There’s a lot of positive interaction between schools. There’s not reason to have any competition because we’re both here to stay. The city has proven, through its expansion and growth, that it can support more than one significant music schools.”
Also remarkable are the healthier changes in parents’ attitudes toward music learning. Ken Hsieh, director of the Vancouver Metropolitan Orchestra, spoke of the shift in emphasis that is currently taking place in the province’s prominent Asian-Canadian communities: “What I find very encouraging is that the second generation – my generation – is starting to have kids. The first generation was all about private one-on-one lessons. This second generation is more flexible, more open: They are encouraging their kids to learn music for the love of music, and the community school environment really helps.” Hsieh adds that as a child, he felt so much pressure in his music lessons that he was moved to quit altogether, and he cites community music schools as a gentler, lower-pressure solution that will keep children involved in music.
The music school environment in Vancouver is thriving, and it’s an exciting example for the rest of the world. Despite the predicted doom and gloom of the year 2012, it seems that there is still good news to be had, and the success of these schools ensures good years down the road as the children involved join the music community.