Will instrumental music rise from the ashes?

By Dave Babbitt – Special to the Sydenham Current

This week, I hope to provide some hope and make you smile.

This is not about the Wallaceburg Concert Band, but it starts there.

We used to rehearse in my former music room at WDSS.

Most locals know the story of what happened next.

Someone at the Board level decided to raise what was formerly the music room and turn it into what is now referred to as “The Hub”.

The room was intended to offer an after-school program operated by the YMCA.

(Have you heard of it yet?)

This decision forced our WCB out of WDSS as there were no other suitable rooms for us to rehearse in.

We have since landed in a much better place and that part of the story has had a happy ending.

Back when the WCB first started, Rob Lee helped us negotiate a 3-year agreement with the LKDSB, to temporarily use the no-longer needed instruments.

This would allow our fledgling organization to get a running start while we searched for funds to purchase our own instruments.

The agreement bought us some time.

The agreement was a win-win situation.

It was a win for us because we could offer large, expensive instruments that were beyond our ability to purchase at the time and was a win for the LKDSB because we agreed to maintain the instruments and most importantly, use them.

When instruments are unused, pistons seize, tuning slides freeze, the adhesive holding pads in-place dries and they start to fall out, and corks shrink from lack of moisture.

But we used them, keeping them in playing condition.

Once our 3-year agreement concluded, the then Principal demanded that all instruments be returned, just as we were about to attempt to negotiate an extension of the use agreement.

Even though there was no need for their return, we gathered the instruments and returned them.

Since then, the instruments have been stored in cupboards, largely unused.

Many of these instruments that had become part of my music program before I retired had come from what was left from the once very proud instrumental music program at W.T. Laing.

While there were several music instructors at Laing over the years, Barry Betts had the longest tenure and turned out amazing young musicians who fed my music program at WDSS for many years.

In following the instruments, after Barry left W.T. Laing and its subsequent closing, the instruments were shipped to A.A. Wright.

A former Principal did not appreciate the instrumental music program, the costs associated with running it, nor the problems of instrument storage and lack of a practice space that didn’t affect the rest of the school when all of those noise makers fired-up!

The result was that the instruments were eventually given to me at the high school and instrumental music ceased at the elementary level.

All of these instruments have been sitting unused for 6 years now, at least in an instructional sense.

Until this year.

Leanne Carpentier originally from Wallaceburg, had been teaching in the Hamilton-Wentworth School Board for several years and returned to Wallaceburg.

Leanne’s own children attended school there of course where she said every child from grade 6 and up took part in an instrumental music program.

Upon her return to Wallaceburg, she was hired to teach at the Grade 7/8 level at WDSS including teaching all elementary music.

Leanne is an accomplished musician herself, so one can only imagine the disappointment in finding out that there are no instrumental music programs at all at WDSS, nor at other public elementary schools in our area.

Coming from an arts-rich school system, this lack of opportunity for her own children to take part in an instrumental program let alone every other child she teaches bothered her greatly.

In 1998, the province of Ontario wrested control of education funding from local school boards with the purpose of eliminating the inequities created between the “have” counties with their massively rich industrial and corporate headquarter tax-base, and the “have-not” counties such as the LKDSB and its much smaller rural tax-base.

This begs the question “why can other Boards of Education offer well-funded music programs, but we cannot”?

Music being a passion for Leanne required her to attempt to do something about the situation.

She has dug into the cupboards of the long-neglected instruments at WDSS and is attempting to get an instrumental music program up and running again!

Being experienced in that task, I can say that I empathize with just how difficult it is to build a program from nothing.

But Leanne is facing the task head-on with determination.

Let it be known that there are great hurdles to overcome as she tackles this void.

I must first give kudos to WDSS Principal Jeremy Gower for his moral support of Leanne’s quest.

The big problem however is that he has no funds to support a music program.

Schools operate on a budget, and not having an instrumental music program in the school since 2015, that budget line no longer exists.

There aren’t even funds to repair what is already owned let alone purchase newer instruments.

There are instruments in need of a visit to a music instrument repair shop to return them to good playing condition.

Clarinets and saxophones need reeds to play on.

Even though instruments need to be shared, at the very least each musician deserves to have their own mouthpiece for sanitary reasons.

And there are other costs associated with running an instrumental music program.

Is it worth all that investment? You bet it is!

It’s not an investment in instruments and supplies, however.

It’s an investment in children.

It’s about providing meaningful, life-long opportunities for our young people.

It’s about the arts and the creative process all students should have the right to pursue.

When former WDSS football coach Rob McLachlin put out a cry for help last weekend to purchase football helmets so that the program doesn’t have to be shuttered, over $13,000 was raised within 24 hours!

Kudos to this community and graduates for stepping up!

Could, or should something like this happen to help get Leanne’s music program up and running smoothly?

Many will suggest that the Board should be funding this as the arts are part of the curriculum, while football is an extra-curricular voluntary activity.

I can’t argue with that.

But there is another major problem that has reared its ugly head in Leanne’s attempt to get a program up and running again.

There is no proper room to offer instrumental music in.

Recall that the former music room was gutted.

(1.8 million dollars worth of renovations I’ve been told!)

There are multiple closed classrooms about the school, but all are within earshot of academic classrooms, and the noise generated by a few dozen wind instruments is extremely disruptive.

It’s not that I didn’t warn of that potential problem if instrumental music was ever reinstated.

The former music room was in an area that did not disrupt other classes.

Principal Gower is doing his best to find a suitable location within the school to hold music classes but it’s not a problem that is easily solved.

In spite of the major obstacles that stand in the way of seeing instrumental music make a comeback for our local students, Leanne has such a positive spirit and is determined to bring back music opportunities for our kids.

Will instrumental music rise from the ashes?

Let’s hope so, because our WCB has proven the need for it!

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