Music as a bridge

During the community consultation that preceded the establishment of the Learning Exchange, several people in the Downtown Eastside suggested that UBC should organize free music concerts in the neighbourhood. To explore the feasibility of this idea, Shayne and I met with the Director of UBC’s School of Music. The Director was supportive of the idea but he was careful to point out that he had no money to contribute. He suggested we contact a particular student he had in mind who he thought might be interested in working with us. Shayne phoned the student and she seemed very keen to get involved.

But then Shayne did not hear from the student again. We learned later that one of the main power brokers in the Downtown Eastside had overheard the student at a post-opera reception talking about her interest in working with us. This man buttonholed the student and warned her against getting involved because, in his view, we did not know what we were doing. Fortunately, Shayne and the student later encountered each other by chance and talked again about what might be possible. The student’s enthusiasm overcame the gatekeeper’s warning.

Christmas concert in Oppenheimer Park

The first performance the student organized brought a small ensemble of her fellow students to play at an outdoor Christmas dinner. It was held at Oppenheimer Park, a one-block-long park with a baseball diamond, children’s playground, and grassy areas flanked by big trees. It has been revitalized in recent years, but for decades it was infamous for being a hang-out for drunks and drug users. Its name symbolized the worst of urban decay.

The dinner was sponsored by the local film industry which frequently uses the Downtown Eastside for film shoots, especially when grittiness is required. Huge trucks, legions of workers in fluorescent vests, and miles of electrical wiring are regular intrusions in the daily lives of Downtown Eastside residents. This free Christmas dinner with give-aways of blankets and clothes was organized as a way for the industry to “give back” to the community.

On the day of the event Vancouver’s December weather was its wintry worst. A sleety drizzle leaked from grey skies. Bone-chilling winds eddied around the tents that had been set up to cover the kitchen and eating areas. A steady stream of men and women slowly shuffled by the service tables. Most got their turkey dinner, found a seat, ate quickly and then left the park. The more motivated diners sifted through piles of free blankets and clothes, searching for a treasure.

After a while, the musicians arrived. They checked the sound system and tred to warm up their mouthpieces enough to coax out something akin to the desired sound. Then they took off their coats to reveal their tuxedos and ball gowns and took to the stage, a slightly raised platform off to one side of the main dining tent.

The student we were working with is a vibrant young woman with a practiced stage presence. Her passion for music and infectious laugh typically create an easy rapport with audiences. The student introduced herself and her ensemble and said how excited they were to be there to share the spirit of the holiday season. The five brass and woodwind players played popular Christmas carols as well as a few more serious pieces. The student did her best to get people laughing at her witticisms and singing along with the well-known carols. The audience response was muted. Most people attended to their food and nothing else.

I was struck by the contrast. On the stage was this small group of vibrant, extravagantly dressed, young people, bravely sharing their camaraderie and talent under adverse conditions. I worried about them catching colds. Sitting around the tables and milling about the park were shabbily dressed, solitary people, clearly not in their prime. I knew that for many, catching a cold was the least of their worries. They already had TB, hepatitis, HIV/AIDS or other chronic illnesses.

I stood on the sidelines, singing along and clapping enthusiastically at the appropriate times. I felt a strong personal connection to the idea that music was one uncomplicated thing that UBC could bring to the Downtown Eastside. Classical and other forms of music had been a powerful force in my life, a doorway to the divine since childhood. I had played piano, clarinet, and flute at various times (all badly). I had always been a dancer, untrained but exuberant. I believe that music is an equalizer, a bonding agent, and a source of healing.

I was sure that most residents in the Downtown Eastside did not have the means to attend mainstream music performances The idea of UBC hosting free concerts seemed to be a no-brainer. But was anyone here feeling uplifted, soothed, or part of the body of humanity? I did not see any evidence of this. What I saw were people preoccupied with getting some food in their bellies, maybe getting some free stuff if it was worth anything, and getting out of the cold.

All of this made sense when I thought about it. Who in their right mind would organize an outdoor, sit-down dinner in December in Canada, even in Vancouver? Why was the event not held indoors? Maybe the organizers calculated that they could feed more people if they did not pay to rent a hall. Or maybe they were trying to meet people where they were at—on the street. But would the film industry invite residents of the wealthier neighbourhoods they invaded to an open-air Christmas dinner? Why did I not think of this question before? And how did I feel about being part of this event? I certainly did not go home feeling warm and fuzzy. I felt distressed for reasons which I could not articulate. It dawned on me that nothing about UBC’s initiative was going to be uncomplicated.

If at first you don’t succeed . . .

But we were not ready to give up on the idea that music could be a bridge between the Downtown Eastside and UBC. The student organized another event, this one a trombone concert at Strathcona Elementary school. The whole school gathered in the auditorium. Hundreds of kids sat on the floor. Teachers and parents lined the walls. The small ensemble of UBC students played loud, rousing pieces which the kids loved. This was more what I was imagining—rapt attention, happy faces, people having an experience they would not otherwise have. The success of this event encouraged us to keep going. We organized more music concerts and began planning for a Music Appreciation 101 course.

Music Appreciation 101

The Music Appreciation course was modeled on the very successful Humanities 101 and Science 101 courses that UBC students in Arts and Science had started in 1998 and 1999 respectively.

Humanities 101 was inspired by a 1997 article in Harper’s by Earl Shorris which argued that poor people should have access to the classical canon of Western knowledge as a way of enhancing their capacity for citizenship. Poor people should not only be directed towards job and life skills training designed to make them more employable.

When we started Music 101, UBC’s Humanities 101 and Science 101 courses typically enrolled about 25 low-income people each year. The first few classes were held at the Carnegie Centre in the Downtown Eastside. Once students were comfortable with the format, the classes moved to the UBC campus. Participants were given vouchers for campus food outlets so they could eat dinner before the evening class. They were also given bus fare so they could get to and from the campus. Classes were taught by volunteer faculty and graduate students. Volunteer UBC students offered 1:1 assistance with assignments in weekly tutorial sessions. Participants were expected to complete regular assignments, but the courses were not graded. These courses provided barrier-free access to introductory level university instruction.

The Music 101 course used the same model. Our student organizer recruited a roster of UBC professors and students to give lectures. She arranged for the class to attend a schedule of concerts. We put up posters in the Downtown Eastside and organized introductory information sessions at the storefront. By September of 2001 we had our first group of 25 participants attending classes. The classes introduced different musical genres, gave an overview of historical trends in music, and refined participants’ ability to listen to different types of music with an informed ear.

Music Appreciation 101 carried on for a total of three years. In the third year, we collaborated with the Vancouver Public Library to hold five of the classes at the downtown branch of the library so we could open the classes to the public. About 200 people attended each one.

deer munching medWe sponsored four concerts every year. For example, in 2003, we organized a performance of Saint-Saens” Carnival of the Animals for 500 children at an East Vancouver elementary school. Prior to the performance, the children took part in a workshop where they drew pictures of animals, inspired by the music. During the actual performance, while the music was played, the children’s art work was displayed and stories about animals were told.

The student also initiated an annual Gamelan concert, featuring three local ensembles that play different styles of this indigenous music from Indonesia. The Indonesian consulate subsequently picked up on the idea and made it a tradition.

Assessing costs and benefits

Despite all the successes of Music 101 and the other music events that were organized, we decided to discontinue these efforts in 2004. There was no question that participants enjoyed the Music course and the concerts. As is the case with Humanities 101 and Science 101, some individuals derive important, even life-changing benefits through the 101 model. For example, I remember one Music 101 graduate, himself a musician, who said that the course had given him back his dreams.

But the model is a relatively expensive one, with a high cost per participant. After starting several 101 courses at the Learning Exchange, we realized there was an infinite number of 101s the university could offer. And while participants in the Music 101 course thoroughly enjoyed themselves, the course did not seem to build people’s capacity for critical thinking or increase their awareness of societal issues or inspire them to take a more active role in their community—all goals of the 101 model. Reluctantly, we decided not to continue offering 101 courses.

I still believed that music could serve as a unifying force. But something about what we were doing did not feel right. Yes, you could argue that it made perfect sense for the university to create spaces where its resources and expertise were offered freely to the community. But creating situations where people from UBC were the performers or experts and people from the Downtown Eastside were passive audience members did not sit well with me.

Developing the music programs was an important step for the Learning Exchange to take. We learned a lot about how to work with Downtown Eastside residents and with people from the university. More importantly, we learned that doing what was predictable and straightforward was not enough. I and others on the staff team believed that the Learning Exchange could and should be doing more. Doing the music programs and seeing them succeed gave us the confidence to keep pushing the boundaries.

For the next chapter in The Learning Exchange Story go to The first Reading Week Community Service Learning project.