A few days ago, one of my colleagues recalled the occasion, over a decade ago, when she first heard our Grade Five string orchestra perform. She had come from Ontario, and schools like ours were not new to her. Listening to these boys and girls play – most of whom had had perhaps a year and a half of strings experience – tears came to her eyes. The music was so good – so unexpectedly excellent – that she was ambushed by her own reaction.
Continuing to live in this colleague’s head a little longer: it is remarkable to consider that a sensibility accustomed to the excellence that schools like our produce would have such a response sneak up on her. For my part, I am continually surprised in similar ways when I listen to our students and their music. About eight years ago, a visitor who is knowledgeable about school music in Canada observed that he thought SMUS had the best music program in Canada. How so, one asks? In brief: the breadth of programs – choral music throughout the school, strings starting in Grade 4, full orchestra program with a Senior orchestra of over a hundred musicians at times, a rich Jazz program starting in Middle School, a series of prize-winning concert bands at all levels, Vocal Jazz, and a rich and varied “grass roots” collection of both electric and acoustic ensembles and players – I don’t know of another school that has this breadth of opportunities.
And as you can gauge by the reaction of my colleague, it isn’t the breadth of music that takes one’s breath away, it is the quality.
Education and schooling have always evolved, and they are evolving now. We have seen at SMUS a significant increase in the number of opportunities our students encounter as, in the words of our Mission, we seek the excellence in all of us. We have more opportunities in the academic program, we have more opportunities in athletics, more opportunities in music and in the other fine and performing arts, in extra-curriculars, in leadership and service. We are also seeing a desire in our students and their families for increased flexibility in programs. This flexibility is made possible by technology, and it is also motivated by the desire of students and families to pursue passions and opportunities for global education outside the school. We are seeing, therefore, the development of what is becoming known as “personalization” in education: the intersection of a student’s own strengths, passions, approach to learning, and family priorities on the one hand, with the broad purpose of the school on the other hand – to pursue academic success in an environment where the character and the self also grow. Historically, schools have aspired to this purpose by creating schedules and timetables that coincide with an agrarian model (therefore the long summer holidays when everyone worked in the fields) or with an industrial model (where the school day followed more or less the pattern of the work day). Those who think about the future predict that because those old models and structures have been superseded by new ones – driven mainly by technology that “liberates” us from them – our structures and calendars will be redrawn.
Likely, this will happen slowly, at a pace we can manage, as long as we pay attention and don’t deliberately or benightedly live in the past.
What I observe, listening to the messages that come my way, is that many of our programs – including this gem of a music program – are starting to fray a little bit under the pressure of these increased opportunities and the demand for flexibility that comes with them. So we are looking at our music program, with the input of music teachers, other staff, and no doubt parents and students and other experts, to retain the program’s richness and vitality.
I can’t remember who said it, but I am guided often by this thought: the art of change is to preserve the things that don’t change. We live in exciting times.