Why one school board believes studying music is essential for all

Music education has been under siege in Ontario over the past two decades. But not in Windsor, Ontario. Its Catholic school board has promised every student the chance to study with teachers who have degrees in music.
There are bitter public clashes over cuts to music programs in many schools. But the Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board has bucked that trend.
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By David Gutnick

[Originally published on March 18, 2018]

Seventeen-year-old Evan Tanovich is wiry, articulate and intense — so full of energy that you can almost hear him buzzing. The Grade 12 student at Assumption College Catholic High School in Windsor, Ont., is also an accomplished composer. He's had some of his compositions performed by professional musicians.

Evan credits his music teacher Brian Zanier with changing his life: Zanier was the one who told him he should write down the sounds swirling around in his head. Now Evan keeps a notebook in his pocket at all times.

"It contains all of my musical ideas that I've written on the bus, or in my English class if it gets a little boring," he says. "Because I have the competent knowledge to be able to transcribe that on a piece of paper, it allows me to say what I want to say beyond the confines and boundaries of our language."

Zanier's classes are crowded with teenagers like Evan, eager to explain how their musical worlds are expanding:

"It is all the same: every style, it is just the same, notes and rhythms," says one student.

"It is something you look forward to at the end of the day," says another. "I start my day off with a music class, and I end off with band: it is a great time."

17-year-old Evan Tanovich keeps this notebook in his pocket so he doesn't forget the musical snippets he composes. (David Gutnick/CBC)

They are lucky. Music education has been under siege in Ontario over the past two decades — trained music teachers cut, programs shrunk. According to a study published in 2017 by the Ontario-based lobby group People for Education, only 41 per cent of Ontario schools now have trained music teachers. That's an eight per cent decline in the past six years.

The Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board has bucked that trend, however. It is committed to making sure every child in its 42 schools gets the chance to study music with teachers who know more than how to whistle a tune.

We believe that they need to have music and the arts as much as they need math and science, as much as they need literature, French language — whatever interests these children have.- Barbara Holland, Chair of the Windsor Catholic school board

"Music is ingrained in the culture here," says Mike Seguin, the board's superintendent of education and student achievement, pointing out that Windsor sits just across the river from the musical hothouse of Detroit.

Seguin himself is a professional trumpet player who plays in a local jazz band and occasionally with the Windsor Symphony Orchestra. His day job is keeping the school board's music programs healthy and growing, with concert bands, rock bands, choirs, musical theatre and general music appreciation.

Every elementary school student has at least one music class a week taught by a teacher with a degree in music. All eight high schools have full-time music specialists, as do some of the elementary schools.

Robert Franz, from the Windsor Symphony Orchestra, conducting the St. Anne Catholic High School Band. (David Gutnick/CBC)

What makes the Windsor-Essex school board's commitment to music all the more hard-fought is that the last 10 years have been hard on the city of 220,000 — once called "Canada's automotive capital." Downtown storefronts are boarded up; abandoned auto parts factories are covered in graffiti.

There are signs Windsor's economy is back on the upswing, with the welcome news that Fiat-Chrysler will be building its new van here and Ford will be building new engines.

But the 2008 recession took a toll. As unemployment spiked, people moved away in search of work — and school enrolments plummeted.

The Windsor Catholic school board made some tough and unpopular decisions: shutting down schools, laying off teachers and closing school libraries. However, it wasn't enough to balance the board's books, and in 2012, the Ontario government stepped in to co-manage the board for a year to get it back on track.

"It was a defining moment," recalls Barbara Holland, the board's chair. Commissioners decided that students would not be served if the entire system was "stripped down to the bone."

In financial crunch times, choirs, musicals and concert bands often take the hit.

When you are creative, when you can work independently, and you are self-disciplined and you can work as a team, you are going to do great whatever you do... That is the beauty of music education.- Brian Zanier, music teacher at Assumption College

The Coalition for Music Education is struggling to compile national statistics on cuts to programs. Most schools still claim to offer music to their students. But with fewer music specialists, more and more classes are delivered by people with no training — a gym teacher who happens to play guitar, the head of the math department who's a garage band guy.

In Nova Scotia, Alberta and B.C., there have been bitter public clashes over the future of music programs in the schools.

Music education is just as important as training in maths, science or literature, says Barbara Holland, the chair of the Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board. (CBC)

When Holland and her fellow commissioners were cutting costs in Windsor, parents made it clear that music programs were not to be touched, and the board got the message.

"We believe that they need to have music and the arts as much as they need math and science, as much as they need literature, French language — whatever interests these children have," Holland said.

"Every time there is a change in political parties there could be a different mantra, and sometimes it is, 'we expect you to do more with less,'" said Holland, a lifelong citizen of Windsor.

"Well, to me, growing up as the daughter of an autoworker, that was always the challenge. But my mom and dad never said you have to do more with less. They said we are going to do better with what we have."

In other words, it is not guns or butter. It's robotics and Rachmaninoff. And Bob Seger.

Well, if not Bob Seger, at least, Robert Franz. Franz, the conductor of the Windsor Symphony Orchestra, was treated like a bit of a rock star when he showed up recently to St. Ann High School to work with music teacher Grant Bergeron and his concert band musicians.

Franz visits Windsor schools whenever his busy schedule allows.

Robert Franz, the conductor of the Windsor Symphony Orchestra, regularly visits Windsor schools to work with music teachers and their students. (WSO)

A 49-year-old American in running shoes, Franz is also the associate director of the Houston symphony. He is both funny and serious and treats the teenagers like colleagues.

He says that in Windsor he has found "a passion and a commitment to the arts and to arts education that is second to none and really, really makes it an impressive place to be."

Franz says that he cannot understand why some school boards are cutting music when there is more and more evidence that music is good for the brain.

"You have to have kids who understand math and science," he says."The arts teaches us what to do with things. How do we experience them?"

Music teacher Brian Zanier is on the same wavelength. On the wall of his band room in Assumption College, there is a banner emblazoned with a quote from Albert Einstein: "Imagination is more important than knowledge."

Music teacher Brian Zanier and the Assumption College Catholic High School band (David Gutnick/CBC)

"I always tell the kids, 'Who knows what you are going to be doing in the future,'" says Zanier. "But when you are creative, when you can work independently, and you are self-disciplined and you can work as a team, you are going to do great whatever you do."

"That," says Zanier, "is the beauty of music education."

Click 'listen' above to hear David Gutnick's full documentary, 'Just Notes and Rhythms.'