Buffy Sainte-Marie, Sarah McLachlan, Fred Penner and more on why music education is important

'Music is my church.'

'Music is my church'

Buffy Sainte-Marie performs at the Americana Music Honors and Awards show in Nashville, Tennessee in 2015. (Mark Zaleski/The Canadian Press/The Associated Press)

Originally published on Nov. 20, 2017

Ask top professional musicians how they learned their craft, and many will tell you: it started with an elementary or high-school music class, or through lessons with a favourite teacher.

And even if kids don't become globetrotting performers, music education has been linked to a host of other benefits, from increased cognitive abilities to better social skills.

Many Canadian artists — Sarah McLachlan, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Fred Penner, to name just a few — have themselves become involved in music education initiatives, from classroom visits to launching entire music schools. So we asked them why they think music education is important.

Here is what they had to say.

Sarah McLachlan

Founder of the Sarah McLachlan School of Music, a free music school for at-risk youth.

"Music is my church, it's been my comfort and salvation, it's always been there for me and it's shown me what it's like to be part of something bigger than myself. Because of music, my life has deeper meaning and a powerful sense of purpose.

"As a child, music gave me an emotional outlet and a lens through which I could make sense of the world. Through music, I felt I had value. I learned early on how good it feels to give back and when I saw music programs being cut from the public school system, I knew I could do something to help fill that void.

"Creating a free music program for at-risk and underserved kids felt like a great and powerful way of using my gifts for something really meaningful, for a greater purpose. Our school creates that safe place where kids can leave all their labels at the door and come discover who they really are and what their true potential is.

"We all want to feel connected and part of something bigger than ourselves and that is an important part of what I feel our school offers. We teach music, but we also teach respect, equality, empathy and the importance of being active engaged members of our communities."

Buffy Sainte-Marie

Founder of the Cradleboard Product, an educational curriculum devoted to better understanding of Indigenous peoples.

"I think the old ways of teaching 'music' were awful, especially for natural musicians like me. (And for Chet Atkins too who, when asked if he could read music said, 'Not enough to hurt my playing' — ha ha!)

"I can write for an orchestra but cannot read it back the next day. Although I've been playing and composing since I was three, I could never learn how to read music in school or from a piano teacher. I tried three times. It was like trying to write with my left hand. I found out a few years ago that I am actually dyslexic in music! Whoever heard of that? It's called dysmusia.

"Funny thing, I am also a biblioholic: I read books constantly, and am not dyslexic with reading text. Einstein apparently had the math version, which is called dyscalculia. Some brains get there by different routing, in my case ears instead of eyes.

"The best way of teaching music in my opinion is to give young children instruments that they can freely play with at home and in school like other toys. I think inexpensive ukuleles, pots and pans, toy xylophones, an old piano, etc., ought to be available on the playground and in other casual spots in school, without fuss or some scowling grownup taking the natural out of it. Real instruments in school are wonderful and I applaud programs that provide them, but students should not be required to decode written notes in order to have access to the good stuff. Ray Charles was blind for Pete's sake.

"Music literacy — reading notes — is kinda like decoding symbols, and it's very different from music talent. Talent cannot be taught but it can be squashed if unknowledgeable adults don't understand that some of the most talented musicians cannot read a note: we learn immediately by ear instead of by decoding notes by eye.

"I was bullied in school music classes and always got low grades in what they were calling 'music' class, but to me still seems like decoding. Although I appreciate all the many ways that great musicians of all kinds approach music, I really hope we can create better music programs in schools that encourage the talented as well as the diligent."

Fred Penner

Spokesperson for organizations including UNESCO, World Vision, UNICEF and the National Conference on Down Syndrome, speaker at education conferences.

"For 12 years, a person goes through a learning process called school. At the end of this time our collective hope is that each individual gains knowledge of various subjects that will be of benefit as they make their way through life. One of the keys in the learning process is pattern. The arts (music, dance, visual art, etc.) are fundamentally sophisticated forms that require the brain to organize and understand structure. When a child grasps this concept, everything else becomes easier to comprehend.

"Music is math: rhythm based on subdivisions and fractions, which must be done instantaneously

"Music is history: reflecting the environment and the times of its creation, often the turmoil and challenges that a country is going through are expressed through song.

"Music is physical education: requiring fantastic co-ordination of fingers, hands, arms, lips, facial muscles, etc. in addition to back, chest and stomach muscles, which respond instantly to the sound the ears hear and the mind interprets.

"Music develops insight and demands research, skills that can be utilized in any discipline.

"The arts are an integral part of our children's lives. Any parent or grandparent will tell you that from an early age, children naturally immerse themselves in drama, dance, music and the visual arts, to play, to learn, to communicate, to celebrate and to explore who they are."

Luke Doucet

Music Monday spokesperson; visits music education classes including the Sarah McLachlan School of Music.

"My experiences with music education were mostly when I was young. In the second grade, I was given the option of joining the school choir at L'Ecole Sacré Coeur. We learned about harmony by singing multiple parts and I was encouraged to explore the margins of my range by taking solos. This experience showed me both how to hear music in harmony but also that I had an aptitude in this area. I learned that I could find harmonies quickly and intuitively. To have been made aware of this at a young age was hugely beneficial to me. It gave me confidence that the sounds in my head were, in fact, musical. I'd whistle popular TV theme songs to my friends at the bus stop — as if they'd be impressed (they weren't).

"Later in my high school years, I joined the vocal jazz ensemble at Grant Park High as an accompanist. My dad had shown me the basics of jazz chord theory but this was a chance to apply it in a real-world setting where jazz was the milieu." 

Tom Jackson

Chancellor at Trent University, recently keynote speaker at Ontario Music Educators' Association's annual music teachers' conference.

"I exited the school system at the age of 16 because I was cut from extra-curricular activities … I have had occasion to speak at a number of national conferences on education. I am currently working with Rotary on a very successful stay-in-school program, [called the] Rotary Tom Jackson Stay in School Program. I have 10 honorary doctorates and I am the former chancellor of Trent U … I mention this not to impress you but to impress upon you that I have a passion for education….

"What I believe is that education is more than text and test…. Students that are not 'A' grade may find the burden of learning too challenging. We all need encouragement and an acknowledgment of accomplishment to feed the desire and thirst for more.

"That said, there are models out there that demonstrate unequivocal success in underprivileged communities when a student is given the guidance and confidence to complete an arts program (music, etc.). The chances of them completing high school is in the range of 95 per cent. Investing in art is investing in our future. Music is the single most powerful instrument of change in the history of humankind."

Interested in getting a class to join the Canadian Music Class Challenge? Find out all you need to know here.