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Music students learning through Indigenous musician mentorship at Mohawk College

Since January, music students at Mohawk College have taken part in a unique mentorship opportunity with the Six Nations Women Singers and Rick McLean to learn more through Indigenous music and cultural exchange.

'Everybody's equal in our circle when we sit here'

During the in-person mentorship sessions with Indigenous artists, the music students in the ensemble had opportunities to ask questions and collaborate on what the final performance will look and sound like April 1. (Jessica Maxwell/CBC)

They were six music students, gathering in their usual practice room at their usual Mohawk College campus. But the lessons they learned were altogether new.

The half dozen applied music students were mentored by Indigenous musicians for the semester, and it was a space for cultural exchange, engagement and learning. That partnership will culminate in a performance Friday at the Ohsweken Skills and Trades Training Centre Theatre, and will be streamed live through the Mohawk Music YouTube channel.

The mentorship sessions allowed students to sit together with Six Nations Women Singers and Rick McLean, Indigenous artist and Mohawk College professor, to learn and collaborate in a way that was personal and authentic.

"If we're given permission, a safe space to be able to express and we don't have limitations, then I think it just naturally gets teased out," McLean said.

"They're such a nice group of students and they're so respectful. I think it was kind of my job to just go, 'Hey, you can relax around me. I'm just crazy Uncle Rick, don't worry about it.'"

"Everybody's equal in our circle when we sit there. You're part of the circle. You add and contribute and everybody is needed. Those are the ways we walk in our communities."


WATCH Friday's live performance


Through the mentorship program, the student ensemble has been learning in "an unconditioned creative space with no prescribed learning outcomes," Mohawk College music professor Bob Shields says.

The ensemble spent six hours with McLean and the Six Nations Women Singers, exchanging ideas and sharing the teachings of Indigenous music and culture while collaborating on music for the performance.

Formed in Ohsweken, the Six Nations Women Singers focus on music and dance of the Longhouse tradition. McLean is Anishinaabe with roots in Wikwemikong on Manitoulin Island.

'Everyone will be showcased'

"In this initiative, everyone's a leader and everyone will be showcased, and that's been different but in a great way," said Jadon Haughton, a third-year applied music student.

"It's something where you start to quickly figure out who you are, what you're made of."

On performance day, the students will showcase the results of their collaborative learning experience through individual and group numbers with the Indigenous artists.

The cultural engagement and exchange initiative focused on the creative process, allowing the learning outcomes to be emergent over the semester, Shields said.

"It's awesome, because I feel like there are real relationships being built between all of the musicians involved," he said.

Six Mohawk College students are a part of a unique experience this semester as they learn from Indigenous artists, Rick McLean and the Six Nations Women Singers. (Left to right - Seated: Sadie Buck, Charlee Bomberry, Bonnie; Second row: Mar, Pat, Johanne McCarthy, Malu Asfora, Zayd Nawaz; Back row: Rick McLean, Cal Mulder, Penny Martindale, Jadon Haughton and Amos Tilley) (Bob Shields)

The core themes of the initiative, he said, are strength-based reconciliation, unconditioned creative spaces and the social capacity and communicative value of music.

Wisdom and a sense of humour

Shields said watching the project unfold has been "way better" than he "ever could have imagined."

"I can't speak highly enough of the generosity of the Six Nations Women Singers, Rick McLean and all of the Mohawk College students," he said.

"Their diversity, wisdom and sense of humour has contributed to an expansion of creative resources, knowledge, friendships and sense of community, of belonging."

Johanne McCarthy of Six Nations who is Onondaga, Beaver Clan, is an initiative advisor. She said this learning experience centred around connection and collaboration is amazing to be a part of.

She said that after watching students let go of their preconceptions of a traditional western learning environment, there was opportunity for growth and building community.

Student ensemble member and guitarist, Cal Mulder, said this learning experience with Indigenous musicians has given him a deeper connection with the music he plays. (Jessica Maxwell)

McCarthy said she looks back at the first in-person mentorship session at the Dajoh community elders and youth centre on Six Nations, when the students met with the Six Nation Women Singers and "were welcomed like family," she said.

"We could start creating these relationships where we can joke around and students didn't feel like they were being evaluated for every single thing that came out of their mouths – they were allowed to explore, play around with sounds," she said.

McCarthy said she hopes to see more of this model used in educational settings in general.

"I don't understand why education has to have so much pressure tied to it and that fear of failure tied to it," McCarthy said. "It should be an opportunity to really experiment and grow and try things out in a safe environment."

Learning more with less structure

Music student Amos Tilley, a keyboard player with the ensemble, said that the discovery method of learning he's experienced through the partnership has benefited him more than traditional learning models he has been a part of in the past.

The music students who took part in the ensemble had the opportunity to collaborate and learn from Indigenous artists like Rick McLean during the winter semester. (Left to right: Penny Martindale, Cal Mulder, Bob Shields, Amos Tilley, Rick McLean, Jadon Haughton and Zayd Nawz) (Jessica Maxwell)

Tilley is a mature student who came to Mohawk after completing a degree in behavioural science. He said his studies in psychology and sociology have taught him that the traditional education system doesn't always work.

"Through this initiative and through the discovery method, just getting together and learning from other people who aren't your professor, but people who have this real world experience and integration … I think I've learned more than in some of my other classes," Tilley said.

"I think just a lot more that's really connected to my own growth, development and understanding of a lot of things. I think the discovery method that is around this initiative has really shown this to be really beneficial."

Haughton is the drum player for the ensemble and says this experience has enriched his education as he studies in his final year.

"To spend time with the Six Nations Women Singers and embrace their food, their culture, their traditions and just to learn more about yourself," Haughton said, "and being present, because it just won't work if you're not present."

Rick McLean met with the students for their final two hour mentorship session on Mar. 21 before the upcoming culminating performance. (Jessica Maxwell)

He said that after spending time with the women and being included in their songs, the students came up with their own songs based on where they were in their lives.

As a drummer, Haughton said he is used to being the "side man, in a way," but that exercise put him on the spot to immerse himself in the creative process.

He said the exchange has reinforced the importance around being grounded and present to be "really impactful with your music."

"You've got to understand that whatever comes before you, no matter how ugly or how beautiful it is, that's what makes it what it is," Haughton said. "Pressure breeds diamonds, but the pressure isn't always beautiful."

Conversations toward building community

At the last in-person mentorship session with McLean on March 21, the students were vocal about wanting to be respectful in honouring all they had learned through their musical mentors.

McLean asked if the group was happy with what they had accomplished so far. Tilley was the first to respond.

"We want to make sure that we're being respectful and honourable of what you're bringing us, more than us being happy with what we've learned," Tilley said to McLean.

"Oh, you guys are totally doing that," McLean said. "I really love hanging out with you guys. You're respectful and creative – and there's good medicine from that."

This is when McLean reminded them that the music they are creating is also a form of medicine.

"Think about that last song. If you want to do any work on that, it's your chance to tell a story because that's what the song is about – telling your story," McLean said.

After his time with the student ensemble this semester, McLean said that they understand many of the concepts around Indigenous music intuitively.

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