Sarah McLachlan School of Music celebrates over 10 years of meeting students where they’re at

SoM Vancouver began as an outreach program in partnership with the Arts Umbrella in April 2002.

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Asked which of the programs at her own school she might have appreciated as a music student, Sarah McLachlan answers with a laugh.

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“Which one wouldn’t I have?”

The Vancouver-based singer grew up in Halifax, where she attended the Maritime Conservatory of Music. Today, she oversees the Sarah McLachlan School of Music (SoM), which recently celebrated its 10th year of providing education to students in its Mount Pleasant location.

The school offers a wide range of programs, from traditional skills such as playing an instrument and composing, as well as turntablism, beat-making and stage production.

“We look at what the students enjoy, and listen to and aspire towards,” McLachlan said. “We’ve done a lot of work asking the kids what appeals to them and what they want to get out of this. Through their answers, we’ve been able to create something really powerful.”

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SoM Vancouver began as an outreach program in partnership with the Arts Umbrella in April 2002. In 2011, McLachlan opened its first physical location with support from the Wolverton Foundation, which is dedicated to helping provide children in B.C. with access to the arts, and the City of Vancouver.

Since 2016, SoM has offered programming in Surrey, out of Forsyth Elementary, and in Edmonton, out of Eastglen high school. A new SoM location is expected to open in City Centre Mall in Alberta’s capital this fall. Each year, the school welcomes more than 750 children, youth and adults 55-and-over (usually in a ukulele program). Over 70 per cent of those students go on to post-secondary study.

McLachlan was inspired to open the school following the success of the three Lilith Fair concert tours that she helped organize in the late ’90s.

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“It’s a very insular strange job we have as working musicians,” she said. “We live and work in a microcosm. There’s rarely an opportunity to meet all these other people who are doing similar things. So creating that community and being able to give back to the communities we went into were very valuable experiences for me, and confirmed my desire to create something that would continue after that.”

Along with the courses, the school’s teaching methods are designed to meet students where they’re at.

“To keep kids engaged you have to go to them and figure them out and what they need and how to access and reach them and keep them engaged,” McLachlan said. “That’s a huge part of what I think is innovative about our program. We tailor the classes around them, where their skill sets are, what their desires are, and how they learn.”

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In terms of learning approaches, program director Andrea Unrau says that this might mean introducing a “music discovery program” for younger or developmentally challenged students.

“There, they are just trying a whole bunch of things,” said Unrau.

A teacher as well as an administrator, Unrau has a background in developmental neuroscience and music cognition.

“They’re going to do a thing we call ‘entrainment,’ which is basically where the beat is so strong that you have to dance along, sing along, play the drum along, and you’re not working on the cognitive part, the thinking-about-thinking. That isn’t really coming online until you’re 11 or 12. If you’re younger or face some learning challenges, we have programs that are a little more exploratory.”

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The school also stresses the importance of attaining skills that go beyond composition and musicianship.

“When you’re learning music, what you’re really learning are the life skills that you need to exist in the world in any capacity — such as learning to be creative and curious and working towards your goals, and being flexible,” Unrau said.

These are the kinds of lessons McLachlan might have appreciated during her years at the Maritime Conservatory.

“I discovered later that music is meant to be shared. To play with each other, to play instruments together, to sing together — there’s just such a power and community in that.”

Fourteen-year-old Nathan Nowak has been learning to write and produce with his classmates in Global Hip Hop. Once finished, the students upload the songs to the school’s YouTube channel.

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Before coming to SoM four years ago, Nowak says that he had no music-playing ability. “Now, I’d like to say I’m not bad.” He can play “a little bit of piano, a little bit of guitar. I’ve rapped.”

A student at Burnaby South, he takes classes at the music school one day a week.

“There are so many different things you can do at SoM,” Nowak said. “There are so many computers, and there’s so much different and updated technology. At my actual school, they have like 1950s computers.”

Nowak, who would like to be a rapper, may or may not go on to a career in music. But that’s not the point.

“We’re not really looking to create career musicians,” Unrau said. “We’re working towards people finding their voice and being able to share their message.

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“That said, with our help and support it’s easier than ever for them to share their music with the world. They might be going into a totally different career but they have a chance to get their creative message out into the world.”

Local arts education

• LeBlanc School of Acting. Specializing in workshops, camps and online courses for youth, the LeBlanc School of Acting has placed a number of teen and preteen performers in TV and movie roles. (leblancschool.com)

• Arts Umbrella. The long-running local group offers programs in art and design, dance, and theatre, music and film for students two-to-22 in four locations. (artsumbrella.com)

• Realwheels Acting Academy. On Sept. 20, Realwheels Theatre launched its own professional training program. The program is tailored to those who self-identify with the disability community and/or who is D/deaf, including, but not limited to, people with disabilities, disabled people, people with hidden disability and neurodiverse individuals. (realwheels.ca/academy)

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