Making music with the next generation

Alexander Mickelthwate Random Notes
Alexander Mickelthwate
Random Notes

Dear Readers,

As spring hemmed and hawed in deciding whether it would actually burst upon us this year, the orchestra and I took the occasion to get out of the concert hall and into a number of schools around the city. The response, as always, was amazing. Five-hundred high-school students sitting in rapt attention as the shimmering colour of Debussy’s L’après-midi d’un faune wafts through a gymnasium is something to behold.

Just thinking about that scene puts a smile on my face. Sometimes people ask me about the next generation of music lovers. Where are they? Will they enjoy classical music? These past few weeks have made the answer very clear – yes, yes, they will.

Part of building this appreciation, though, requires helping kids hear classical music as part of the whole spectrum of music they listen to. My kids both take piano lessons, but they are also really interested in pop and musical theatre. For me, it was a learning curve to realize music is music. My son Jack has recorded his first pop song, which is very different from what I do, yet not, as it is about music, creativity and touching people.

At the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, instilling a love and understanding of music in the next generation is actually part of our core mandate. We have a goal that students will not graduate without at least one live encounter with the WSO. To achieve that, we perform for over 30,000 students each year. We have a Soundcheck program which offers students $15 tickets or a whole season of concerts for only $85. Over 3,000 people have joined the program to date.

I think this is very important work. To start the love for music at a young age opens up a whole new world. It connects children with something that is inherently human and part of our DNA. Creating sounds reacting to sounds, together or alone, music becomes essential like the air we breathe.

There are, however, some students in our city who have a dire need for direct contact with music. These are students who have much more limited opportunities, students coming from some of our most economically disadvantaged neighbourhoods. To connect these students with the rich world of classical music we created Sistema Winnipeg, a partnership between the WSO and the Seven Oaks and Winnipeg school districts that offers free, intensive music education to those youth who need it most.

Kids in WSO's Sistema program. Photo by Leif Norman
Kids in WSO’s Sistema program. Photo by Leif Norman

Our fourth year of Sistema just wrapped up, with over 110 students participating in this incredible after-school orchestra and choir program. The results are quite incredible. A University of Manitoba study just revealed that the impact of the Sistema program goes far beyond musical learning. Students have increased attendance, improved grades, greater confidence and a larger peer group.

Their families develop a stronger connection to school and community. They start to volunteer, they develop relationships with the teachers and they start to take a keen interest in their child’s progress. A pretty remarkable outcome for a simple music program, if you ask me!

Two weeks ago we held a fundraising concert where members of the Sistema program performed on stage with the orchestra. It was my pleasure to conduct this concert and to hear these kids perform first-hand. But it left me asking myself a few questions.

How can we give them more tools for success? How can we get more children enrolled in the program?

I think those are two challenges that all of us at the WSO will readily accept.

We are now heading into the summer months. The orchestra will take some downtime before we travel out to Kenora, perform at the Lyric and present a community pay-what-you-can concert at the concert hall. It is a time for us to re-energize and refresh for the coming season.

During this period I am going to be thinking about our Sistema students and what they are up to. Are they practicing their instruments? Are they getting ready for another year of music making? Let us hope so.

Have a wonderful summer. I hope it is filled with beautiful music. See you back at the concert hall this fall!


Alexander Mickelthwate is music director of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.

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