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A Tale of Two Cities - Er... I mean Small Towns: North Sask Students Collaborate On New Song

by Scott Roos

*students from Stanley Mission and La Ronge joined together via the magic of photoshop

It's probably an understatement to say that this past year and a half under COVID restrictions has been rough on our youth. Quite simply put, they have not been able, at least the degree they have grown accustomed to, to do the activities inside and outside of school that would normally keep them grounded and sane. Whilst reading, writing and math provide the academic foundation it's the arts subjects like music, drama and visual art that provides the purpose. This was never as truly put than in the acclaimed film Mr. Holland's Opus where protagonist Ken Holland states "I guess you can cut the arts as much as you want... But, sooner or later, these kids aren't going to have anything to read or write about."

So with all of this in mind, music students in schools across the province have spent a year and change adapting to what was called "the new normal". In many schools and school divisions, participating in musical activities was deemed "unsafe" due to the potential for the spread of the contagious droplets that could be emitted from playing a wind instrument or even the act of singing whilst unmasked. Socially distancing was also an issue in some music classes as music, by nature, when performed can be a very close-knit activity to engage in. So there was a pivot. The music learning still happened, but just in a different way. The engagement and collaboration between individuals DID take place but sometimes it went down online over platforms like Teams or Zoom.

A prime example of music classes working within that "new normal" happened back in February when groups of students from schools in Stanley Mission and La Ronge got together over Microsoft Teams to write a song with hip hop/spoken word artist Zoey Roy.

"I found a flier about Festival of Words which is an organization based out of Moose Jaw and they were looking to do some Northern writing workshops so I thought 'hey this would be cool. I should do a songwriting one'," explained Stanley Mission music teacher Eliza Doyle in a recent conversation with NSMZ, "I contacted Colin (Jolly, La Ronge music teacher) and I wanted to know if he was interested in hiring these people to do songwriting. And I asked him 'hey why don't we do a song together. That would be cool.'"

The result of the collaboration between the garage band class students at Churchill Community School (La Ronge) and Rhoda Hardlotte Memorial Keethanow High School (Stanley Mission) is the engaging, mid tempo hip hop/rock track entitled "Lock the Door" which spoke to the students' frustrations with being unable to play music on their own terms. Paired with the tag line "Would you break-in to make art?" the collective project was called Capybara Mission and as the recording of the project reached its conclusion, it almost seemed like a natural extension to also make a music video in the eyes of Doyle.

"I think the song turned out really well," Doyle continued, "I think the students were all pretty excited about it so I went back to the organization and said 'Hey, the song is so great. I wanna make a music video and we're gonna record it and do it in two different communities.' and then they just said 'yeah, you don't need to look for a grant. We'll just give you money to do it. We have extra funding because of COVID. We can't send people out to do workshops. People aren't doing it as much.' So it just works out super well."

The video adds a whole other dimension to what the students created. It's cool to see them still playing music and having fun even though everything was being worked on and finalized in the middle of the pandemic. Musicians, by nature, yearn for audience response and the buzz that is created inside from knowing they've done a good job. The visual component has, at least the best it can, enabled students to still connect with an audience albeit online for now.

"This has been a really weird year with Covid and music is so much about sharing and that's the one thing that we haven't really been able to do. I mean even within our small classes that's fine but getting together - music festivals and sharing that? It's beautiful to know that we can share online and still kind of create that feeling of collaboration. I think it will be really cool when these two groups of young adults can meet each other which hopefully will happen at some point. I'm excited about them. They're so great," added Doyle when thinking back on the project as a whole.

" (Being in my garage band class) gave me a lot of cool opportunities. I had no idea we were gonna record a song and a music video. So that was really cool," recalls La Ronge music student Karis Oscienny. Oscienny had taken two blocks of garage band class during the 2020/2021 school year and obviously, based on her enthusiasm that she showed chatting with us, lives and breaths music. It's something that has given her a lot of confidence and also enabled her to learn new things not just within the realm of music but also new things about herself.

"I took the grade ten level and grade eleven level of garage band one after the other so I had it for a long time and it was fun. Songwriting had been something I had really been wanting to get into for a long time but I never knew how to even start. As for lyric writing, I can come up with melodies pretty quickly but words are extremely difficult for me. But, working with other people and people who were better at lyricism and also the fact that we had time constraints for when we had to get all the songs done it kinda showed me that I can write songs. That's a thing I'm capable of and that's a thing I want to keep doing. So I think it was empowering in that way - showing me that I could do this thing," said Oscienny.

On the flip side. Stanley Mission's Carys McLeod came into her school's garage band class a relative newcomer to music. Music was something she had always enjoyed, appreciated and respected, but when it came to performing it herself it was intimidating. At least at first.

"Music class was just supposed to be another elective class. That's all I really saw it as. It kind of weird to think about it now. But after I've done it it's honestly one of the best classes I've taken this semester and I'm willing to bet it's gonna be one of the best classes I've taken in the entire year. It was mostly just a different experience than any other class that I've had because it required a lot of talent and a lot of things that I never would have expected to come out of a regular school class. It required imagination and passion but I think the thing that made it a class that I look so fondly on is probably the amount of support that came from that class. I had never tried music before. The ukulele was one of my only musical instrument experiences that I've had and I was very bad at it when I first started. But the amount of overpouring support that came from my peers and my teacher it just gave this environment of like you can be as bad as you want but you're still amazing, you know? It was a lot of happy feely feelings and I wouldn't have it any other way. I love music class, it's great," recalls McLeod fondly.

At the end of the day, if the Capyberra Mission project proves anything, it's that students can be adaptable and, in spite of adversity, music will always find a way. You can't silence music. Music is an essential part of the culture and lifeblood of a community and it's something that needs more support and funding, especially now that the pandemic, knock on wood, seems to be subsiding. Kids love music. They need to experience it. Remember, not all kids are athletic. And that's not to take away from athletics by any means. If anything, it just underscored that some students rely heavily on the arts. It's what they need in their daily lives just to get by. Music completes a lot of kids. It makes them feel whole as individuals when they have a chance to experience it.

"Music is fun. It's a source of happiness. It's therapeutic. It makes you feel the whole range of human emotion. It's fun to learn about. The theory behind it. I like everything," said Oscienny enthusiastically when asked what she enjoys most about Music.

"I'm the kind of person that will listen to a lot of music - almost every style of music. I definitely have one song that I'm like 'oh yeah that's a banger' but music class made me think of music in a whole different way of seeing it," explained McLeod, "Before it was like that's some drums, that's a guitar, that's someone singing words. That's good. That sounds good. But after I took the class it's like 'WOAH that's more than a drum, that's more than words, that's more than a guitar.' It changes your perspective of music so much. It was really cool looking back on songs that I've listened to. Now I know how much work goes into making a song like that. It's incredible. It' amazing. Stupendous!"

In the meantime, Doyle is still working tirelessly to promote music in the various communities she works with in the north via her CAMP program. Being able to work with the students in Stanley Mission and also help to facilitate "Lock the Door" is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. There's hopefully more projects of this nature to come in the near future now that July 11th is around the corner and COVID restrictions are set to ease up a little bit.

"The idea is that the more a community's members that know how to do this the more we can keep up the creativity and more people playing and it will be a self evolving thing. You can see how music lights up communities and youth and it needs to be everywhere so 'Lock the Door' is a great and wonderful place to start," said Doyle.

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