By Dara Schindelka
For the students living in the north precambrian shield along the shores of Lac La Ronge, learning to rock is part of the high school curriculum. During the last number of years Churchill Community High School, part of the Northern Lights School Division, has been offering students classes on how to be part of a garage band. That’s right, learning to rock and roll can get you a high school credit and you don’t have to freeze in the family garage.
The program runs under the guidance of educator and music advocate, Colin Jolly. Generally, a lot of students come with little to no music training and within a few short months they are playing everything from bass and drums to keyboards and electric guitars. They meet up with other enthusiastic students and are put into groups that learn basic music skills. By the end of the semester, they put on concerts for the community to come out and watch them play at. More importantly though, many friendships and future bands are created and a love of all things that rock begins to flourish among a new generation.
Just like every other single thing in this day and age, Covid 19 has changed the way this program runs. Gone are the easy-going jam sessions with students on their lunch breaks and after school. No more can groups interact with one another and talk to each other about newly discovered but actually classic bands like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. Now students have to be very careful and are not allowed to mix freely with one another. Classes require masks and lots of virtual rehearsals happen rather than in person.
Jolly has had to find alternative ways to keep the music going in garage band. As many high schools switched to shortened semesters, garage band has become a full afternoon class and that means a lot more time to practice and learn. In that respect, it’s not all bad. “When students were in person before the winter break, they had time to tune up, gather into groups, and have a serious practice. Before that in the previous class schedule they had forty-five minutes so there was little time for actual rehearsal before class ended” Says Jolly.
The changes to being in lockdown presented new challenges for the class that just finished up this past month. The music class students took home their instruments and had daily drill sheets and met each day with their band to discuss their chord charts, where solos are going, and everything else that a band needs to do in order to keep the communication alive. Their hope was that it all came together in the final concert for the year end semester.
For student Xavier Ratte, groups like Black Sabbath, Metallica and Def Leppard are favourite bands. In fact, their music has been key to his mental health and getting through the pandemic. “I love those bands and the music really makes it for me.” Ratte says that he was really looking forward to this Garage Band class and, even though there are changes this year, he couldn’t wait to be a part of it, “I have been singing and playing guitar for a while now”. However, this band opportunity meant that Ratte had a chance to share his talent and enthusiasm and could play together with other students that felt the same.
For Pikaea Groves this has been something that she looked forward to for years and the challenges have not stopped her enthusiasm, “I love this class and love that we are doing all of this music. I took a drum kit home and am getting to meet new people and have lots of new stuff I’m learning” For Groves, who’s current favourite bands include Cavetown and Vampire Weekend, the garage band in a pandemic had interesting challenges, “The concerts were different this year but we were still doing stuff”.
The biggest change was from live to virtual concerts. This year their school created concerts that streamed from the school Facebook page. The students were encouraged to share it on their social media. As Mr. Jolly says, “They actually continue to get a lot of good responses”. After just a few weeks, the views on their concert were already in the thousands. Not bad for a school group that may have had a few hundred people in person if it would have been live at a venue.
With the future of live music so precarious these days, it seems that opportunities like a garage band class seem more important than ever. Without those lazy days of summer working on three chord original songs with teenage angst written all through them, how would we see music continue? We need our youth to continue creating and finding ways to express themselves without the constraints of formal music lessons and note reading. Often it seems there is a misnomer that says in order to be a musician one must have classical or formal lessons. This is simply not the case and never has been.
Music is cultural. Music is universal. Music tells stories in much the same way that the oral folklore was passed down generation to generation. By listening and taking it in, then passing it on again the cycle continues. The idea that music must fit into a box that is created by one group or genre is ridiculous and outdated. Garage band classes bridge the gap between the music of the everyday people and the skills required to pass that gift of music on to others.
With the course that Jolly uses, he focuses on learning basic chords, rhythms, and songs that have great hooks and are familiar to young and old. The purpose is so much more than learning the difference between eighth notes and quarter notes. It is to pass on a way of expressing oneself and sharing that in a group setting.
That is why the garage band program is powerful to many of the youth in this beautiful northern community. They are able to unite together and create something that expresses how they feel and then share that with a larger audience. This kind of creating is empowering. This kind of music speaks louder than any self-confidence ad campaign. This is why we need more programs like this everywhere. Mental health and music go hand in hand and the students that take part in this program are living proof of this.
Jolly finds his role as teacher often extends to a listening ear and encourager at times. He helps students through the rough waves of adolescence and the superpower that he passes on to his students is music. He is not alone. We all may remember teachers that made a difference in our lives. There are many who feel that because of the encouragement of an educator, they took a chance and became something bigger than they first believed they could be. The educator or mentor shared a skill, or a belief in us and our talent, and that made us who we are today.
As we all know, music opportunities in school are an important way to reach a new generation of musicians and future rock stars. It is also a way to continue positive mental health and cultural practices. The northern students of Churchill Community High School are grateful to have the chance to keep rockin’ in the Covid world. If ever there was a time to keep the music alive, it is now. Even in a pandemic, the show, and the garage band class, must go on.
*pictures courtesy of Colin Jolly