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Students from grades 4 through 7, who are part of the string orchestra program, play their instruments outside Dr. Annie B. Jamieson Elementary School in Vancouver, British Columbia, Wednesday, April 16, 2014. (Rafal Gerszak for the globe and mail)
Students from grades 4 through 7, who are part of the string orchestra program, play their instruments outside Dr. Annie B. Jamieson Elementary School in Vancouver, British Columbia, Wednesday, April 16, 2014. (Rafal Gerszak for the globe and mail)

Teacher’s dedication shows that music program is not an unaffordable frill Add to ...

When the Vancouver School Board made public what was on the chopping block as it tries to deal with a projected $12.3-million budget deficit, I have to admit, I rolled my eyes, just a little.

There, in 45 lines of potential cuts, nestled inconspicuously between “Better managing the costs of absenteeism” and “Adjust staffing levels due to declining enrolment,” was this: “Band and Strings Program – Eliminate the program or increase the annual fee.”

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This is not the first time music programs have been targeted for cuts as the VSB struggles to balance its budget. And it won’t be the last. The cynical me thought, Yep, nothing will make a parent prod their 10-year-old to the microphone in the middle of a public meeting like a threat to cut music programs.

And parents being who they are, the threat alone has led to a passionate debate about the value of music education in public schools. For anyone who still believes music is a luxury or an unaffordable frill outside of the core curriculum, meet Mark Kershaw.

Mr. Kershaw is a music teacher at Kerrisdale Elementary, where my two older children go to school, and have been fortunate enough to have him as a teacher. Technically he’s a prep teacher. His classes take place while the other teachers get their 45 minutes a day of prep time. Over the years he’s done that with phys ed, visual arts, French and now with music. He believes that history, identity, and the critical thinking skills so important to educators are all best explored through music. “Kids are going to learn about the gold rush in Grade 4, but what’s really going to make them respond to it more viscerally is singing old songs from the Klondike,” he told me.

Outside of the classroom, Mr. Kershaw is also responsible for performances at school assemblies and the choir, Vox Humana, which he created.

A month ago, Vox Humana brought the house down at a choral festival at John Oliver Secondary with an original composition that was equal parts Phillip Glass and Stephen Sondheim but with the young singers in his own choir divided against each other, Sharks and Jets-like, hurling Vivaldi’s Spring back and forth like an insult.

A winter concert with hockey as its central theme pitted Starbucks lovers against Tim Hortons loyalists with several uncomfortable skirmishes flaring up throughout; children behaving like grownups behaving like children.

“We have this national metaphor called hockey and that serves as the image of the collective, and ultimately all of these petty squabbles are nothing,” he said, explaining the thinking that led to the sophisticated composition.

The Pink Day Assembly to combat bullying pulled students into a dystopian future where characters named for the Greek alphabet debated the difference between tolerance and acceptance, all the while under attack and careful not to out themselves as anything other than perfectly normal; at one point literally hiding in the crowd.

On Remembrance Day, the performance began with students hidden under blue sheets. “The depths, the tide the salt, the foam,” the script read.

Ships’ bells faded into the cries of seagulls, then were overtaken by the siren song of Vaughn Williams’ A Pastoral Symphony.

The children read letters to their fathers – “I taste my tears Papa, I taste salt” – to which a member of the chorus replies, “You have to learn to say goodbye.”

The letters jump through time from the First and Second World Wars to more modern conflicts in Bosnia and then Afghanistan, where the letters are also addressed to mothers. In the end, they defy Hitler by dancing to swing music.

Lines are not randomly assigned to students; instead they play to the strengths of each child, recognizing personality traits and drawing them out.

To say Mr. Kershaw pushes the kids is a gross understatement. He peels them, layer by layer. He is an artist who pushes himself.

“You have to make a program unassailable, you have to deliver it at a certain level and quality so if it’s threatened to be taken away for any reason people will say no – this is valuable,” he said.

To be clear, Mr. Kershaw’s music classes would survive even if the axe falls on the band and strings programs.

But when someone wants to talk to me about whether music and performance are frills that we can no longer afford, I’ll send them to Studio K – the outbuilding at Kerrisdale that has now become Mr. Kershaw’s mad artist laboratory, his Factory. He waited five years to get his hands on it.

It’s the place the kids can’t wait to get to in the morning and the last place they want to leave.

It is their refuge; the creative space where judgment and conformity have been pushed away by creativity and possibility, and it is entirely the creation of the most committed teacher I have ever met.

Surely we can afford that.

Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 88.1 FM and 690 AM in Vancouver.

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