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Two Six Nations students who participated in the YouthBeat event on June 6, 2018.Jennifer Rowson/Handout

The Royal Conservatory of Music has created a pair of programs available to students and teachers across the country. The Globe and Mail spoke with RCM president Peter Simon about YouthBeat (an interactive musical application for iPads) and Indigenous Artists, a web-based project designed to help all students and teachers understand and appreciate Indigenous culture and perspectives. And because there’s more to the conservatory than music charts and recitals, we chatted about two recent visits by celebrities – one a musician; the other, decidedly not – to the Toronto institution.

The Band‘s Robbie Robertson was named an honorary fellow of the Royal Conservatory. Did he appear at your Royal Occasion gala this month?

He did. He got up and said, “You can imagine when the Royal Conservatory called me. I thought they got the wrong number.”

He can’t read music, and I hadn’t known that. But I told him, “You’re a musician. End of story.”

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Peter Simon (right) with Robbie Robertson (left) at the Royal Occasion gala on May 31, 2018.Christina Gapic/Handout

He’s not playing in public any longer. You’ve got a nice room. Why don’t you invite him to play Koerner Hall?

We’ve done that. We’d love to have him. But, you’re right, he’s stopped playing. He said flat out, “I just can’t. No can do.” Which is something I don’t understand, honestly.

The Royal Conservatory is involved in music education in Indigenous communities. Given his First Nations heritage, did that come up when you spoke with him?

Actually, we had an Indigenous group play for Robbie at the Royal Occasion. He said the fact that we were aware enough to have an Indigenous group play for him was a revelation. He was very pleased.

The Royal Conservatory has been involved in implementing music and the arts into public schools for years. You’ve had success, in particular, with Indigenous students. What’s the key there?

The key, in any classroom, is getting into the classroom on a daily basis. That’s the big win. Now, coming into the Indigenous community specifically, what we’ve learned is to be careful to never be prescriptive. We’ve always asked. They’re leading the way. We’re helping. For Indigenous communities, they believe traditional learning needs to be hands-on. The great oral tradition in Indigenous communities relates to storytelling. It’s social. I think we can all relate to that. One of the issues in public education is for a lot of kids, that’s how they learn. They need the five senses to be engaged – not just one or two.

One of your new programs is YouthBeat, an iPad application. It’s a group thing?

It has to do with the fundamentals of music-making and creation. The kids work in teams. They’re excited. They’re happy. I believe 25 First Nations communities have signed up for YouthBeat in the fall. We’ve also created a website,, where artists and elders tell their stories through videos. Teachers will be able to consult this resource. It solves a big problem for them. The history curriculum is being changed. There’s a mandate to relate the Indigenous experience. The problem is that teachers have no clue how to do it.

No clue, or is it that they’re a little wary?

They’re sensitive about representing it in the wrong way or saying the wrong thing. We’re saying, fine, so just talk. It’s a solution to a problem. A lot of times in public education, you have a great idea. But you just don’t know how to execute it. We’re connecting two parties.

You’re working with the Vancouver School Board, and one of the YouthBeat pilot sites was in Winnipeg. You’ve had success in the past in Fort McMurray, Alta. What’s the secret?

There are a lot of students who don’t connect with formalized, intellectual learning. There are students who are new immigrants who are at sea with a lot of this. There’s a disconnect, and, ultimately, they’re not interested. They disengage. The thing today is that with all the digital things, students are used to finding out things on their own – being creative. So, when they’re just sitting and listening, it doesn’t work for a lot of kids. So schools are trying to facilitate a change in approach. We’re trying to help. The reason we had success in Fort McMurray is that we made it fun.

This is off topic, but I saw a review recently of a concert by Bill Murray and Jan Vogler in London, where the reviewer found the performance “curious and pointless.” Murray and Vogler did the concert last year for your season gala. I imagine you disagree with the British critic?

I don’t agree with that at all. I was really taken by Bill Murray’s readings. You could tell they were important to him and personal, because of the messages contained.

I think that was the critic’s point. That it was indulgent, and pointless to anyone other than Murray, especially when he was singing.

I think what Bill was trying to say is that “I don’t actually have a voice, but I’m going to sing anyway. And I’m going to add to that my humanity and my passion and my feeling, and I hope that’s okay.”

I saw the show here, and thought it was much more than okay.

I thought it was a delightful evening. And I love it when people who are not known as musicians make music. I don’t like lines. Music is for everybody.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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