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The Regent Park Music School Choir performs with Jackie Richardson at Daniels Spectrum.


Developer Mitchell Cohen discovered the Regent Park School of Music quite by accident a few years ago while driving to work along Queen East. The president of Daniels Corp. was in the early stages of planning the ambitious revitalization of the crumbling social housing project – his firm is the builder – when he noticed the school's sign on a cramped row house near Sackville Avenue.

Curious, Mr. Cohen wandered in and was entranced by what he found: "It was this unbelievably beautiful thing they had happening," he said, recalling how the house pulsed with sound and was redolent of cooking smells from the kitchen.

Founded in 1999 in a church basement by a local minister who saw music as a way to reach disadvantaged youth, the plucky non-profit provides high quality but very inexpensive music lessons to hundreds of kids from low-income families living in or near Regent Park. Fees are geared to household income, with some children charged just $2 a class, with use of an instrument thrown in for free. The school fund-raises the balance of the cost, which can run to $1,500 per student a year.

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The RPSM's mission struck a chord with Mr. Cohen, a one-time co-op housing activist who writes music and has played in semi-professional jazz and R&B bands since he was a teenager in Regina in the 1970s. Music education, he felt, "is a pathway to a bigger world outside the confines of a bounded community."

Fast forward to this past fall, and the opening of the Daniels Spectrum, a $24-million cultural centre financed with public and private funds, including a $4-million donation from Daniels. Part of the redevelopment plan involved creating a single space for the dozens of arts and cultural groups operating in and around Regent Park. "We said we needed to find a way to create a hub," said Mr. Cohen. "We very deliberately put it right in the middle of the community."

In September, the RPSM moved from the row house into a 3,000 sq.-ft. purpose-built suite on the second floor. It has seven soundproof studios, several donated Yamaha pianos, a music library and a rehearsal hall. Bruce Mau provided a wall-sized mural for the lobby and is working on the school's branding efforts.

Thanks to the new digs (and income from the sale of the building on Queen), enrolment has almost doubled, to 950 students (including those in the RPSM summer camp and its satellite programs in Parkdale and Jane-Finch). Emboldened by the additional capacity, director Richard Marsella said RPSM is now embarking on an ambitious campaign to expand its services to low-income communities right across the city, with the goal of providing lessons to 3,000 kids by 2015. Music, as he pointed out, "saves lives. It keeps you on a path that leads to other things."

"The facility is a big, huge deal," said Zorana Sadiq, an opera singer who has been giving vocal music lessons at RPSM for eight years. Many students, she added, come from large families living in cramped quarters. Those households are often filled with music, but the kids revel at the opportunity to have a bit of one-on-one time with their teachers. "I feel that's very valuable for them."

In the RPSM's old digs, such concentration could be elusive. The place, said Ms. Sadiq, had "the world's crappiest piano." Sound carried readily from room to room, which meant the school could only schedule four lessons at a time, thus limiting enrolment. When the drumming sessions were going on in the basement, adds Mr. Marsella, the vibrations filled the entire building.

At the same time, the little house had atmosphere to burn. Waiting caregivers and siblings congregated in the galley kitchen, chatting and warming up meals as the children took their lessons.

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Some students feel a twang of nostalgia about the change. "The old [school] felt more homey," said 17-year-old Michelle Milligan, who has been taking piano at RPSM for 10 years. Many people, she added, would just go there to hang out.

"I like this new building," replied Meng Hang, a 16-year-old trumpet player. "The old one was falling apart." He joined four years ago and lives fives minutes from the Spectrum building.

Despite those old cramped quarters, RPSM over the years forged remarkable connections with prominent local musicians, such as jazz vocal legend Jackie Richardson, Tapestry New Opera director Wayne Strongman and Barenaked Ladies bassist Jim Creeggan. CBC radio personality Judy Maddren sits on the board.

The choir has performed with the likes of Pink Floyd's Roger Waters and Toronto blues singer Molly Johnson.

Claudia Aenishlanshlin's son Ben has sung in the choir for two years. She is a single parent who works as a nurse at St. Michael's Hospital. "I'm not saying I'm low, low income," she allowed, "but it does make it a lot more manageable."

When Ben was six and brimming with energy, she enrolled him at RPSM for drumming and piano lessons. Like many kids, he resisted mightily. But after seeing a vocal performance at Massey Hall, Ben was "awestruck," and begged her to sign him up for singing lessons. Today, he's one of four boys in the choir program. "He helps the little kids now."

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Indeed, Ms. Aeinishanslin described the school as a big family. "Ben's grown up in this choir," she said one recent evening as she arrived after her shift to pick him up from a rehearsal for a big fundraiser for the Spectrum that included the choir performing some songs written by Mr. Cohen about the revitalization process.

As she waited at a table in the Spectrum's spacious lobby, a teenager was picking out melodies on the grand piano in one corner while other parents trickled in from work to collect their charges.

"They are drawing in a percentage of students from Regent Park," she observed. "Having this smack in the middle of this whole revitalization project, it's perfect.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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