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Natanael Dobra and his son Joshua try an accordion at the Joe Chithalen Memorial Musical Instrument Lending Library in Kingston. (Johnny C Y Lam)
Natanael Dobra and his son Joshua try an accordion at the Joe Chithalen Memorial Musical Instrument Lending Library in Kingston. (Johnny C Y Lam)

Instrument-lending programs spreading at libraries across Canada Add to ...

Most people in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver have never heard of Joe Chithalen, but his musical philosophy is coming to their cities.

Mr. Chithalen, a Kingston musician, loved to master new instruments. He acquired fiddles and guitars and kept branching out, amassing a huge collection.

“He played blues, he played funk, he played country; if there was a band playing anywhere, he would play in it,” said Terry Snider, another Kingston musician.

Mr. Chithalen had taken violin lessons as a child, but he thought music would come just as naturally to most people if they could try it. He repeated a mantra when he stepped offstage after every show, friends say. “It was a privilege to play with you tonight,” he would tell his bandmates. “If only everyone had this privilege.”

Mr. Chithalen died in 1999 at the age of 32 from an allergic reaction. His friends knew immediately what they could do in his memory: they catalogued his instruments and started lending them out to anyone who wanted to play.

Sixteen years later, the Joe Chithalen Memorial Musical Instrument Lending Library in Kingston has about 800 instruments that it lent out more than 5,000 times last year.

A crescendo of interest in the idea is helping to bring instrument-lending to public libraries in three of Canada’s biggest cities. A Dec. 14 report to the board of the Toronto Public Library said only final negotiations are left before the launch of a two-year pilot program that will be located first at the Parkdale branch, aimed at adults and children alike.

The library looked at Kingston’s “very popular” example when deciding if it was feasible. But the initial idea came from Sun Life Financial, which approached public library systems in early 2015 about providing sponsorship.

Sun Life has declined to speak about the project until it’s official.

“For the time being, we can just say we’re building the program together and are very much looking forward to launching it,” library spokeswoman Ana-Maria Critchley said.

People in Kingston say cities everywhere can be transformed by free instruments. Their library – which runs on local fundraising, donated instruments and mostly volunteered time – can’t possibly store its drum kits, guitars, flutes, accordions and dozens of other kinds of instruments, said Mr. Snider, the library’s president. They are in constant circulation at schools, a mental-health treatment centre and in countless local homes.

“It’s just like leaving books around the kids,” said Mr. Snider. “Lo and behold, they start to read.”

Shari Brownstein Tallon teaches music in Sharbot Lake, an eastern Ontario town that’s home to many low-income families and near the Shabot Obaadjiwan First Nation. She watched this fall as a girl in Grade 9 borrowed a guitar, tried it, then borrowed a keyboard and fell in love.

“That was it,” she said. “I’ve been teaching her for just a few months and she’s incredible.”

The girl used YouTube tutorials, learned Beethoven and pop songs and overcame shyness to perform at a recital.

Her dedication persuaded her mother to shell out $50 for a keyboard from Kijiji for Christmas, Ms. Brownstein Tallon said.

Kingston guitar teacher Jeff Creamer says about a quarter of his students use borrowed instruments. He was even inspired to teach one boy for free after seeing him borrow guitar after guitar and then raise money for the lending library, all before he reached high school. “He’s born to be a musician,” Mr. Creamer said.

There are some similar collections in the United States, and the idea has slowly spread in Canada. This month, the Joe Chithalen library gave a “starter kit” to the County of Prince Edward Public Library in Ontario. The library, said chief executive Barbara Sweet, had already bought some ukeleles for an earlier project and found them popular with both seniors and teens.

In an online age, she said, the library is aggressively trying new things, to “expand our horizons and get different people in and change up the offerings once again.”

Mr. Chithalen was passionate about making music free to people on the margins, including those with no fixed address, said his mother, Eleanor Chithalen. But seeing thousands of people share instruments, rich and poor, fulfills his vision in its own way, she said.

“It takes away the stigma … because there’s such a cross-section of borrowers,” she said. “I’m happy about that and I think he would be.”

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