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Children from low-income Toronto families get far more than lessons on instruments at the Dixon Hall Music School

Instructor Ruth Schmid plays recorder with nine-year-old Margarita Tarnapolski, right, at the Dixon Hall Music School in Toronto on Dec. 19, 2017.

There are no signs, and no advertisements; the only indication that there's a music school in the basement of Dixon Hall Neighbourhood Services in Regent Park is the children carting instrument cases down the stairs.

Despite its lack of physical visibility, Dixon Hall Music School has a two-year wait list. The program offers subsidized lessons to the children of low-income families in the Regent Park, Moss Park and St. Lawrence neighbourhoods.

The lessons at Dixon Hall can cost between $3 and $17 per half-hour lesson. The school has a means test with which they determine the cost of the lesson based on the family's income, and lesson prices will often drop if more than one child in the family attends the school. Most of the families at the school make $29,000 or less, so they are paying between $3 and $5 per lesson.

"It blows my mind that, given those income levels, they still want to invest in culture and artistic instruction for their kids," said Bob McKitrick, director of the school.

Henriette Nguyen instructs Rediat Ghebru, 10, on the piano.

The program was started in 1978 by a group of Regent Park residents who loved music and wanted to see kids learning music as well, regardless of family income. After attempting – in vain – to solicit funding from tobacco and liquor companies, the school got funding from the United Way, which still helps support Dixon Hall overall.

"Because of the ongoing poverty levels in these areas, there's an obvious need for affordable lessons," said Mr. McKitrick. The school provides the lessons not just to teach music, but also to teach responsibility in attending weekly lessons, and the importance of giving back to the community through performances.

Mr. McKitrick has watched the school grow since he started as a teacher in the mid-1980s. The program used to take place in one room in the basement of Dixon Hall. It had three partitioned-off piano studios and a drum set and conducted violin and saxophone lessons, among others, in a room no bigger than a large office. Parents waiting for their child's lesson to finish often had to stand out in the hallway.

"It was chaotic," said Mr. McKitrick who became director in 2000, his office now stacked with sheets of music, hand-drawn pictures and thank-you cards, and a dusty boombox. "We just made do. We didn't have anything better, so we just got used to it."

Today, the school's $500,000 annual budget is funded by the Toronto Arts Council, fundraising by the school and private donors. In 2010, some of the private donors for the school saw the space it operated in, and decided that it was too small. Now the school operates in the entire basement of Dixon Hall, with a designated parent seating area and soundproof studios.

Jessica Huynh, 22, sits in one of the studios at least once a week with a classical guitar. Ms. Huynh first signed up for the music school when she was in Grade 7, but had to wait two years for a spot.

"I didn't know that I had music talent growing up," said Ms. Huynh, whose parents moved to Canada from Vietnam as refugees from the war. "I was always an artsy kid, but I never had the luxury of taking lessons or something extracurricular that would cost more."

Ken-en Xi, 12, gets drumming lessons from Eric Woolston.

She has been taking lessons at $4.25 per class and has been paying for them herself since high school and throughout her university degree at Ontario College of Arts and Design.

"It's not like other places where you just walk in, take your lesson and go home," said Ms. Huynh, cradling the instrument she fell in love with in Grade 10. "I find it's more connected, maybe because of the camps."

Along with teaching 22 different classes in music, ensemble, theory and rock band, the school also hosts music camps during the summer, March break and Christmas, all for free.

For Jin Yu, 11, and Esther Li, 11, the camps have been some of the best moments during their more than half a decade at the school. They both have fond memories of Mr. McKitrick's macaroni-and-cheese dinners.

But it isn't just the camps – and macaroni and cheese – that they rave about. It's also the performances.

"There are so many opportunities for us to perform in front of big audiences," said Jin, who takes piano, guitar and choir lessons, reminiscing about the time they performed in front of Toronto Mayor John Tory.

"We're a performance-based school," said Mr. McKitrick, "so we like kids to be out there in the community playing, giving back to the community."

The performances aren't just for giving back to the community, but also for encouraging shy kids to get out of their shell.

Performing has gotten easier for Esther, who also takes piano, guitar and choir, but is still nerve-wracking. "When your fingers touch the notes on the piano, you feel excited but at the same time, you're so nervous," she said.

"All the performances have really helped with my self-confidence," said Ms. Huynh, "and helped me realize there's more that I can do."