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Toronto Working on excellence: The Regent Park School of Music school tries a new beat

Joel Michael, 11, times the beat by closely watching the record during a DJ class at the Regent Park School of Music in Toronto on Friday, March 27, 2015.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Alongside the scrambled symphony of piano and cello lessons at the Regent Park School of Music, each Friday a curious sound emanates from the classroom at the end of the hall.

Waka waka woo woo waka waka woo.

Woo waka woo woo waka waka woo woo.

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Turntables, the kind DJs use to scratch records to the beat of the music at clubs, dance parties and events and festivals, are the school's latest addition to the classes offered at its Dundas Street East and Parliament location in the Daniels Spectrum building.

Launched in September as part of RPSM's strategy to expand learning with new instruments and technology, the turntable and mixing classes run weekly, with separate sessions for junior and senior students. It's another tactic the school is using to engage kids and excite them about music with something familiar and cool to many.

"You could go from, like, hip hop to, like, Lana Del Rey. You just have to slow down the tempo," Tamoyah Morgan says. As a trumpet and iPad student, the 15-year-old is already familiar with following beat counts, but mixing her own music in the senior DJ class presented a new challenge.

"It's easier doing it with music that you like and you listen to so that you enjoy it more and you actually have a connection to it," she says.

Plans for a DJ class had been in the works since 2010, along with an iPad ensemble that launched in 2013 under the direction of musician and Regent Park native Thompson Egbo-Egbo. Both programs have been successful, says Richard Marsella, executive director of RPSM, which delivers after-school music programs to about 1,700 children from low-income families.

"We really wanted this as part of our strategic plan to kind of veer off the road of Western classical music," he says. "We saw turntables as a definite pillar in there and just engaging kids in new technology, whatever that may look like."

Mr. Marsella says the school's new five-year strategy, to be approved later this year, includes plans to expand the DJ classes, possibly to its satellite locations in other priority areas in the city.

Costs typically run at about $1,500 a student at RPSM, but the school charges just $1 a lesson, regardless of the instrument. Mr. Marsella says the DJ classes are slightly more expensive for the school to administer. That doesn't help the fact that it's already sometimes an uphill battle convincing parents more used to classical music lessons that the DJ classes are legitimate endeavours.

"I think a lot of people will probably be pretty unconvinced until they see a performance that we do," says Jon Santiago, who moonlights as DJ Dopey and is one of three RPSM DJ teachers. He adds the program can actually help engage kids who may not already be interested in learning about music.

The 12 students enrolled in both the junior and senior classes will showcase their talents on April 29 at the Crescendo 2015 fundraiser for RPSM, which is financed mainly through donations.

"Some of the kids think it's cool," Mr. Santiago says. "Once they get in there, they find it's not just fun and games. It takes a lot more and it is a pretty good tool to learn about music."

In a classroom cluttered in one corner with a drum set, harps, guitars and sitars, professional DJ and music educator Jasper Gahunia leads a junior class of four boys through a scratching lesson. A quick beat pumps through the speakers as Mr. Gahunia counts out to prepare the boys to copy his scratches on each of their own turntables.

"You're scratching to the sound of the beat like any other instrument," he instructs.

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As his turn arrives, seven-year-old Kaya Puddicomb wiggles with effort, his small hands perfectly mimicking Mr. Gahunia's beat.

"Nice!" Mr. Santiago congratulates a grinning Kaya. He is actually too young to formally enroll in the turntable classes, but can't resist wandering over each week anyway after his cello lessons down the hall. The school is indulging his curiosity so far, but Mr. Marsella has made it clear he'd like Kaya to focus on cello until he can graduate to the turntable ensemble when he's nine.

RPSM, and the DJ class in particular, has been a blessing, says Kaya's father, Brian Puddicomb. Kaya began cello lessons at his day school in Parkdale, but Mr. Puddicomb says the school cited behavioural issues and Kaya's "kinesthetic" learning style as reasons for suddenly removing him from the classes, despite never raising any concerns in the past.

"They see him as a black kid. And because he's a boy and he's energetic, they don't know how to deal with him," Mr. Puddicomb says.

Kaya's family enrolled him in cello classes at RPSM in February. When Mr. Puddicomb came to pick him up one evening, he found his son scratching away in the turntable class.

"This now is an opportunity for him to display his ability to learn quickly," Mr. Puddicomb says. "It renews my spirit and confidence in him as a parent."

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And Kaya's favourite part about the classes?

"No one's bullying me."

Creating a supportive environment to support its students' success has been one of RPSM's goals since it launched in a row house near Queen and River Streets in 1999, Mr. Marsella says.

"We're an after-school program, so we come in, in those tender hours," he says. "We're working really hard to make sure that kids stay on the path of being leaders in the community."

That mission also means next week's fundraiser is one RPSM's biggest and most important events. In the senior DJ class, 12-year-old Dequan Demos practises his slow mix of rapper Drake's 6 God so he's ready to perform live at the fundraiser, where none of the mixing will be prerecorded.

Alma Ahmed, 14, is a violin and iPad student who helps out in the DJ classes as a volunteer. She once mixed a classical violin tune with songs by Drake and Skrillex.

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"You can see how two different genres make a new genre of music and you might like that genre better," she says.

Her classmate Tamoyah confirms, "It was all over the place, but it sounded good together."

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