Back to school body and soul: Joan Harrison offers her own take on music education

Some members of the Capital Strings pose with Joan Harrison who is standing with the cello.

Joan Harrison is a cellist who has played her instrument around the world with ensembles such as the NAC Orchestra and the New York City Opera Company.

But she has another passion and that’s education.

As the public school system retreats from arts education generally, those who offer instruction are playing an important role in the advancement of the art form in Ottawa and in Canada. Harrison has her own take, one she is putting into action. It’s not the only way, but it’s worth thinking about.

Harrison, who also teaches cello at Carleton University and plays in the Amberwood Duo with the well-known local pianist and musicologist Elaine Keillor, has also established her own music school. It’s called the Capital Strings and Voices Collective, and it’s where Harrison is putting her ideas into practice.

Her love of teaching formed early on, she said, growing up in the Boston, Massachusetts, area.

“As a kid,” she said, “I was always helping the teacher. I would lead sectionals in high school orchestra.”

Harrison loved the cello but she was also interested in being an educator.

“I’m also interested in the intersection between citizenship and arts education. In my experience the musicians who reach great heights aren’t that civically active, with some exceptions such as YoYo Ma and Pablo Casals.”

Part of Harrison’s thinking is her understanding of the teachings that surround the Suzuki system of music education.

“Suzuki talks about creating noble human beings. The point of playing music is not to make musicians but to help people learn to be human.”

Harrison moved to Ottawa some 27 years ago, hoping to make a difference. She joined the NAC Orchestra, where she remained for many years. She did move to New York City for a time with the opera company but soon she was back in Bytown and in NACO. But that other itch in her nature kept nagging and the orchestra job wore her down, for many reasons, so she decided to pursue a new course. She enrolled in a PhD program at uOttawa with the well-known thinker on education Joel Westheimer.

At one point, “Joel said to me, ‘I have never had such a conservative student before.’ And through the course of five years working with him, I realized I was a very typical classical player. I was very conservative and a real snob about what constitutes so-called classical music.

“If someone had told me they wanted to play the violin and also learn how to fiddle, I would have said you can’t do both. That’s the way I was taught.

“For example, Baroque cello is one of my specialties and I have done that for years. When I was in graduate school I was told by my teacher that I had to choose between being a modern cellist or a Baroque cellist.” The teacher believed one would ruin the other.

“I disagreed with him and kept playing Baroque cello because I loved it.”

From Westheimer she also picked up on his understanding of what it means to be a citizen including being responsible, particpatory and understanding and applied that to music education.

As a research project, she polled about 500 music teachers in the U.S. and discovered that while the teachers thought citizenship was important for students to learn, what the teachers actually saw as good citizenship was “learning music on time, following instructions that they asked students, showing up on time and not interrupting. It was basically all about discipline.”

As you might guess Harrison doesn’t have a lot of love for top down music instruction.

She pursued this with music students at the University of Ottawa, asking them for memories, good and bad, from their music instruction.

“Almost universally the best memory was when a teacher believed in them and told them they had done something well. The worst memory was always being shamed, being singled out, being told they wouldn’t be a professional musician.”

She also asked those students on their final exams what they would do differently.

“It was always about listening and about communication.”

Her research and thinking has been applied to Capital Strings which she founded after getting her PhD in 2013.

She has also integrated teaching her students about body positioning as a way to better understand how musicality is physically realized. To offer good advice she became a student of something called body mapping which offers ways to learn how to feel body in a most natural way.

For example, “If you are playing an instrument and think your bow arm only goes to your shoulderblade, you will end up in an injury. But if you realize the arm actually includes the shoulder and the collarbone and they all need to move when you play, all of a sudden playing is effortless and you get more sound.”

She has found that by learning how to play squash, she could also see the interplay of the whole body and not just the racquet arm. Even mundane tasks can illuminate, she said. For example, opening a jar of peanut butter resembles the beginning of a bow stroke.

She is not a big believer in the need for hours and hours of practicing.

“I think people practice too much and too hard. I tell students it’s about working smart, otherwise they won’t have a life. You need to have time to read and do sports.”

She also doesn’t believe in auditions. And she welcomes all ages into the Capital Strings.

“There are two orchestras now with 22 in each and they are both intergenerational. If you think you can do it, come.” University students and young professionals mentor the students. The youngest student is five and the oldest until recently was 81. She had to retire because of advancing Alzheimer’s.

“We try to play as if we are playing chamber music where we are taught to lead each other. It interesting but I find the younger kids have an easier time than the older group. We decide, as we go along, how many concerts we want to do, do we want to enter the Kiwanis festival or not.”

A major part of the work of the Capital Strings involves performances in homes for the elderly.

This started at The Perley and Rideau Veterans Health Centre and has moved to other homes such as the Embassy West home and Park Place in Centrepointe out of which the Capital Strings is based today.

“To me it is about connecting. What is most interesting is that the music students get to see the older people come in, looking somewhat defeated by age. By the end of the rehearsal the same people are smiling. At the Perley home we had one man in particular who had advanced dementia who started calling me by name.”

He had somehow remembered her. That’s the power of music.

The bottom line for Harrison is that she loves music and “I want to help people learn to love it and see that they can do it.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.