NACO on Tour: Making the musical case for a peaceful school

Nine year old Mohamad Taha focuses on his clarinet solo. That's NACO's Jonathan Ward in the background during a Music Route event Tuesday in Utrecht. Photo: Fred Cattroll

UTRECHT, THE NETHERLANDS — The Overvecht section of the city of Utrecht is diverse culturally, socially and economically. It used to be a very troubled part of town but these days it is evolving into an example of how to bring people together from all races and creeds.

One way that happens is by taking the Music Route.

Essentially Music Route uses music as a means of building connections within a diverse community.

The program, says Hanno Tomassen, who founded Music Route, follows a very specific principle of education that seeks to build a peaceful school. These days Tomassen works as a community outreach programmer for the TivoliVredenburg performing arts centre in Utrecht.

One of the pieces of “music” produced by the Music Route children.

He said Tivoli has been working with the Music Route schools for the past nine years.

“(Overvecht) is a challenged community,” he said. Many of the young people attending the schools would not have a chance to handle a musical instrument without this program.

“We feel responsible for music education in our city. We are a big venue and we attract mainly people who have money to buy a ticket. But we do want to reach out to people who don’t have that money and get them involved in music making and experiencing it first hand.”

“It’s all about getting a joint inspiration going between professionals and amateurs.”

One of the pieces of “music” produced by the Music Route children.

There are 11 elementary grade schools in Overvecht, all of which use something called the Vreedzame School Method. Music Route runs through all the schools. There are about 1,500 kids involved in in-school and after-school music instruction.

The youngest students start with singing and dancing and by Grade 5 they pick up an instrument.

Essentially this is an on-going program for primary schools that emphasizes “social competence and democratic citizenship.” This pedagogical approach has been adopted by other organizations in Overvecht to build a peaceful community, Tomassen said. It centres on thinking about “what can we as a group do to make things better,” he said, in school and in the wider area.

The starting point here is that the class, and the school, reflect a community, he said.

One of the pieces of “music” produced by the Music Route children.

As a result, children feel that they are heard and seen and they learn to make decisions together and resolve conflicts together. They also learn to be open to the differences between people. This results in children who feel responsible for each other and for their community.

The concept is spreading across schools in The Netherlands, but it started in Utrecht, Tomassen said.

Musically, the emphasis is on creative music making and “being the owner of your own stuff,” said Music Route’s current artistic director Peter Sambros, who has a background in jazz as a composer and double bass player. As a result the students do a lot of improvisation.

The emphasis is not on reading black notes of a musical score it’s more about “making music together” and building community, he added. For example, through the past year the music students have been working on the theme of heroes, from rock stars and football players to heroes in their families to how they can be a hero themselves but cleaning up their rooms or helping around the house.

“We think the children of this neighbourhood really need music education because it’s not normal here.”

He says there used to be a lot of crime and individuals troubled by mental health issues in Overvecht. These days, it is not troubled, it’s “an interesting neighbourhood. The world is happening right here.”

Five members of the NAC Orchestra — Don Renshaw, trombone; Steven Van Gulik, trumpet; Julie Fauteux, French horn; Jonathan Wade, percussion and Kenneth Simpson, percussion — got their introduction to the Peaceful School Tuesday afternoon in the gymnasium shared by two of the 11 schools in Overvecht. They performed for and with members of the Music Route extra-curricular ensemble, ages eight to 12.

Music Route’s Artistic Director Peter Sambros holds one of the drawings made by the kids in preparation for their workshop with the NACO players. Photo: Fred Cattroll

The children asked the professionals about their instruments and what other instrument they might play. The answers ranged from exchanging a French horn for a cello and a trumpet for a guitar god’s axe.

Then the group got down to the business of making music together.

They broke up in three groups and began to study what the children had prepared. When the organizers talked about a creative approach to music making, it was there on the gym floor on small sheets of paper.

The children had prepared images instead of notes, this is something Sambros does a lot.

The children were asked to draw some music that they could work on with the NACO players. The kids produced drawings, and some different sized dots, coloured cones from small to big and other shapes. In the workshops, the Music Route teachers helped translate what the images meant musically. And out of that effort, a joyful noise emerged from each group.

One of the pieces of “music” produced by the Music Route children.

One of the music makers was nine year old Mohamad Taha who has been playing his clarinet he said through translation for a month. He certainly wasn’t shy as he belted out a solo standing with his mates.

Mohamad, who was born in The Netherlands to Moroccan parents, says he loves playing music and now with his instrument he added he can really explore it all.

Marieke Spee is the mother of two children in Music Route. Her son Olivier is 11 and plays clarinet has been playing for three years. Daughter is eight and plays violin.

“It’s really good that they bring music into the schools and they get a chance to work with professionals.

“It brings people together. Overvecht is big neighbourhood and there are a lot of problems with unemployment and poverty. Some people in Utrecht are afraid to go into the area,” Spee said. But she is in it every day and she’s not concerned.

In holidays continue to do music programs and they bring the children from the area together.

“It doesn’t matter where you are from or who your parents are. I think that’s very important. It’s a way to meet each other and if you don’t meet each other you stay in your own bubble and build up your own ideas about each other.”

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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.