NACO’s Canada 150 tour: Sistema is making a musical difference in New Brunswick

Ken MacLeod has been a key person in the development of Sistema New Brunswick. Photo: Peter Robb

MONCTON, N.B. • About 15 years ago, Ken MacLeod’s oldest daughter Erica had auditioned for a spot with the New Brunswick Youth Orchestra (NBYO) and had made the grade.

MacLeod was a supportive father, even though he had no musical background. But that audition has turned into his life’s work.

The one-time New Brunswick MLA was running a fund-raising consulting business in 2002 and his expertise kicked in with a chance meeting at his daughter’s very first rehearsal. MacLeod was one of the parents in the hall and one of the youth orchestra officials happened to mention that the NBYO had been offered a trip to New York City and a concert at Carnegie Hall. But, with an annual budget of about $30,000, the official said, they couldn’t afford to go.

MacLeod piped up, he says, “I told them ‘If we could raise the money, could we go?'”

They raised $145,000. The kids played Carnegie Hall and the NBYO has been touring the world regularly ever since and Ken MacLeod has been involved every step of the way, helping it grow.

In 2008, he learned about El Sistema, the Venezuelan program of using music education as an agent of social change. And he jumped at importing the idea into his home province.

“It immediately stimulated my mind. So I read everything I could and I wrote a two page brief about the idea of Sistema. At the end of the brief I asked ‘Could this work in New Brunswick?’ We have 25,000 children living below the poverty line and thousands more in families of the working poor who would never get that opportunity.”

He took the idea around and got advice and support from friends and former colleagues, including even from Frank McKenna, MacLeod’s former party leader and a former premier of the province.

“Many people said kids in North America wouldn’t do this three hours a day every day of the school week. What we have found is that we have two or three times the applications than we have spaces for.

“We were told we would have 50 per cent attrition, but we’ve had only about 15 per cent. And we have seen profound outcomes. (School) absenteeism dropped 62 per cent among Sistema kids.”

The first Sistema program in New Brunswick started the fall of 2009 in Moncton with 50 children and one teacher. It now reaches about 850 young musicians in eight locations, urban and rural, in the province, including two on-reserve programs for First Nations children. There are more than 50 teachers and the annual budget is about $3 million. And they have plans for more growth in coming months to about 1,200 students, 62 teachers and an annual budget of $4 million.

The province funds most of Sistema NB’s budget because, frankly, they have seen the results. Young children are introduced to a rigorous five-days-a-week education that lasts about three hours each day after school.

“I have thought long and hard about why it works and I think I can explain it. It’s about two words: opportunity and achievement. Those are the things that will transform the lives of kids. … None of these kids come from musical households. They start with an instrument that they make out of papier-mâché.

Sistema has helped children such as Jude and Owen Melanson. Jude, 15, plays double bass and younger brother Owen is a drummer. Both of them are sticking with Sistema, says their mother Katie Melanson. It keeps her growing boys occupied after school. She’s not sure if they’ll continue in music as a career but Jude, for one, is now trying to learn piano and is talking about studying music in university. Without Sistema, this single mother wouldn’t be able to afford music lessons.

On Saturday afternoon at Moncton’s Wesleyan Celebration Centre the boys joined 240 of their Sistema colleagues to rehearse with members of the NAC Orchestra who are on tour in Atlantic Canada. Saturday evening three orchestras made up of Sistema NB children and youth performed a selection of pieces from composers such as Verdi, Beethoven and Bach with 35 musicians from NACO. Outreach and educational events are a big part of every NACO tour. Across Atlantic Canada, NACO is actively working with 50 different organizations. In a testament to how Sistema NB is viewed in Moncton, a provincial cabinet minister, the mayor and the federal Fisheries minister Dominic Leblanc were on hand. They were there along with a crowd of enthusiastic parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters.

During Saturday’s rehearsals, the young musicians got to work directly under the baton of NACO’s Alexander Shelley and with virtuoso violinist James Ehnes. It’s something to see nine-year-olds tackle some of the classics with such apparent ease, discipline and professionalism. Sistema works, it appears.

For MacLeod, who is the president and CEO of NBYO, of which Sistema NB is part, this has become his life’s work. It’s more work than he’s ever taken on and the expectations are always high, but for this overachiever (he’s the first in his family to go to university), that seems par for the course.

Nowadays, Sistema NB is the largest such program in the country and MacLeod is often brought in to advise and encourage. The organization’ teachers have their own professional orchestra called Tutta Musica, which is performing in the province. As well, Sistema and the NBYO, led by the Venezuelan national Antonio Delgado, himself a Sistema-trained musician, have created an annual music festival.

This July, as part of a Canada 150 project called O Canada Young 150, NBYO will unveil a new commission written by Canadian composer Howard Shore and take it on the road to Ottawa and elsewhere with soloist soprano Measha Brueggergosman. They will be joined by a Venezuelan orchestra on their tour. As well, Sistema NB is talking to a university about establishing a one-year diploma in teaching artistry.

“For me the motivation is the kids. It’s the chance to make a difference in their lives. It’s all-consuming. It’s day, night, all the time.

At 62, McLeod isn’t the type to rest on his laurels.

“My thinking now is how do we scale up? We are already the biggest program of our kind in the country but how do we go from (850) to 5,000.”

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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.