They got a way to have a voice and they felt heard

Dennis Hanagan –

A Downtown school principal hopes to hear some of his students performing at a high-profile event this summer.

“Hopefully we’ll get picked for something for the Pan Am Games,” says Craig Tsuji, principal at the Downtown Vocal Music Academy that comes under the Toronto District School Board. “We’re trying to get into some big things.”

The academy at Ryerson Community School on Denison Ave. immerses children grades 4 to 8 in music. “We have a whole bunch of things in the works. We’re just trying to pick and choose what we’re going to do,” Tsuji says. He envisions his students one day singing the national anthem at a Blue Jays game.

At Christmas they sang for the Rotary Club at Casa Loma. When the weather warms up they’re planning pop-up concerts Downtown at Dundas Square and in the financial district.

The school started in September 2012. It accepts students from across the GTA. No auditions are required. It follows the Ontario curriculum but singing, performing and learning about music are at the academy’s core.

“Where we can we try to integrate as much vocal music as possible,” says Tsuji. Kids can also perform in musicals or try their hand at ukulele playing. He hopes they’ll soon have the choice to learn African drumming.

“We’re trying to develop a competitive showcase choir. You have to try out for it. It’s for kids that really want to go on in singing and in music,” Tsuji says.

He’s found that his students learn better when their studies are set against a music backdrop; they study music every day. One of his science teachers had his students learn a rap song to better memorize a chart.

“They seemed to get it quicker,” says Tsuji. “At the same time they enjoyed it. We ‘re still striving for the high achievement levels as anyone else on the (TDSB) if not higher.”

In another case students complained about bullying, so Tsuji turned it into an opportunity to put the academy’s core subject to work.
“I said if you want me to hear you write a song about it, your teacher will help you, and sing it to me. They wrote beautiful blues tunes. They were doing 3-part harmonies,” says Tsuji.

“We gave them a way to have a voice, and they felt heard.”

The sense of achievement students gain from their musical creations can affect their other studies, Tsuji feels.

“When you achieve your behaviour changes, your attitude changes, your attendance changes,” says Tsuji. “If kids achieve with the musical side … and see that it’s valued (then) everything starts spiralling up, meaning getting better and better. That’s what we’re hoping.”

Registration is done online and will close on March 27. Late applications will be put on a waiting list.

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