By Victoria Buchy, Staff

It’s the last session before Easter break, but these young musicians seem far more focused on the song they’re practicing than chocolate bunnies.  With a quick look around their modest rehearsal space, it’s a little piece of rock heaven.  An electronic drum kit, keyboard, a couple guitars, a bass and mics come alive at their touch.  There’s even a stage-light set with coloured gels and a few posters on the beige walls for ambience and encouragement where not so far away from a guitar tabs instruction chart, the four-faces of KISS stand out like the compass rose of rock’n’roll.  I’m in the Sudbury Youth Rocks world.  

Operated under the auspices of The John Howard Society of Sudbury, the program uses the rock band to give local teens who are at risk of conflict with the law or who may not otherwise have the chance to learn an instrument the opportunity to play in a band.  There are no fees to join and instruments are provided on-site at a space in the city’s downtown mall.  Participants get together in a supervised, peer-oriented environment after school to be rock gods in one of three weekly sessions offered all year round.

On this Thursday night, more than just the evening’s regulars come out to show their skills.  About twelve kids are here, plus some of their peer mentors.  There’s Leeandra Papa, who teaches bass and vocals, local paralegal Fab Cinal who teaches drums, and Greg Paul who keeps the tech and equipment in working order.  The kids are playing when I walk in, but stop a tune or two later for introductions.  I’m the honoured recipient tonight of a handmade Sudbury Youth Rocks necklace (in true rock tradition, its jewel is a logoed guitar pick).  I suddenly feel like a bit of a rock star myself.

I had been most intrigued to learn about this model of free music education in my hometown of Sudbury—if not just for its clever play on words given the city’s geographic composition (zing!).   But I didn’t know what to expect.  I had only experienced orchestral music programs for social development, beginning with our most recent Prize Laureate Dr. José Antonio Abreu’s program in Venezuela called El Sistema.  I listened and learned from its top graduates in the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra in Toronto during our Celebration of Music week, and soon after, had a humbling five-day tour of teaching centres called núcleos in Caracas.   How does social transformation happen in a rock band?

Back at practice, some songs are still in progress.  But when the band plays favourites like Katy Perry’s “Hot and Cold” and “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor, the sound is in full force as these teen rockers are entirely focused on the task of playing accurately with musical swagger.  After a couple songs, the kids effortlessly switch parts amongst themselves.  The trade-off between instruments and roles happens seamlessly with just some direction from Program Director Joel Mackey, when there’s an open spot.   

“Does everyone get the chance to play a different part?” I ask Leeandra standing beside me.  She found out about the program from Joel, who is a family friend.  She has become a regular volunteer teacher.   

“Yes, they just pick what they want to learn and we teach them.  Everyone has the chance to play any instrument in the band,” she says while we bop our heads to the beat.  I notice that the girls seem adventurous to try many different parts, switching off from guitar and bass to vocals.   The boys, Leeandra tells me, are still warming up to the idea of solo singing.
  
Sudbury Youth Rocks started in September 2008, the joint initiative of long-time friends Joel Mackey and John Rimore.  Together, they understood the transformative power of music and the arts when they organized a theatre production for youth back in the early eighties.  At the time, the city was smaller and residents somewhat disconnected from other neighbourhoods.  The collective citizen was also suffering boredom and disillusionment from a local strike at the city’s largest employer, the mining company Inco Limited.  The work stoppage was affecting thousands of workers and their families—a situation parallel to the ominous present-day reality for over two thousand Sudburians since July 2009.  

“For the first time in my life I felt like I belonged somewhere, ” says Joel, reflecting on his first theatre production with John where he built sets and performed in the chorus of Godspell.  He felt “a sense of community” because the experience introduced him to different people in a creative environment.

Joel is now the official Director of Sudbury Youth Rocks and John assists as Executive Director of The John Howard Society of Sudbury.  Their partnership and belief in the arts as a tool of human development continues to prove effective after recently securing $20,000 in program funding from the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services to help sustain and grow the program this year.

On a notice board at the rehearsal space, a tentative performance date is posted.  The bands might be opening a concert fundraiser for residents in the nearby community of Copper Cliff who lost four townhouses in a fire last March.

 “What are you looking forward to the most with this upcoming performance?” I ask the group.

“Helping the people,” says vocalist Talon.  Nods and murmurs sound around in agreement. 

“Showing them what we can do in a real performance,” says fourteen-year-old guitarist Tyler Riddle with teenage candor. 

Thinking back to how easily the kids changed set-up from song to song, I ask what they do when more than one person wants to play a single part in a song.  The answer is the most basic of playground rules: they take turns.  And the more tunes they learn, the more options they have to share. 

The final song during my visit is a new one for tonight’s group, “I Got A Feeling” by the Black Eyed Peas.  A rocky start for the vocalists with three parts to perform, Leeandra and Joel move forward to guide the singers.  It’s a challenge, but these gals work out the kinks while the rhythm section patiently plays the same few measures over and over again.   In about fifteen minutes of work, there’s a significant improvement so Joel challenges them to try it from the top.  Not perfect yet, but everyone’s jamming along exuberantly at the challenge of producing a solid performance. 

I’m beginning to see that this program achieves more than just teaching how to find the beat.   In speaking with two of the participating musicians, they reveal the real benefits of their rock’n’roll regiment.  

“I’ve always been singing at home, but I didn’t really play any of these instruments before I came to band,” says twelve-year-old musician Chelsea Hallikainen.  Now after a year at Sudbury Youth Rocks, she’s expanded her abilities from singing to also playing bass.  Her next goal is to learn the guitar. 

Chelsea doesn’t take this opportunity to play lightly either.  Since kids have to be attending school in order to participate, discipline and knowing one’s priorities is a daily practice.  “I have to think twice about what I do, like with peer pressure.  Some people wanted me to skip [school] the other day, but I said no because I know that the school will call home, and then I won’t be able to go to band.”

To Chelsea, Sudbury Youth Rocks is about teaching responsibility, coop
eration and knowledge.  “Every week, I know I’m going to be given a new challenge that I know I can overcome with practice.  I’m encouraged to go farther here,” she says.  “I feel safe and I’m proud of what I’m doing.”

Musicians of all playing levels are welcome to join the program when they have the commitment and positive attitude.  One of the band’s more recent members, Tyler Riddle had been taking guitar lessons prior to joining, but Sudbury Youth Rocks gives him a place to hang out with peers who have the same interests.

“I look forward to getting out of the house and playing music,” says this high school student from Hanmer, a community within the City of Greater Sudbury.  Tyler says the band teaches him how to cooperate with other musicians in a group.  If he didn’t go to band, he’d be playing a lot solo guitar at home. 

Tyler’s comment, however, hits on a related critical point.  In his keynote address at The Promise of Music International Symposium last October, Dr. Abreu cites that “the perverse use of leisure” is a main contributing factor to drug use and violence among Latin American youth.  This finding is arguably not limited to Latin American borders; boredom is a universal phenomenon.  Chelsea admits she’d otherwise be doing nothing if it weren’t for her Thursday night band practice.  In this way, it’s not difficult to imagine that evenings of searching for something to do would be the unwelcome reality for her other band mates too.     

One of the program’s best qualities, according to Tyler is that “it’s a great experience for beginner musicians.  And when you look back on playing in a rock band, your grandkids will think you’re cool.”  But don’t let him fool you.  Like Chelsea who plays the flute in an advanced music class at school during the day, Tyler’s a burgeoning renaissance musician.  He’s taught himself the basics of bongos and has a true respect for the classical genres.  If someone were to give him the opportunity to learn an orchestral instrument, he’d take up the violin without hesitation.  “I like Vivaldi,” he gushes proudly.  

The final verse: the rock band format can successfully accomplish teaching the same core social values as does the more publicly known orchestral model. At Sudbury Youth Rocks, the success lies in individuals coming together as a group, just like in an orchestra.  Education and discipline remain imbedded in the program’s philosophy, giving perspective in teen decision-making and priorities.  Furthermore, the task of engaging teenagers is also a significant challenge for any kind of youth programming.  In this way alone, Sudbury Youth Rocks is triumphant.

An added educational dimension is Joel’s attention to roles outside the band’s musical responsibilities. The kids are also taught how to properly set-up equipment for rehearsals and shows.  Offering instruction in technical support gives other options for participation and even career ideas.  In fact, Tyler is considering future training in sound engineering.

The program also manages to deemphasize the commercial tripe of the rock industry as well, such as inequity between genders and roles.  Inside the Sudbury Youth Rocks rehearsal room, the girls are fully participating from vocals to bass, and everyone has the chance to try each instrument no matter what their previous playing ability.

Finally, perhaps the most notable byproduct of this rock program is the desire to give back.  As I saw in South America where hundreds of young Venezuelans become El Sistema teachers and feed back into its growing number of classrooms, Joel explains there are Sudbury Youth Rocks musicians who come on their off-nights to help their aspiring peers.  For Chelsea, she anxiously looks forward to the day she can become a volunteer teacher and offer her experience from having started in the program at an early age. 

Ultimately, the strategy of using music as a tool to promote peer cooperation and build self-esteem with positive role models remains unchanged, whether the kids are playing Tchaikovsky or Joan Jett. 

My conversations with other founders of Sistema-like programs in Canada always lead to the same recommendations: just get started and the results will follow.  Dr. Abreu started El Sistema with eleven kids in a garage in a city some four hours away from the capital of Venezuela.  Thirty-five years later, he’s transformed over a million children’s lives through music.  Two years into its existence, Sudbury Youth Rocks has grown from one to three bands.  The question is then, where could the Big Nickel’s youth be in thirty-five years with more attention to Sudbury Youth Rocks today? 

When passionate key individuals like Joel and Leeandra are in ready supply with eager youth like Chelsea and Tyler, the answer remains in the community’s embrace.  From the organizational point of view, the next step is to secure more funding for continued program development.  Enough said.  But an equally critical aspect is building attraction and excitement for present and future participants.  In music biz terms, that means getting gigs. 

The bookings are starting to come in this summer with Joel’s persistence and dedication to showcasing these teens’ hard work.  All three of the programs’ bands will be performing in a benefit for the Kids Help Phone Walk on May 2, and there are other performances booked for the Elizabeth Fry Society and Wembley Public School later that month. 

However, there’s one elusive gig that would be the ultimate achievement of local performance: opening a Sudbury Wolves game.  Joel’s been asking the local hockey team to have a Sudbury Youth Rocks band perform “I’ve Got A Feeling” to rouse audience spirit before the puck drops.  Such a performance would be a spectacular community partnership at probably one of the largest regular gatherings of residents from all ages and backgrounds in the city.  (Not to mention a welcome musical change if programmers are still overplaying mash-ups of 90s remixes after every goal.)   But no date has been confirmed yet.   

The situation calls to mind Tyler’s earlier comment about performing—that indeed, we are all just looking for a chance. 

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To learn more about Sudbury Youth Rocks, email us at info@glenngould.ca for contact information.