Jazz Program Helps Students Find Confidence

The Toronto Star, January 17th, 2009


By Jason Miller - STAFF REPORTER

Shermarke Mohamed is no longer afraid to answer questions in class thanks to a jazz program that has the once shy elementary school student singing in front of his peers.


The novice 9-year-old singer, along with more than 200 students from seven North Etobicoke public schools transformed West Humber Collegiate’s quiet hallways into a symphony of melodies and harmonies on Thursday. Mohamed showed no hesitation as he approached the podium to rehearse notes for his solo performance next week that will be sung alongside the children’s choir at The Toronto Centre for the Arts.


“My favourite song is `We need a chance,’” Mohamed said about the Barry Harris song being rehearsed. “Kids in Rexdale need a good place to live.”


Mohamed said he’s more into hip hop, but jazz will add a fresh touch to his music knowledge. Nigel Barriffe Mohamed’s Grade 4 teacher at Rexdale’s Greenholme Junior Middle School said the program has exposed students to a new experience and it has enabled Mohamed to stand in front of a huge crowd and sing a ska solo.


“This has given them an opportunity that they don’t normally have because of the severe underfunding that the school system has gone through,” Barriffe said about the formal jazz training program. “It is a genre that is normally outside of their reality.”


Since October the group has been a part of the We Are One Outreach Project aimed at engaging youth from Toronto’s at-risk communities in formal music education. The students were drafted on a volunteer basis from the schools.


Harris, 79, an internationally acclaimed jazz pianist has made eight trips from New York since October to practice with the group. He honed his jazz skills with greats such as Lester Young and is sought after by professional musicians worldwide for his expertise. This Thursday, the children’s choir will be performing alongside a string ensemble and band from Earl Haig Secondary School.


Standing in front of the jostling group of jazz enthusiasts practicing at West Humber is choir conductor Brian Katz, with his hands flashing above his head in an attempt to create calm among the excited group of pupils who are trying to get ready to sing.


“Stop, celebrate yourself, congratulate yourself, elevate yourself.”


But it’s not quite what Katz is looking for.


“I want to hear a little more volume but not screaming,” he requests. “You have to fill your lungs with air to get the energy.”Annie Appleby, the superintendent for the participating schools, said it’s hard for the board to run specialized music programs such as formal jazz training.


“We don’t have choral events in the north for this number of schools normally,” Appleby said. “This is over and above anything that we would normally be doing.”


Naomi Ben-Ahavon, 13, said the jazz program has opened her eyes and is now helping her chart a path toward a career in the arts.


“The jazz program gives Rexdale more culture because we don’t usually have this here,” she said.


The We Are One Jazz Project was founded by Harris’ Toronto-based protégé Howard Rees. Rees said that the operating budget came almost entirely from private donors, with the Toronto District School Board providing buses and practice venues.


Original article: http://www.parentcentral.ca/parent/article/572734



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