The Royal Conservatory of Music has created a pair of programs available to students and teachers across the country. The Globe and Mail spoke with RCM president Peter Simon about YouthBeat (an interactive musical application for iPads) and Indigenous Artists, a web-based project designed to help all students and teachers understand and appreciate Indigenous culture and perspectives.
The Band‘s Robbie Robertson was named an honorary fellow of the Royal Conservatory. Did he appear at your Royal Occasion gala this month?
He did. He got up and said, “You can imagine when the Royal Conservatory called me, I thought they got the wrong number.”
He can’t read music, and I hadn’t known that. But I told him, “You’re a musician. End of story.”
The Royal Conservatory is involved in music education in Indigenous communities. Given his First Nations heritage, did that come up when you spoke with him?
Actually, we had an Indigenous group play for Robbie at the Royal Occasion. He said the fact that we were aware enough to have an Indigenous group play for him was a revelation. He was very pleased.
The Royal Conservatory has been involved in implementing music and the arts into public schools for years. You’ve had success, in particular, with Indigenous students. What’s the key there?
The key is getting into the classroom on a daily basis. Now, coming into the Indigenous community specifically, what we’ve learned is never to be prescriptive...For Indigenous communities, learning was always hands-on. The great oral tradition in Indigenous communities relates to storytelling. It’s social - I think we can all relate to that. One of the issues in public education is for a lot of kids, that’s how they learn. They need the five senses to be engaged – not just one or two.
One of your new programs is YouthBeat, an iPad application. It’s a group thing?
It has to do with the fundamentals of music-making and creation. The kids work in teams. They're excited. They're happy. I believe 25 First Nations communities have signed up for YouthBeat in the fall. We’ve also created a website, IndigenousArtists.ca, where artists and Elders tell their stories through videos. Teachers will be able to consult this resource. It solves a big problem for them. The history curriculum is being changed. There's a mandate to relate the Indigenous experience.
You’re working with the Vancouver School Board, and one of the YouthBeat pilot sites was in Winnipeg. You’ve had success in the past in Fort McMurray, Alta. What’s the secret?
There are a lot of students who don’t connect with formalized, intellectual learning...There's a disconnect, and, ultimately, they’re not interested. They disengage. The thing today is that with all the digital things, students are used to finding out things on their own – being creative. So, when they’re just sitting and listening, it doesn’t work for a lot of kids. So schools are trying to facilitate a change in approach. We’re trying to help.