Academy feeds kids with music and, it hopes, with food

Academy feeds kids with music and, it hopes, with food

School in the Downtown Eastside offers free lessons in an effort to bring music to city’s poorest children

It’s a Thursday afternoon and Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside is about to show its two faces — the downtrodden and the beautiful.

A small band of children led by Marlaina Vincent is weaving its way from Lord Strathcona Elementary attempting to reach Saint James Anglican Church a kilometre away without passing any of the street encampments that are a symptom of hopelessness, homelessness, poverty, addiction and mental illness.

The criss-crossing and detours finally bring this little band of troubadours to the church in twice the time it should take if the streets were clear.

“It’s just not safe to go around them,” Vincent says of the encampments. “We’d have to walk in the road. And besides, we don’t want the kids having to see it.”

Having manoeuvred around the encampments, they enter the church at the corner of East Cordova and Gore and into a sharp contrast to the streetscape, immersion into the sublime world of classical music.

The Saint James Music Academy operates in the church basement and offers a classical music education to 145 students aged five to 18 — the majority of whom live within what is Canada’s poorest neighbourhood.

Tonight, 50 or so with their music sheets in front of them are being held under the spell of conductor Jose Ceron Ortega’s baton and the silence and concentration from children who minutes before were fidgeting is palpable.

“One, two, three, one, two … “ he’s coaxing the notes out of them while a small bevy of assistants including Vincent and Cardinal hover around new students showing where to put their fingers on their violins, cellos, violas and double basses to produce a “G.”

Tonight is for string players, other nights are for percussion and woodwind.

It’s two-hour lessons, twice a week, free.

It is a gift to the neighbourhood, said the academy executive director, Sarah Godoy.

“We are here to provide a high-quality classical music education to children whose families probably would not otherwise be able to afford it,” she says.

“Considering what children in the Downtown Eastside face, they deserve the opportunity to develop the skills to express themselves musically and all the benefits it brings emotionally, psychologically and cognitively.”

The program is modelled on one started in Venezuela 40 years ago when the government sent music teachers and instruments into the poorest neighbourhoods.

“It transformed countless lives and Venezuela now has an international reputation for its classical musicians, conductors and composers. It inspired similar movements worldwide. We were the first in Canada.”

The Saint James Music Academy was founded in 2007 by Kathleen Walker, whose daughter, Hannah, is program director.

If their world outside this basement is a pitiless place at times, music offers these children passage to a different one.

This summer there was a fire in a building where one of the senior students — part of a string ensemble — lived.

“It was very traumatic for her,” says Godoy.

“We had some performances lined up for her quartet. She arrived at rehearsal and was crying. And I thought maybe we should cancel the performances because we didn’t want to put too much pressure on her.

“But everyone hugged her and then it was time to sit down and play. And so she spent the next hour and a half immersed in music and I realized that the time she spent making music and playing with others was a relief, a beautiful distraction from the terrible thing she had gone through. What a gift to have the ability to do that.”

This morning, Hannah Walker received an email from the mother of a new student who had doubts about how her daughter would respond to the program as she needed extra support in class and within group settings.

It said: “Hi Hannah: My daughter has had the best first week at St. James. She’s absolutely glowing. It’s like she’s been lit from the inside and it’s so lovely to see. We are so grateful for the opportunity. It might sound dramatic but last night I went to bed and thought this program could really help us. This program saves lives.”

The academy’s Christmas Concert is Dec. 9. Doors open at 6 p.m.

The SJMA is asking The Vancouver Sun Adopt-A-School program for $21,500 to buy food so students can eat before lessons. Many families are struggling with poverty and providing food is a necessary help.


By Gerry Bellett (

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