A group of students from G.W. Graham Middle-Secondary School have just returned from Toronto, Ontario, where they spent five days making musical memories that will last them a lifetime.
“Our program is very performance-based,” said Shane Monkman, who heads the school’s music department. “(But) it’s (also) about creating experiences where we can share our love of music … because that’s the fun part, performing.”
And share they have.
After taking gold in the annual Chilliwack Lion’s Club Music and Dance Festival in the spring of 2017, G.W. Graham’s concert and jazz bands were welcomed to MusicFest Canada “The Nationals”—an invitation-only event drawing in more than 10,000 of Canada’s finest young musicians each year.
“The invitations are good for two years,” explained Monkman. “But since we were taking the kids on a European tour in 2017, we held off attending (until this year).”
Created 46 years ago, MusicFest Canada strives to not only create opportunities for music students and educators alike, but “to (also) foster and promote a lifelong interest in music as a basic human experience,” which is exactly what it’s done for the group of 26 students from G.W. Graham.
“It was such a fantastic experience,” said 16-year-old Jackson Howard, who not only attended MusicFest, but was also chosen to play in the Denis Wick Canadian Wind Orchestra National Honours Ensemble, which had him arrive several days earlier than the rest of his peers.
“It was nine hours of rehearsals for five days straight,” recalled Howard of his time spent with the Honours Ensemble, but adds it was worth it in the end as the overall experience was life-altering. He’s now planning on attending the University of Toronto to further his music career.
“I had a lesson with one of the professors there and he taught me so much in one hour. Now I play totally different after that one experience. It’s astounding how much they can get out of you!”
A few days after Howard arrived in Ontario, 25 of his school-mates met at G.W. Graham in the wee hours of the morning to make their way to join him, completing their jazz and concert ensembles for their competition performances on Thursday, May 17.
The group, which was composed of students from grades nine through 12, had never played as a whole before, so Monkman says they began weekly practices in the beginning of April.
“They showed so much dedication,” continued the music teacher. “They met and rehearsed outside of class lots. They worked hard and made a real commitment.”
And their hard work and perseverance worked as G.W. Graham’s music students won gold in each of their divisions.
“I went in grade 10 when we went to Ottawa,” said 17-year-old Makenzi McManus. “We won silver (that year), so it was a really cool experience to get gold in both of our groups this year.”
“MusicFest was actually amazing,” added Liam Shearer, who’s in the 11th grade. “But honestly, I was a little surprised when we won gold.
“Compared to what we have in our normal concert and jazz bands, it was a little rough at the start (because) it’s a new group and we haven’t really (played a lot together). But I think we really pulled it together at the end and still sounded really good.”
But more than just bringing the students together to win gold, Monkman says the experience helped the kids create a bond and prepare for life beyond high school.
“Our program sets the bar for a standard of excellence,” said Monkman. “It pushes the kids forwards and outside of their comfort zone and it teaches them there’s no bench sitting in music—everyone participates.”
But even more than that, G.W. Graham’s music program helps prepare its students for life’s ups and downs.
“This last year for me was really rough and it was the music that kept me sane,” said McManus, who’s in grade 12 this year.
“This was my last band trip with the people I’ve made friendships with over the past five years, so while I wish I (shared) Jackson’s experience (with joining a National Honours Ensemble), I wouldn’t have had any of these experiences with my friends and I’m thankful for that.”