Reading my colleague Marc Cassivi’s interview with Rafael Payare, the new musical director of the Orchester symphonique de Montréal (OSM), I was moved to learn that he began his training at the age of 14, thanks to the famous El Sistema program in Venezuela, which aims to make music accessible to everyone, regardless of social class. Among other things, because classical music crossed my path and changed my life when I was a child.
Having grown up in a neighborhood where there were more dropouts than graduates and certainly no classical musical instruments, I was selected at 8, like several other children from different neighborhoods, to join the Le Plateau school in second year, in a free school program where classical music took up a good half of the timetable. My mother, worried about changing my school and getting away from my friends, almost said no, but it was my teacher (Renée Pageau, to whom I pay tribute here) who convinced her that she should not make me miss this chance.
So I started musical training six or seven years before Rafael Payare! And this lasted almost ten years, since this training continued at the Joseph-François-Perrault secondary school (JFP for the close friends), in the Saint-Michel district. I played the flute, piano, violin and sang in the choir before focusing on the transverse flute as a teenager. I knew I wasn’t going to make a career in music – my thing was literature – but I wasn’t bored for a single second during this decade more or less harmonious according to our rehearsals.
Because you don’t need to become a conductor or professional musician to benefit from the infinite richness of learning music. There is a lot of talk about sports-study programs that help young people not to drop out, but not enough about arts-study programs in my opinion, which have such significant effects (maybe even more, but I preach for my parish) .
I spoke with the current musical director of Joseph-François-Perrault, Éric Levasseur, who says that training professional musicians is the least of his worries, even though he is filled with pride when one of his students embraces this successful career. “I don’t rate my year on how many students will continue in music,” he says. What is important for me is to have made sure that a young person becomes a responsible, organized citizen, able to work in a team, to know his strengths and to accept his weaknesses. There are few young people in arts studies who are not happy. For the vast majority, it changes their lives. For many, it ties them to school. It gives them a reason to get up in the morning, because as with sports, there are training before or after school. It gives them a sense of belonging and identification. ”
Éric Levasseur deplores that we do not know enough about the arts-study programs offered in schools like JFP, Pierre-Laporte, Saint-Luc or Face. “Sport speaks more quickly to people than the arts, because there are often received ideas that it is elitist, that it is aimed just at those who practice at home, with private lessons. But music is very democratic, ”he says.
The effects of sport or music have a lot of similarities. The fact of working in a team, having a common goal, responding to a coach or a conductor, developing a feeling of belonging to a school or a group. I would say that all of this also goes with the general culture that there is in a country or a province.
Éric Levasseur, musical director of Joseph-François-Perrault high school
He gives an enlightening example: if there is a sports-studies program in a school, we are entitled to expect that we will build a gymnasium or an arena to achieve the objectives. However, Joseph-François-Perrault has been waiting for the construction of a concert hall for 30 years. With the pandemic, and the required distance between musicians, JFP students must rehearse in the cafeteria, where tables and chairs must be removed and replaced each time.
Seriously, that annoys me, knowing the undeniable quality of this program from which people like Jean-Marie Zeitouni have emerged, who became conductor with an impressive career (notably as musical director of the chamber orchestra I Musici and Principal Guest Conductor of the Colorado Music Festival). I was at JFP in the same years as Zeitouni, who was on percussion, which already made him a star in our parties of teenagers when he was on the tom-tom. Tell you all chauvinistic pride when I saw him pursue a path that most of us did not follow, as if he represented our cohort.
I still can’t believe that one day I was able to read a completely different language on scores. How can we explain how lucky we were to create music in a group and not just to sit and listen to a teacher talk? The pleasure of having a musical instrument of your own that we brought home to break the ears of our parents while making our scales?
Those hours spent improving a room until we get to a drinkable version? The incredible excitement that seized us before presenting a concert that we had been working on all year? I am convinced that many students have had a taste for the stage during these concerts, and that for all trades in front of or behind the projectors, and that all have become to varying degrees music lovers. Because we must not forget that, although as good teenagers we prefer The Cure or Guns N’Roses, we did sometimes “get hold of what” in classical music – personally I loved Pictures at an exhibition of Mussorgsky, who nevertheless gave me a hard time.
Aside from the stressful exams or auditions, I have nothing but fond memories of this journey, and some precious friendships that were born in it. We respected our teachers, at that time Mr. Raymond Grignet and Mr. Gérald MacLeay, who had not only the responsibility of making us evolve, but also the thankless task of bringing us out for a few hours of the pop music that we preferred. We would get argued if in their absence someone launched into a drum solo or a sexy saxophone improvisation. I can still hear Monsieur Grignet shout “THE FEET, THAT STOKS!” When we developed the tic of beating time with our feet, which made us laugh out loud and make a lot of quacking in our instruments.
But there is much more to this than beautiful memories. From every cohort at JFP or any other school with a musical vocation have come out nurses, plumbers or civil servants who know all the work that is behind the mastery of an instrument, who cannot but respect the classical music, who do not fall in love when they are dragged to a concert, who sometimes find a comfort and a beauty that they need in this music, when they become adults. Who knows, they may be OSM subscribers today.
> (Re) read Marc Cassivi’s column on Rafael Payare