Whither Music Education in Canada?

By Eatock, Colin | Queen's Quarterly, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Whither Music Education in Canada?


Eatock, Colin, Queen's Quarterly


Seeing and hearing one of our compatriots basking in applause before audiences in London, Berlin, or New York is bound to warm the hearts of Canadian lovers of classical music. But we should be asking ourselves how much credit this country can legitimately take for the success of "our" artists. The history of music education in Canada has been a quirky and uncertain one, and the future will be much the same if we do not take measure of what we expect from ourselves as a musical nation.

EVERY OTHER YEAR, the CBC National Competition for Young Performers takes to the airwaves, offering cash prizes and public exposure to classical musicians in their twenties and early thirties from across the country. While many music competitions around the world are restricted to specific instruments--the piano or the violin, for example--the CBC Competition's categories change from event to event: this year's competition, held in May in Calgary, was open to singers and players of brass or woodwind instruments only. The policy of rotating musical categories lends a refreshing variety to the proceedings. Yet no matter what kind of musicians are featured in the competition, one factor seems to remain much the same from year to year.

Let's look at the talented Canadians who walked away with the awards this spring. The singers were baritone Peter McGillivray, whose studies have taken him to the Institute for Young Artists at Chicago's Ravinia Festival; soprano Martha Guth, a graduate of Oberlin College in Ohio; and soprano Nikki Einfeld, who plans to further her studies at the Boston Opera Institute. Among the instrumentalists, the winners were flautist Stephen Tam, who holds a degree from the Manhattan School of Music in New York; saxophonist Michael Ibrahim, who graduated from Ohio's Bowling Green State University; and flautist Christine Reside, who has studied in Switzerland and Italy.

IF YOU'RE CANADIAN and you're reading this, then you probably already know what I'm getting at: despite the proliferation of music programs in Canada's universities and conservatories, our finest young musicians still feel it's necessary to study outside the country--usually in the United States. But my purpose in taking up this subject is not to pillory our aspiring performers for lack of patriotism--they are merely doing what young artists have always done: seeking out the best opportunities for their development. And in fairness, it should also be noted that none of these winners has entirely circumvented the Canadian music education system. On the contrary, McGillivray has studied at the University of Toronto's Opera Division; Guth was a member of the Canadian Opera Company's ensemble for young singers, and Einfeld graduated from the University of Manitoba. Much the same can be said for the instrumentalists: Tam has studied at the University of Toronto; Ibrahim holds a degree from the University of Calgary, and Reside's studies have taken her to Montreal's McGill University and to the Banff Centre in Alberta.

Some Canadian musicians have achieved international renown without studying abroad. (Pianist Glenn Gould and tenor Ben Heppner are good examples.) And we seem to have more success in this regard with singers than with instrumentalists. But if the CBC's latest crop of virtuosi is representative of the current situation, it seems many young musicians still feel that some kind of foreign "finishing" is desirable, if not necessary. Not everyone is happy about this: the dream of an effective educational system for training musicians to the highest level has long been both an ambition and a source of frustration for Canadian music educators. "We wish to do our part in arresting the flight of native talent from Canada," proclaimed the Toronto (now Royal) Conservatory of Music in 1946. "Up to now, too many of our most promising students have had to go to the us to complete their musical studies." (1)

In a recent interview for this article, Peter Simon, the president of the Royal Conservatory of Music, insisted on the necessity of advanced performance study in Canada. …

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