Success through Singing: The Downtown Vocal Music Academy of Toronto

By Neufeldt, Marlys | The Canadian Music Educator, Fall 2013 | Go to article overview

Success through Singing: The Downtown Vocal Music Academy of Toronto


Neufeldt, Marlys, The Canadian Music Educator


The Downtown Vocal Music Academy of Toronto (VMA) has just finished its inaugural year, providing singing-infused public education to approximately 55 grades four through six students. This fall it opens to grade seven, and the next fall it will graduate its first grade eight class. It is one of the nine new elementary "academies" launched by the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) in September 2012, each one with a distinct focus such as vocal music, health/sports and wellness, all-girls leadership and all-boys leadership. Our school is open to any student with a love of singing, and no audition is required, thus leveling the playing field for those students who may not have had extracurricular musical involvement in their lives.

Indeed, some of our students came to the school without a strong singing voice, let alone an extracurricular singing background. Some have a love for popular music, and they're able to sing "con belto" very well. Some students have had fine choral educators train their young voices in school and community choirs before coming to the VMA. We have a huge diversity of students from various backgrounds, some living close to our downtown location (by Kensington Market, near Spadina and Dundas) where we share a building with Ryerson Community School and others who come from further away. Quite a few students came with some significant academic and social learning challenges. The vocal music focus is envisioned to be the route to engagement, that through the social bonds, discipline and fun of music-making and by tapping into students' musical intelligence through the whole-brain, physical activity of choral singing, they would be more successful in their academic career.

Have they been more successful?

Well, they had quite an amazing year.

For the 2012-13 school year, every day began with a community-building morning ritual wherein the school gathered in a circle, took attendance, talked about the schedule for the day, celebrated birthdays, sang rounds together, and reminded all of our wish to be "well, happy and peaceful", as individuals, a school, and broader community, rippling out to our place in the universe. After the lunch break, we gathered our focus again and began the afternoon with all-school choir, four days out of five. We three teachers taught music together, sometimes dividing the school into groups of students for sectionals or individual work. We shared in the lesson-planning, assessment, conducting and accompanying of choir music. Working together as a team, we strove to shape the vocal ability of individuals, and to transform this group of diverse individuals into a harmonious, unified choir, producing beautiful music. We explored music from different cultures, styles and genres, and music-recording software technology was often employed to enhance learning. This format provided the structured yet flexible backbone for the creative learning and music-making that took place.

In other subjects, music was also integrated, from learning math measurement, patterning and fractions through rhythms, composing songs about non-renewable resources or planets, and studying language arts through opera, to remembering French vocabulary through rap and crafting writing assignments about famous jazz singers. We ended the year with a multi-disciplinary integrated unit on the Toronto Music Garden, as inspired by Bach's Cello Suites and envisioned by Yo-Yo Ma and landscape designer Julie Moir Messervy. Our students planned, designed and promoted their own music gardens based on Bach's Bist du bei mir, a song we had sung earlier in the year. The unit encompassed math, problem solving, writing, media literacy, French, music and visual arts. At the end of the unit the students presented detailed plans in English and French, and commercials for their music gardens. To top off the unit, we all visited the Toronto Music Garden for a celebratory field trip. This cross-curricular integration of music with other subjects was key to connecting with students' musical interests and creativity. …

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