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Music in the streets

From the Cohn to the city, Willem Blois heads the new outreach program (photo by Deborah Ooman)
From the Cohn to the city: Willem Blois heads the new outreach program (Photo by Deborah Ooman)

Dalhousie’s music department is extending the classroom to the HRM at large with the launch of a new outreach program. The program, headed by director and music student Willem Blois, with assistance from the Society of Dalhousie Music Students, aims to send small ensembles out to local underserved establishments and engage listeners with a modern approach to classical music.

“There’s such a prejudice against classical music,” says Blois. “People hear classical music, and think it’s something ethereal, something that they need prior experience for, and that’s totally false.”

In its initial months, the outreach program will be primarily working with elementary schools in the HRM. Small ensembles of Dalhousie music students will be tasked with preparing a small performance for a grade school class, attempting to give kids a first-hand experience of what pursuing a future in music is all about. There are currently small ensembles aligned for nearly every instrument taught at Dalhousie.

“It’s a unified effort of Dal music,” says Blois, “as one big, happy family.”

What makes this outreach program unique is the means by which the ensembles will be performing their pieces, which will include immersive scripts and audience interaction.

“How are you going to engage the audience? How will you break down the most barriers? How will you present your music in the most creative way?” Blois explains. “It’s interaction before information. Just come in and start clapping; get them involved. Get them to feel what the rhythm feels like, and then you can say, ‘okay, this is going to feature prominently,’ so they can feel it themselves.”

This creative immersion technique works on three levels. The first level seeks to break down the often-mystifying factors of classical music by providing listeners with a recurring motif or instrument to listen for. The second and third levels encourage listeners to chime in and clap along. Each ensemble is responsible for preparing a script unique to their instrument.

“It’s like gently guiding someone in the right direction, but letting them find it themselves.”

Aside from being a great way for young children to see classical music in a new light, the program’s immersion practices require the small ensembles to really pick apart their piece; it’s a learning experience for all involved.

While the program is starting out small, Blois hopes to eventually begin performing in all sorts of environments, from long-term care facilities to community and homeless shelters.

Ultimately, Blois hopes to blot out some of the preconceptions of classical music, as well as encourage music students to study at Dal.

“As far as I know,” says Blois, “there’s no one doing what we’re doing in Halifax: going from a university and cutting a huge swath across an entire area. We’re fostering a culture of music.”

This is believed to be the first time Dalhousie’s music department has worked to kick-start a community outreach program, and Blois notes this year is but a framework for bigger things to come. “I want to make sure people know what we’re doing here.”

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Mat Wilush
Mat Wilush
Mat Wilush once went to see Agent Orange on the outskirts of Toronto, where the beer was salty and drunken teenagers took turns sitting in a prop electric chair. The music had aged poorly. A mohawk’d middle-ager danced through the first couple songs, but quickly tired out. There just isn’t much room for surf rock in the world anymore. What next? Mat Wilush wants to know. Mat is the Gazette's Arts Editor. Follow him on Twitter at @wilushwho and email him at arts@dalgazette.com.
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