It’s the Sarah McLachlan School of Music’s first winter celebration concert of the season and the excitement is evident and everywhere. They’re singing Vance Joy’s “Riptide” but this version is more infectious and impassioned. This music is the product of much labor and love, nourished and guided by the school’s talented team of teachers and staff.
Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, the Sarah McLachlan School of Music, or SoM, was started by the Canadian singer-songwriter who experienced the therapy of music first-hand, growing up in Halifax, Nova Scotia. And later on, as a world-renowned artist, McLachlan saw an opportunity to help other children access music programs and as a result, the powerful self-discovery that she found in her words and melodies.
“I can honestly say music saved me,” says Sarah. “As a kid, I struggled socially and got bullied a lot. Sitting at the piano was my safe place, where I could explore my feelings and express myself. Music was a constant friend and still is.
“I wholeheartedly believe that every child should have the same opportunity to discover who they are through music,” she continues. “I saw a gap with music programs being cut from most public schools and knew I could help, particularly for those facing barriers to access.”
For 20 years, SoM has helped young people overcome those barriers, welcoming thousands of kids and youth onto its Vancouver, Surrey and Edmonton campuses to — as their website says in Sarah’s elegant cursive — “find your voice.”
Tyson Samson started coming to the Vancouver location after experiencing challenges at public school when he was younger. At SoM Tyson has found his passion for singing.
“I love the School,” the 17-year-old tells me. “I also really, really love the environment that they have over there because it was hard trying to find friends with the same passion as me. At SoM, you can talk about anything and be comfortable with it,” he adds.
Rather than assigning instruments to the students, the school helps them find the instrument they find the most connection with, and supports the young musicians on their journeys of expression and revelation. It’s this open, flexible model that has worked for so many different kids, for so many years, making SoM a leader around the world.
“We’ve had the luxury of being able to learn how to do this really well so we’ve been allowed to experiment and do different things and have invested in professionalizing and writing manuals,” says Jen Rose, an executive director at the school and a musician.
Completely funded by donors and 100% free for the families, the Vancouver school and the other locations are an important part of the surrounding community. “We want long-term, in-person, deep connections,” says Ainsley Dowle, also an executive director at the school. “We want to develop relationships that will have a meaningful impact on these kids’ lives.”
This impact is very much in line with McLachlan’s vision for the school.
“Ensuring sustainability for our programs in Vancouver, Surrey and Edmonton is a top priority,” Sarah says. “Next, we believe we have a responsibility to share what we’ve learned with other organizations so we can reach more children and youth through the transformative power of music. We want to lead a national movement that brings awareness to the impact of music on childhood development and wellness.”
“We’d like to see our staff out there, leading conversations, helping train others, showing how we place our kids in classes,” Rose adds. “We’ve kind of cracked the code on how to get a lot of diverse kids sharing a space and actively playing music together.”
At tonight’s performance by the kids, Sarah mixes easily with the other attendees. The evening is scored with all kinds of different sounds – warm marimbas, big beats and DJ scratching, original music and covers – only to be interrupted by boisterous cheers, applause, and contagious clap-alongs.
Looking back at the past two decades, she is proud of how far the school’s come and how much has been learned for the immense benefit of the students during that time.
“We’ve learned so much over the past 20 years in terms of how to structure our program and how we reach, teach and engage our students,” she says. “Our North Star has and always will be putting the kids first.”