Elizabeth Benoit came home from school last year thrilled to show her parents a flyer for free lunchtime piano lessons. With four other siblings to think about, learning piano had not been in the family’s plans but Elizabeth’s parents jumped at the chance for her to try something new.
Learning music at a young age can be fun and helps children develop problem-solving and other skills. However, not every family has the money or time to send their children to private lessons.
But the Heart of the City Piano Program has stepped in to fill in that void. Through McGill University’s Seeds of Change campaign, this program offers inner-city schoolchildren a free, weekly 30-minute piano lesson and group keyboard practice sessions during lunch or at the end of the school day. It is entirely run by volunteers and, at the end of the year, students perform at a recital with the other participating schools.
Four Montreal elementary schools offer the program to students in Grades 3 to 6: Edward Murphy in Mercier-Hochelaga-Maisonneuve; École Champlain in the Plateau; École La Mennais in Rosemont La Petite Patrie, and St. Gabriel in Point St. Charles.
This year, there will be an estimated 100 students who will enrol with more than 70 volunteers taking the time to give children the gift of music.
“It warms your heart to see them perform,” said Jim Daskalakis, principal at St. Gabriel, and a strong supporter of the program. As the former principal of FACE, an arts-focused school in Montreal, he appreciates the value of a music education.
“Music is a way to discover different forms of expression and to use different parts of your brain,” he said.
Daskalakis says that students at his school often want to continue lessons the following year, even though it means sacrificing their lunch-hour play time.
Elizabeth, a Grade 3 student at St. Gabriel, actually wishes that she had more time with the piano teachers. At the end of year recital at McGill University, she was one of 55 students who performed on a grand piano.
“She was really excited about the performance,” said her dad, David Benoit, who watched his daughter play When the Saints Go Marching In, and Row, Row, Row Your Boat — flawlessly.
“She was really confident on the piano, and they (the students) were comfortable with what they needed to do,” Benoit said. “Any time there’s a good music program in schools, it shows students that hard work can pay off.”
Daskalakis says that having the program at inner city schools helps children cope with difficulties in their lives. “They’re trying to say something through the music, no matter what they’re going through academically or at home — it comes out musically.”
Schools are able to offer this program thanks to donations of keyboards, books, and other materials from Yamaha Canada and Steve’s Music Store. But the program wouldn’t survive without volunteers or private donors.
If you would like to contribute to this cause, go to http://heartofthecity.ca/montreal.