Shoulder-to-shoulder with giants

Photo: Patrick Boyle

Teaching music at university is simultaneously a constant joy and a constant dance of compromise. If I am being completely honest, I can’t teach music. I can show it. I can listen and guide. I can be an example of my own best self, including all manner of new and evolving flaws and inspirations. But I’m not in the business of teaching people how to be themselves. Teachers are in the guiding business.

Totally off topic, if Girl Guide cookies were any good, why aren’t they in stores all year long?

One things great universities do is get people from outside their own walls to come and spend meaningful time together with students. As part of the 50th anniversary of the UVic School of Music, we had visits from Dr. Klisala Harrison (University of Helsinki), Christine Duncan (University of Toronto Jazz Department) and Tanya Tagaq. All expert guides.

Klisala unpacked some of her research in how music can benefit urban poor in life-affirming ways and how it has been used in Canadian efforts to address human rights deficits occurring in poverty. Taking examples from popular and Indigenous music, her talk critically contemplated approaches, challenges and successes of using music to benefit homeless and street-involved people in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside over several decades. I find Klisala incredibly inspiring, and I wish that we spent more time together when we were both at York University in the early 2000s.

Christine Duncan has been an important musical guide in my own life. She is so positive and encouraging. The Element Choir is, in my opinion, the most provocative musical group in Canada. Using her own series of gestures, Christine extracts a nearly limitless range of sonic textures. More than that, she teaches people how to interpret what she is doing incredibly fast. Christine commands attention with warmth and professionalism. She worked with the UVic Chorus (Dr. Adam Con) and the UVic Chamber Singers (Susan Young).

What can you say about Tanya Tagaq that isn’t already written? She’s fully impossible to talk about. As churlish as it is to say “you gotta see it to believe it” in this case, that is entirely true. Christine created textures which Tanya sang over in the spirit of their intense live shows. In a session about collaboration in the music industry which I hosted, students were afforded Tanya’s unabashed openness in talking about being residential school survivor, reconciliation, life in Cambridge Bay and her personal guide – her grandmother. Tanya is forever in the moment, which informs her work as an improviser. One of the most interesting aspects of their visit was listening to Tanya and Christine discuss their approach to improvisation in an open forum. This, I later found out, was a first. They rarely talk about what they do and instead, rightly so, just do it. It was thrilling to be around.

This well-shot performance of Tanya Tagaq, Jesse Zubot, Jean Martin, and Christine Duncan with her Element Choir comes as close as anything I’ve seen that matches the intensity of what they do in person. I am extremely thankful to be around these caring guides, and I believe my students are too. In the complicated choreography of a school term, where there seems to be no time for anything and toes are stepped on, sometimes what you just need a chance to rub shoulders with giants.