A free after-school program in Prince Albert’s King George School is allowing elementary school students the opportunity to learn about classical performing arts.
Local schoolteacher Kathleen Clarke is the person leading the youngsters in this exciting educational journey. She said they modelled the program after one created in South America by Jose Antonio Obreau in 1975.
Obreau, a violinist, wanted to offer skilled instruction in a community setting. He began teaching young people, and eventually developed a youth orchestra.
“His program sort of mushroomed around the world since then, and there are many programs in Canada,” Clarke explained. “When we undertook to do this, we did some modifying just to suit our local needs.
It’s not just music. It’s also movement, and in creating our local program, we wanted to follow the principles that Jose Antonio Obreau had originally set out. It helps build community, and it’s free and accessible, so that children from anywhere (in Prince Albert) don’t have to be able to afford it.”
The group is more than just what some might see as a “hobby club”, given the deep seeded educational roots it has. Students receive skill-based instruction in music and dance from professional instructions, who not only teach proper technique, but help build community too.
“Community building is the biggest idea here because with that, we’ve got strength in numbers, the community’s support, (and) the empathy,” she explained. It offers our kids a safe place to be away from screen time, and maybe away from negative influences.
“We call ourselves the Firebird Family, and they really form friendships here that are strong and powerful.”
Given the worldwide appeal of this program, one has to ask about if there’s any other similar after-school programs anyplace else in Saskatchewan. Clarke said others began in Saskatoon and North Battleford, but the Saskatoon one struggled through COVID and eventually closed down.
“We’re in kind of a special position, thanks to our instructors who are incredibly dedicated, and the families that we have,” she explained. “The children in the program who have stuck with it through thick and thin, through the Covid years, through the ups and downs and all of that. They’re still coming regularly (and) because of that, we have been able to continue.”
Could all of the isolation which took place during Covid have acted as a motivation for the students in the program?
“It feels like that, and something that’s happened this year that’s extra special is the board of directors made the decision that it was time to expand the program,” Clarke said enthusiastically.
“Up until now, we haven’t been able to offer the program to other schools because of Covid. Finally, this fall, we were able to put out invitations to other neighbourhoods of the city.
“We have students from five different schools that are able to get transportation to come here for the program, five days a week. They just need to have their own transportation to get home at five o’clock, so our numbers have just bloomed. It’s really exciting.”
What does the structure of this after school program look like for the participants?
“We have a Monday to Friday schedule,” Clarke said.
“Monday and Tuesday, after the kids have their light snack, they have yoga until 4 o’clock. Wednesday and Thursday, after their snack, they have choir until 4 o’clock. And then, Monday to Thursday, from 4 o’clock to 5 o’clock, they have orchestra and dance.
“This year, for the first time, we have a beginner group and a senior group, so the kids who have been in the program previously are continuing from the level that they left off at, and our beginners are starting off fresh.
“They have a half hour of instruction. One group’s at dance, the other group’s at orchestra, and then they switch. We’re done at 5.”
What kind of dance are the students learning?
“Ballet,” Clarke said, adding “They’re doing a very classical dance right now.”
What about Fridays?
“Friday is kind of a fun day where the kids are comfortable performing or playing on their instrument,” Clarke said.
“We call it family concert. It’s in-house performing for one another, and also on Fridays, we invite guest speakers to some. If there’s someone in the community who feels they have a special talent or an area of interest they’d like to share with our kids, we’d love to hear from them.
“It’s really important, community outreach and inreach. Also, we finally had an opportunity (last year) to take our students out of the school to perform at Abbeyfield House. It was just such a wonderful, wonderful experience for them.
“They were thrilled to go somewhere and play for seniors at that residents. The students were just walking on cloud nine as they came back because of that good feeling. Now we’re past the worst of the Covid scare, I think we’ll be able to do more of that sort of thing on Fun Fridays.”
Could this program expand into more areas of the city, or even nearby rural areas?
“Right now, the greatest obstacle we have is we need more skilled instructors,” Clarke said.
“We have one orchestra instructor, so that’s kind of limiting us to one location, but it would be so thrilling to bring this program to other areas.”
Clarke added, “I had a gentleman from the Provincial Board of the Saskatchewan Orchestral Association, and he said to me ‘Kathleen, how can we support you better in Prince Albert?’ I said, ‘You can send more violin instructors our way. Once we get that, we can really take off.”
What kind of qualifications would potential music instructors need?
“As long as they’re skilled with the instrument and competent at playing and comfortable with teaching,” Clarke said, adding “That’s what we’re looking for.”
How would parents of other children within Prince Albert be able to learn more about the program?
Thanks to the generous financial support from grants coming from the Community Initiatives Fund, the City of Prince Albert Community Grant, Northern Lights Development Corporation, and the Prince Albert and Area Community Foundation, as well as donations from the Canadian Federation of University Women, and the Prince Albert Optimist Club, the Firebird North Sistema Music Project is able to keep flying for the time being.
“We are continuously seeking donations to continue our programming,” Clarke said.
“Everything is free. We have an inventory of instruments right now that are available to the kids, but when there are repairs to be done, that costs.
“When you need to buy strings, that costs money. When you need additional music books…we use funding for our snack program.
“Our instructors, obviously, they are paid. They are skilled instructors so it costs. We do make grant applications, but also any kind of donations that come from the public or community associations are greatly appreciated and are really needed to continue our program.”