By Ken Kelly -- Times & Transcript Staff
Two generations of musicians will join forces Wednesday night on stage at Moncton High School.
New Brunswick native and award-winning musician Thom Swift will perform with the Sistema New Brunswick Children’s Orchestra as part of the New Brunswick Child and Youth Advocate’s year-long educational campaign to promote children’s right to play.
Launched last November during the inaugural Children’s Rights Awareness Week, the primary focus of the campaign is Article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the right to rest, leisure, play, recreation, the arts and culture.
The seeds for Sistema New Brunswick were actually planted in Venezuela. It was there that the program was launched with the goal of allowing any child, regardless of social stature or their parents’ financial situation, the opportunity to learn the musical instrument of their choice provided the child is enthusiastic and regularly attends practice.
Christian Whalen is the Acting Child and Youth Advocate for the Province of New Brunswick and says the impact of Sistema upon the Metro Moncton community should not be underestimated.
“I like to think of the Sistema program as being a nice, little hidden gem in Moncton,” Whalen says. “The program has been active for the past three years and helps to provide musical instruction and instruments to children who might not have the opportunity to otherwise learn. The Sistema program is as much about social development as it is musicianship.”
Whalen says that, to date, children who have remained in the Sistema program not only love participating and learning about music, but tend to perform better in school, as well.
With a dozen albums to his credit, Thom Swift has been hailed for his guitar playing and baritone vocals. Before Swift was a full-time musician, he worked as a youth counsellor with young offenders and as such, maintains that he has always had a soft spot for working with children.
“I have learned that it is important that we do things that are bigger than ourselves,” Swift says from his Halifax-area home. “I never had children until the time I was 47 years old but when I had my son, it instantly changed the way that I looked at the world.
Swift’s concert with Sistema will not be the first child-oriented project that he has undertaken in his long career. Last year, Swift and fellow musician Keith Mullins travelled to Alberta, visiting 10 schools in 10 days. Each day they were in Alberta, the duo worked with a small group of students, creating a song from scratch that ultimately became a full-length record of 10 original songs called The Wood Buffalo Youth Song Project.
The importance and impact that a program like Sistema can have upon the development of children is not lost on Swift. Although he admits he had only heard about the Sistema program in the past, his intrigue and passion to work with the organization has only continued to grow.
“This program allows children to have the door to the world of music kicked open for them that might not be otherwise opened for them,” he says. “The program is much like if you were enrolling your child in a sport. It can be expensive to be involved in these programs and really, all children should have an equal opportunity to take part in them. We’re surrounded by music everyday, so much so that it becomes something almost subliminal. You hear music everywhere you go. To give children the opportunity to pick up an instrument and learn all about it is just such an amazing philosophy to hold on to.”
Emphasizing that the Sistema program is not exclusive in any way, Whalen shares that the Province of New Brunswick hopes to launch a program in conjunction with Swift that would mirror that of the Wood Buffalo Youth Project. He says the beneficiaries of Wednesday’s concert will include Sistema as well as the First Nations’ Children’s Futures Fund. Saying the Sistema program relies upon both public and private support, Whalen is optimistic for a good turnout for Wednesday’s concert.
“In regular school programs, music always seems to be considered one of the expendable options,” Whalen says. “We don’t always put a lot of emphasis on music but I firmly believe that if you want to build well-rounded and resilient citizens, a program like Sistema is a wise investment.
“I believe that a lot of people will be surprised at what they hear at the concert. The show is not like a school concert at all. People will come away from the show excited by the beautiful music that was made but perhaps more importantly, they will be able to see just how far some of these students have come in learning their instruments.”
■ Ken Kelley is a Moncton-based writer, music fanatic and author of the entertainment blog www.musicnerd.ca