Music – the one language we all understand…

The following article was published in the comment pages of the Vancouver Sun in 2010. I made these remarks at a public meeting of the Vancouver School Board (VSB) in April 2010, shortly after the Vancouver Winter Olympic Games. In a cost-cutting measure, VSB had proposed eliminating band and orchestra programs in schools under their control. Sensibly, in 2010 VSB decided not to go ahead with the proposed cuts.

Yesterday (Tuesday 8th April 2014) I heard that there was another proposal by VSB to cut the same programs. Since the arguments are exactly the same as last time I thought it apposite to reprint the original 2010 article. 

There is one major difference between 2010 and 2014. Now, the VSO has its own school, with over 1000 pupils, and our VSO Connects program running in every major school district in the Lower Mainland, touching the lives of thousands of students. Our involvement in music education has exponentially increased since 2010 and we are very concerned indeed about VSB’s latest proposal, which we consider potentially calamitous. We are coordinating our public strategy with several other organizations, but meantime, here’s why we encouraged VSB to withdraw the proposal in 2010.

Speech presented by Bramwell Tovey to Vancouver School Board (VSB) Trustees at a public meeting at Mount Pleasant Elementary, Vancouver  April 20th 2010.

(There was a 5 minute limit on all presentations.)

Good Evening.  My name is Bramwell Tovey. I am the Music Director and artistic head of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. I am also a parent of two students in a VSB French immersion program, aged 9 and 11. My wife, Lana is a music educator with several years experience of inner-city school teaching in Winnipeg.  For four years she volunteered as teacher of music and choir for Queen Elizabeth Annex Elementary School where she taught every class as this VSB school had no provision for music.

The VSO performs to 50,000 children every year in our educational and other concerts for children with the support of TELUS, our Premier Education Partner.

The VSO Connects educational program works in partnership with school boards across the Lower Mainland.  This program provides a link between the VSO and  selected schools on a year to year basis and brings the orchestra into direct contact with thousands of students throughout the Lower Mainland. We have worked in harmonious partnership with the VSB and sincerely thank you for your tremendous support of this important program which also brings students to rehearsals at the Orpheum in downtown Vancouver .

One of the modules we present is a “Meet the Maestro” program. I have visited dozens of schools in this program as a guest speaker and performer, speaking to the whole school community, students, parents who wish to attend, and of course, the teachers whose dedication and skill is so inspiring. I talk about music, the VSO, the language of music, the elements of composition and of course, I play the piano- the highlight is usually a short movement by Beethoven whose music  always connects with young listeners.

I make the point that Beethoven had a seemingly insurmountable handicap for a musician – he was deaf. He lived in a world of silence yet understood the language of music better than any of his contemporaries. He created some of the most extraordinary music to have captivated hearts and minds during the last two hundred years.

At the VSO we believe an education without a significant musical component is no education at all.

Music is a form of language which reaches every human being. It needs little or no translation.  In a school district like Vancouver, where dozens of languages are spoken by our widely diverse community, music is the only language common to everyone.

The proposal to cease investing in the Band and Strings Program is one that the VSO strongly urges the VSB to withdraw.  In many Vancouver schools we have witnessed first hand the benefits of the VSB supported band and strings program.  The option of a user-pay or school funded program does not embrace the inner city child whose only connection with live music may be the saxophone or drum set that has been offered to them. The saving of half a million dollars is paltry when considering the life enhancing benefits of this contact with the world of music.  In fact, I doubt this amount would even buy a family home within 10 blocks of the illustrious VSB building on West Broadway. When I heard the actual figure I found it hard to believe so much had been achieved with so little.

I do not bring these remarks to you from a lofty aesthetic perch. I grew up in England in the East End of London – my father died when I was a boy. Without the band and orchestra experience that I benefitted from in the state school education that I received, I would never have been able to compete and succeed in the music profession.  As a single parent my mother could not have afforded the cost of these activities.  I have a personal motive for standing here tonight – I don’t want a kid like me to fall through the cracks because of this proposal.

The Vancouver School Board has done a wonderful job supporting the band and strings program.  Rather than cutting it I would suggest that you expand it, and consider adding a choral component to it – the magical sound of children’s voices has largely been silenced in many of the Vancouver schools I have visited.  This should be the legacy of the VSB in these post-Olympic times.

What kind of message does this give to our children about the values of our society?

“Here’s an instrument. Now give it back.”

The social benefits of music are extraordinary – If a student holds a musical instrument then he or she can’t hold a knife, or a joint, or a needle or a crack pipe – or a gun.

If a student is in a choir or a band or an orchestra, they are communicating through the universal art of music at the heart of our community.

After a recent VSO educational concert of Beethoven’s music at the Orpheum in Vancouver, a teacher wrote to us with a comment penned by a young student who had spent his brief life in foster care due to a litany of misfortune that made Beethoven’s disability seem negligible by comparison.  He wrote:

“It was the most beautiful building I have ever seen

  • it was the most wonderful music I’ve ever heard
  • it was the greatest day of my life.”

That is the power of music – to heal, to inspire, to communicate, to transform and so much else besides.

Beethoven had no choice but to live in a world of silence.

Please, do not let your choice bring silence to the world of a single child.

Thank you for your attention.


Bramwell Tovey

Music Director Vancouver Symphony Orchestra

10 thoughts on “Music – the one language we all understand…

  1. Let’s assume the VSB parents and staff do not have a child in any music program, and that the removal of music is more than economics and budgeting. If they are preparing the future generation to ‘save the world’ from ruin, they are ignoring the belief of Casals – “music will save the world”. Not only would performers be affected, composers and their new compositions would lay in ruin and new music festivals would have scarce scores. Audience development starts with music appreciation in the school concerts and visitations to events such as those of the VSO.
    The inclusive elements of public education include all the arts – performing and visual. Music is becoming multi-dimensional in a concert setting with visual presentations. Children need to experience this in their own school fusion of learning and life. Music connects the minds of all children to the beat of learning.

  2. I’d be curious to know how many of the professional musicians you encounter in a day played in their school bands.

    • Hard to know exactly – last week I was conducting the National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain and 75% of the group (60 out of 80) learned with their local UK education authority. At the VSO everyone played in a youth orchestra, without exception. Loathe to venture a precise guess but anecdotally, I’d have thought it was in excess of 90% in the wind, brass and percussion sections. Best wishes BT

  3. Maestro, like anyone sensible, I agree with your comments 100%. A mind without music is an incomplete mind – not only in music, but in science, and in all the humanities. Carrie Taylor at Burnaby Central persuades teenagers to come out before breakfast for the love of music – let us just throw that away!!!

    Keep on with it. Thank you for your contributions.

  4. Dear Maestro Tovey:
    Your speech to the VSB in 2010 and 2014 is truly inspirational – and I can’t help but wonder how effective it was in persuading the VSB to drop its proposal as it did in 2010.
    I’m also compelled to gush a bit and confess how much my wife and I enjoyed your NYPhilharmonic/New Year’s Eve Concert – pure perfection! From your remarks, I couldn’t help but think how successful you would be in doing a series of televised “Young Peoples Concerts” as Leonard Bernstein did in the past.
    Warmest best wishes for your continued success in the New Year.
    Sheldon Roskin
    Scotch Plains, NJ

    • Thanks so much for your kind note – I’m afraid that due to an oversight at this end I didn’t reply to you before now – Thanks also for your note about the NYE concert which I greatly enjoyed. LB was a hero of mine (take a look at the Photos section on the website) and your remarks were much appreciated, but no one can ever equal what he achieved.

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