Music saved me. It gave me a sense of pride and satisfaction that helped me through the tough periods in my life. In many ways music is what led me to where I am today; it guided me past bad choices in my youth and gave me a foundation to build on who I am.
There was always music in our home. My mother played the piano. We lost her to cancer when I was quite young, which threw the family into turmoil. There were seven children, and my father had his hands full trying to keep food on the table. While most of my siblings took piano lessons as children my younger brother Peter and I got lost in the shuffle and never had that experience. Perhaps it is not unrelated that we both became songwriters and professional musicians; Peter played with the Skydiggers in the 1990s.
High school and my teenage years generally weren’t easy for me but there was always music. From my earliest memory I loved singing. I still remember clearly my first public performance. I was in Grade 2 at St. Barbara Elementary School in Scarborough, Ontario. A classmate and I sang Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay acapella — okay, admittedly the Glen Campbell version. The kids seemed to like it, though, and we did a command performance in the afternoon for the Grade 7 and 8’s. We were mini-rock stars for the day.
I was afflicted with a very clear sense of what I wanted to do when I grew up. From around age 12 or 13 I knew I wanted to be a musician. I played a guitar in my bedroom constantly. Looking back I marvel at the discipline and focus I applied to music as a kid. I bought a guitar with money I earned as a cashier at Becker’s Milk, and working as a gardener in the summer. In high school I began classical guitar lessons without fully understanding what classical guitar was all about and then immersed myself in the language of music. I went as far as the Grade Nine Royal Conservatory level. At the time I was studying Bach guitar transcriptions by day and playing in a punk rock band at night. Eventually the latter won out.
Musical instruction is a discipline with an end goal, to impart in your children a love of music and enough facility to play throughout their adult lives. It’s much the same as hockey: the point is not really to produce an NHL star, but to encourage athletic challenge and a lifelong appreciation and ability to play the sport. I have more fun playing hockey today than I ever did as a kid.
Music training is intense; complaints of childhood piano lessons are not uncommon. It’s hard, and success can’t be achieved without work. I laugh when people say, “I’ll sing back-up and play tambourine in your band!” Singing harmonies and keeping rhythm on a tambourine are difficult. Even the simplest assignments in music take time and focus to master for most people. You see the point: music education teaches children much more than just music.This is why it is so important to maintain music programs in schools.
Do all children need to be taught the canon of classical music? I don’t think so. It doesn’t matter what the song is, so long as it connects to the student. Music is a natural reflex for human beings; we naturally need to sing, and should. Music brings us together as families and communities. What is a karaoke bar but a modern version of people joining in the living room to sing around the piano?
I have an older son who is now a musician, and three younger children who are just about to start on their own journeys. I hope their experience of music will be positive and enriching one as it has been for me.
(Editor’s note: the author is former New Democrat MP for Davenport, Ont., a composer and musician, and former recording artist with Island Records)