I am fairly bursting with pride.
I am one of the adult mentors that has been working with Mustang Sally, the student Rock Band from Korah Collegiate.
This year, for the first time, the program was run as a credit course. There were some initial wrinkles, with a large number of students signing up, some of whom thought it would be an easy credit, some who weren’t prepared or able to make the time commitment involved.
When it was an extra-curricular activity students put in many, many hours rehearsing, learning the music business, developing skills doing set-ups and tear-downs, sound mixing, promoting the program, and participating in fund-raising efforts.
Their dedication resulted in Mustang Sally gaining a well-deserved reputation for a very professional program.
By November teacher Greg Ryckman, who started the Mustang Sally program nine years ago, had things sorted out and the band and crew — thirteen in total — began their work in earnest.
Weekly classes/rehearsals saw the band — drummer, bassist, guitar player, keyboardist, and two vocalists — trying out and learning dozens of songs. This year's program was "Made in Canada," and was comprised entirely of songs by Canadian artists.
Meanwhile, the Backstage Crew were learning about all the unseen but essential tasks that need to be performed under the tutelage of mentor Jason Young, a fellow occasional teacher.
Another mentor, Pam Stafford, parent of one of the singers, worked with the Media Crew on promotional materials and merchandise.
Mr Ryckman had me working variously with the Band, the Media Crew and the Backstage Crew.
It has been an incredible experience working with these very talented young people over the past seven months. Typical teenagers, there were times when motivation was lacking somewhat, but as the weeks progressed they came together as a cohesive group, recognized the commitment that was required of them.
Over the past week, beginning with a lengthy dress rehearsal last Sunday, through four afternoon shows for elementary school students, one for the Korah students, and finally two evening public performances, we got to watch the fruit of our labours: each performance was better than the previous as the students’ confidence and comfort grew.
Friday and Saturday saw the Pine Tones, a similar group from White Pines (under the direction of teacher Greg Maclachlan) opening the show, performing a half-dozen original tunes and a couple of upbeat covers (by Sam Roberts and Neil Young).
I have taught at both schools, and know and have taught all the members of the Pine Tones.
I am so impressed with these young people who not only have the talent but the courage to get up in front of an audience and lay it all on the line AND have fun doing it.
Watching both bands mix together during rehearsal and after the shows, and at the "after party," one realizes that the typical rivalry between high schools disappears when there is a shared purpose. Let's face it, music brings people together.
I only wish that there could have been programs like these when I was in high school.
Yes, there was a music program — in some ways, a more extensive program than exists today, with some of the “feeder” elementary schools also having instrumental and/or choral music programs.
But there was no for-credit rock band course.
Still, I can’t complain. I was privileged to have been a student of the incredible Frank Elliott at Bawating. I was in the Band that went on the ultimate band trip to England in 1978 to do a performance tour and participate in the Harrogate International Music Festival.
We had band trips each year, and played at many notable community events.
I like to think that Frank would be proud of my accomplishments.
I know that I did disappoint him by dropping out of Grade 13 and entering the work force. When informed, by one of my classmates, of my decision Frank exclaimed, “That boy should be going to university to study music!”
Unfortunately, he never told that to me, personally. I can only guess that, given my commitment to the music program during my previous four years, he took for granted that that would be my ultimate goal.
In retrospect, I wish that I had taken his advice and gone back to finish Gr 13 and head off to university then, instead of waiting almost thirty years.
Oh, I did leave the workforce and attended Algoma three years after leaving high school, but not to study music. Still, education is never wasted, and I firmly believe that I was not ready for that undertaking at that time.
Now, after obtaining a second degree — this time in Music — and a Bachelor’s of Education, after working as a music teacher, I have, finally, followed Frank’s advice.
Better late than never.
When I was in high school, when I was in the Bawating Band, I shed a lot of inhibitions. A few of us did start a “Spirit Band,” at I was the mouthpiece that introduced the group and exhorted the audience to clap and rock-on with us.
But I don’t know that I ever had the level of comfort I witnessed from the Pine Tones and Mustang Sally this weekend.
We had a local professional crew assist us with sound and provide a spectacular light show. Chris Biocchi and Rick McLeod have experience as performers and as show technicians — Chris was one of the original Mustang Sally members — and both of them repeatedly expressed their astonishment at what they were seeing.
These young people were every bit as good as any professional act I’ve ever watched. While they still have much to learn, their level of professionalism, the comfort they demonstrated on stage, and the interaction between band members and the audience belied their lack of experience.
Three of the band members are only in grade nine, and yet they have the talent and stage presence of seasoned performers.
I am certain that any of these young people, from either group, who want to pursue a career in music will find success.
As further encouragement for them, Mustang Sally got to perform with an alumnus, now working as a professional musician: Tyson Haynes was with Mustang Sally for three years. On Mr Ryckman’s advice, he headed to Nashville to pursue a career as a singer-songwriter. Six years later, he performs at Tootsie’s in Nashville, and has had country superstar Johnny Reid in the audience watching him.
Tyson came in for all of Sally’s performances as a special guest to perform his hit “Five Days to the Weekend” with Mustang Sally.
Another alumnus, Johnee Rae Whalen, won CMT’s “Big in a Small Town” talent contest, and is currently working on albums and videos.
Mustang Sally got the opportunity to perform with her at the Bon Soo opening ceremony, as she sang of her original songs “Love Me, Love Me Not.”
Johnee Rae has given permission for Sally to perform this song, and it was included in the set list for this past week’s concerts.
I can’t say whether any of these young people will find the same success as Johnee Rae or Tyson, but I am certain that if they want it bad enough, and are willing to continue putting in the work that is required, it is not beyond their reach.
I am so proud to have had the opportunity to mentor these young people, to be their teacher on occasion, and to perform with them (I was in “the pit” playing keys — doing fills and riffs).
I envy them the opportunity they have to do what they are doing.
It was always a possibility when I was their age, although not through school. Some of my friends started bands and played school dances, and later did the bar scene.
At the time I wasn’t convinced I had the necessary talent (although I probably did), and I knew I didn’t have the commitment to play in smoky bars until two in the morning, then do tear-down and pack up.
I certainly would not have wanted to have the life of a road musician.
Still, a young musician always dreams.
I see my job as a teacher and mentor to encourage these young musicians to follow their dreams. They’ve certainly taken the first step.
But… that’s just my opinion.
I would be remiss in not publicly thanking Greg Ryckman for inviting me to be a part of Mustang Sally. It has been an experience that I will remember and treasure always.
I would also like to publicly thank the members -- band and crew -- of Mustang Sally for accepting me as a mentor, and for the appreciation they have extended to me: in the card I received from them, the comments on the Sally facebook page, and personally.
You have no idea how much, as a teacher, your comments mean to me.
Teachers like Mr Ryckman, Mr Young and myself got into teaching because we want to make a difference in the lives of students. It is obvious that we have done so.