Sistema Toronto’s after-school program brings orchestral music to east Scarborough

Nick Westoll has more on Sistema Toronto, an after-school orchestral music program that operates in east Scarborough and three other communities.

Inside and out of Military Trail Public School and St. Martin de Porres Catholic School in Scarborough’s east end, it’s not uncommon to hear the sounds of rich orchestral musical instruments fill the air thanks to the efforts of a Toronto charity.

“When I listen to classical music, it forms so many thoughts in my mind. Like I can write something, or draw something, or type something out like in a poem or a story, and I think the feelings you can evoke from music is really inspirational,” Desiree White, a 13-year-old student entering Grade 9 at St. John Paul II Catholic Secondary School, recently said during a viola practice.

“With sounds alone, you feel something so deep inside of you.”

Ever since Kindergarten, Desiree has been part of Sistema Toronto’s after-school program. Its goal is to teach young students in east Scarborough, Jane and Finch, Lambton Park and Parkdale how to play orchestral instruments while giving them a safe space to develop and make friends.

Desiree said the program meant overcoming shyness and processing a wide range of emotions.

“With Sistema, it really pushed me out of my comfort zone and I was able to really see it’s OK to be scared but don’t let those feelings hold you,” Desiree said.

“It wasn’t just about the instruments in Sistema: it was about compassion, and leadership, and how to take responsibility for yourself, and how to really treat the people around you and be a better person as a whole.”

A long-time resident in East Scarborough, Desiree said the inclusive program complements the community.

“A lot of people when they come here they always think it’s like some ghetto town or it’s like violent and poor, but that’s not at all it,” Desiree said.

“We do have some problems with gangs and violence, but here in Mornelle and West Hill in general we’re a very close-knit community and we really look out for each other.”

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Alex McLeod, the academic manager for Sistema Toronto, said the program runs four days a week after school for roughly two hours a day. He said participants learn to be in a choir as well as play percussion and string instruments mixed with lessons about teamwork and leadership.

“It’s wonderful to meet the kids and we have such an interesting experience because we often meet them when they’re very young in Grade 1 or Grade 2 and see them grow throughout the program,” he told CityNews.

“We know this neighbourhood is just full of incredibly engaged and intelligent and artistically talented children and we’re just so excited to get to know them.”

When it comes to the types of music played, McLeod said most of the teachers have a classical music background. However, he noted one of the teachers in Scarboroguh plays in a Cuban jazz band. Regardless of their training, McLeod said there aren’t restrictions when it comes to the instruments.

“What we want to do is meet kids where they are and learn about their musical interests and their musical culture,” McLeod said.

“For most students that means they listen to things on YouTube. I think our most requested piece was Minecraft music over the past few years.”

For the year-end concert at Military Trail Public School, participants played Blinding Lights by The Weeknd and a piece they composed collectively.

In an age where much is dominated by technology, McLeod noted the program offers a break from continually being in front of a screen.

“I actually think having the instruments is a great advantage. It gives everybody something to focus on,” he said.

“It’s a very engaging activity: You use your body, you use your brain, you’re talking and communicating, you’re listening and students have this incredible immersive experience in the program.”

Meanwhile, even though it’s still summer, Desiree is looking forward to returning to the Scarborough-based program as a mentor to earn community volunteer hours needed for graduation while branching out to other arts.

“I want to inspire people, especially young kids, to get into music because it can help you really—it’s something you can always have to learn and always something you can come back to,” Desiree said.

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