When Rosemary Thomson first met Govern General Award-winning teacher Rhonda Draper and decided to adapt her award-winning program, How Canada Came to Be, for the Okanagan Symphony Orchestra, she also enrolled her son in Draper’s school.
It was 2007 and Thomson was driving down the street listening to Draper interviewed on the CBC radio program As it Happens, having just accepted her job as the conductor and music director for the OSO.
Draper was describing the musical history she developed to etch a permanent blueprint of Canadian heritage in students’ brains, when Thomson noticed the teacher’s school, Glenmore Elementary, with a sign for kindergarten registration out front.
“I hadn’t even moved here yet. I was driving to a friend’s when I heard Rhonda being interviewed, pulled over and registered him,” said Thomson, noting she knew just as instantly the orchestra should adapt Draper’s program for its 50th anniversary in 2010.
But once the project was complete, it seemed it would need to be used again.
“For an orchestral school show, it’s so based on the curriculum and whenever we can teach school subjects through the arts, it’s a win-win,” said Thomson.
Today her young son is in Grade 4 and among the intermediate-level elementary school students who will help stage a return of the production, just as thousands of children across the country have done in the years since it was first created.
Draper spent a year collecting the songs to go into the show, writing the story that runs along side the music as she went.
“I field-tested the songs on the kids and then took note of the ones they really seemed to pick up on,” said Draper. “There are children’s songs they just pick up so quickly.”
It was this stick-in-your-head factor Draper was looking for so the storyline would be something her students, and her own two children, then three and five, now 15 and 17, could use as a Canadian framework to hang their understanding of the world and its history on.
“I’ve been surprised, over the years, by how much the students respond to the music of our ancestors,” she said.
The program is a compilation of 15 Canadian folk songs that moves from the Maritime provinces across the country, ending in the North; it has been adapted over the years as others heard it, particularly First Nations people.
From logging tunes to boisterous sea shanties that shape Canada’s musical history, songs like Land of the Silver Birch, Dors, dors p’tit bébé, and Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, it’s music that sets a stage, creates a rhythm for its subjects to work by and gives kids context for the logging and fishing, railway building and heady gold rush periods that mark this country’s development.
Unlike the popular music most kids take in on a daily basis, these songs weren’t written to be sold and both Draper and Thomson say it continues to amaze them how much information they convey. Students soon connect with feel of working in a mill or plucking a chicken (“Alouette, gentille alouette, Alouette, je te plumerai”) and the audiences, particularly older audiences, feel that true communication deeply.
This run of the show will see 2000 students from Penticton to Vernon watch the material in school and, while the first incarnations of How Canada Came to Be were compiled for CD, the public production will be turned into a DVD filmed by students from the Centre for Arts and Technology.
“Combining youth with a professional orchestra, there’s a wonderful relationship that’s built there,” said Thomson.
There’s also now a powerful relationship between Draper and Thomson. Thanks to How Canada Came to Be, the two have continued to collaborate on work every year, sometimes bringing students in to perform with the orchestra and other times to do worships for teachers or find new ways to showcase the orchestra’s work to the school community.
“Rhonda is an extraordinary educator, artist and visionary. We work together quite closely with the kids and we push them to be the best performers they can be,” said Thomson. “…Rhonda always finds a way to bring it all back to that deep communication between human beings and it’s very sincere and I do think the kids, and the audience, responds to that.”
The public presentation of How Canada Came to Be will be at 7 p.m., Monday, April 22 at the Trinity Baptist Church in Kelowna. Tickets for the evening show are $10 per person (children, adults, seniors) available at the OSO office (239-1889 Springfield Road), Glenmore Elementary School and Kelowna Actors Studio.