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Kelowna Secondary School music program gets set for an encore

Standing on the risers, KSS choir students get the job done, coming to school for an extra practice in the lead up to Encore, the school
Standing on the risers, KSS choir students get the job done, coming to school for an extra practice in the lead up to Encore, the school's annual music showcase at the Kelowna Community Theatre. Below: Sheila French conducts the choir in one of the last practice sessions before the public rehearsal
— image credit: Jennifer Smith

It's not Glee. In fact, music teacher Neil Wong says Glee has not had any impact on the Kelowna Secondary School music program—and he's none too fond of the show.

"It's not like we just walk in, hand out the music and then everyone plays it perfectly," he says. "It's just really not like that."

It's fair comment when one considers how hard both the music teachers and the students in this program work. Of the 20 different performance options they are about to showcase at their annual public concert known as Encore, only a couple are scheduled to practice during the regular school timetable.

Otherwise, it's early mornings and late nights and working over lunch.

There is a television program that did have quite an impact on the music program's development. A documentary called Motown High struck a chord with Wong a couple of years back. It's about Victoria High School where teacher Eric Emde started an R&B Band so successful it made the trip to Detroit—home of the genre—and Motown diva Martha Reeves came out to sing with them.

"I thought, that's what I want to do here," said Wong, noting he doesn't have the time to make the KSS R&B Band a full-time vocation like Emde, but has seen it take off all the same.

The group performs Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder and Adele. High school kids aren't overly enthused about turning up for a concert band performance, but when the R&B Band takes the stage, they bring cheering posters like regular concert-going music fans.

This is the sort of out-of-the-box thinking that's built this music program to a point where it's strong enough to invite the entire city in to watch an annual performance at the Kelowna Community Theatre.

Sheila FrenchWong's colleague, Sheila French, runs 15 of the groups. She plays for the Okanagan Symphony Orchestra, helped institute the new Okanagan Symphony Youth Chorus and is hard at work ensuring KSS performers are up to snuff for next week, even though it's semester break.

"I'm seeing you moving. I can't be seeing you moving," she says to one of the choral groups practicing Tuesday. "It's disrespectful to your audience. It's disrespectful to everyone else on stage."

No one balks at the demands to respect the music. They just try to stand straighter and, in interview afterwards, 17-year-old Amelia Wynn-Williams and 16-year-old Evan Andrulevich pile on the praise, saying she's an incredible teacher capable of bringing out the best in anybody. Encore, they say, is the pinnacle of their year here in Kelowna.

"It's sort of like the performance aspect of the courses," said Wynn-Williams. "We would hope the public would come because it's more fun than just playing for parents. Parents are good too, but it's just better that way."

Wynn-Williams says she loves to perform and has been on stage since she was three years old.

There are 200 young musicians, equally keen and willing to come to school when they could be in bed and stay late when they could be out with friends.

"The best part is entertaining people. It's not like there are a lot of opportunities to hear classical music," said Andrulevich. "The worst live music is still better than anything you hear on the radio."

Encore isn't just about watching young artists develop. It's also about money.

As teachers and the government settle into a new bargaining framework, the parents and students in this band and choir program get set to sing for their worth.

The program gets just $5000 to run every year. With that money the groups travel to festivals to perform. Their instruments, like the piano, are tuned and repaired—a $100,000 districtwide fund for this aspect of the program was eliminated a couple of years back—and the teachers rent materials and performance spaces.

There is an outreach aspect to the program. The school's Night Owl Orchestra offers members of the community a chance to play their instruments alongside the young musicians, building up the wider music community.

And next week there are two opportunities to see what all the fuss is about.

The Encore performances runs two nights on Tuesday, Feb. 5 and Wednesday, Feb. 6, both at 7 p.m. and last for about two and a half hours each night.

Tuesday. Feb. 5 will feature the Grade 10 Concert Band, Chamber Choir, Jazz Band 11, Ruth and the Boyz, R&B Band, Vocal Jazz Combo, Grade 10 Jazz Band, and the Night Owl Orchestra.

Wednesday, Feb. 6 sees the Grade 10 Jazz Band, Concert Choir, Jazz Combo 11, Ladies Chamber Choir, Senior Concert Band, Vocal Jazz, Grade 10 Jazz Combo, Men's Chamber Choir, and Jazz Band 12 take the stage.

Tickets are available at Mosaic Books on Bernard Avenue, at the theatre door or by calling Kelowna Secondary School. It costs $15 for one night and $20 for two; $5 for one night for students and $7 for two.

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