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From Poverty to Pluck: How Music Lessons Changed My Life

In this first blog post, I get personal about what learning and playing music meant to me growing up in a single-parent, low-income household. Hope you enjoy! 

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A few months after starting fiddle lessons! (1996)

As a child growing up in Riverview, New Brunswick, I was slow-learning in school. I was painfully shy and self-conscious because I didn’t think I was smart. Many a recess and lunch-hour found me in the hall outside the principal’s office, finishing a math test. When I started fiddle lessons at 7 years old with Jocelyne Bourque, one of the few fiddle teachers in the Moncton area, I knew I had found something I was good at. I learned quickly, my confidence grew, and I fell completely in love with the process of making sounds on this instrument. Violin lessons followed at 8, with Margaret Wood, who taught most of the English-speaking violin students in Moncton. I was still struggling in school, but as I entered grade 5, my fragile but growing confidence met a school teacher whose patience could withstand my sensitive nature. My grades slowly but steadily began to rise.

The next year, at 11 years old, my family life took a turn. My mom had been a stay-at-home mom for 17 years, when the necessary eviction of my dad from our lives took away our only income. We soon lost our house in Riverview, and moved to Salisbury, NB, to a tiny little basement apartment that cost $370/month to rent (probably due to the black mold and critters in the walls). Mom was fortunate to get a job as an Educational Assistant, which meant she could work the same hours that I was in school. It was fortunate, because I was one busy child, with 3 weekly fiddle groups, many solo performances and a southern gospel band with which I was rehearsing and performing at least once a week at its height. All this while we were living well below the poverty line at around $12,000/year, in addition to whatever I could bring in performing. We barely had enough to live, let alone pay for my music lessons.

But I’d made some wonderful friends through music. They believed in my talent, and they rallied around me. They would pay the tuition for my lessons. When my mom couldn’t get back from town in time to drive me to lessons after school, they volunteered to drive out to Salisbury and take me to town for my lessons. My teacher even loaned me one of her violins, when it became clear that my own was no longer cutting it.

Then, when I was 15 and serious about becoming a professional musician, it was recommended that I begin studies with Philippe Djokic in Halifax, NS. He was widely considered the best and most well-connected teacher in the Maritime provinces. But we had no way of affording travel to Halifax, or the fees for elite-level lessons. Enter Ivan and Vivian Hicks, and the Sussex Avenue Fiddlers, who set up a fund (crowd-funding before the days of gofundme), where people could donate to pay for travel and the lesson fees. Mom drove 3 hours there, I had a 2-hour lesson, then drove 3 hours back, every two weeks for my last two years of high school, thanks to their generosity.

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With Philippe Djokic, my teacher from 2004-2011

I would never wish the way I grew up on any child, but it did instill in me a sense of how lucky I was to be able learn and play music. Music was my release from the pain that permeated so much of my early life. Music allowed me to keep the child in me safe….it formed a shield around my imagination, my curiosity, and my sense of awe toward life and all of its possibilities. It taught me that I was smart. It taught me that rewards come from hard work. It taught me to value knowledge, and achievement. It takes some serious “pluck” to pull through circumstances like mine (with a Governor General’s Medal to boot), and I don’t mean pizzicato! Music taught me that.

Music is powerful. It sharpens our minds and our senses, and teaches us how to contribute something beautiful to the world. Our relationship with music will never be one-way. If we give enough of ourselves to it, it will give so many wonderful things back to us. With the kind of life-changing enrichment music can offer, what right do we have to deny music education to all but those who can afford it? It should be accessible to people from all walks of life, everywhere in the world.

Because people have been so generous to me, I feel compelled to give back, and this is why as of this year, I will be offering a small number of Pay-What-You-Can spots in my studio (in the East End of Toronto, or online through Skype), to deserving students who live below or near the poverty line. For more information, please use the contact form here and specify that you’d like to learn more about Pay-What-You-Can lessons.

I challenge all of my students this year, to think about what music does for you, even just in your daily life. How does it make you feel when you listen to it? What about when you practice and perform music? Now, what can you do to thank music for all that it does for you? (Hint: it might rhyme with cactus!)

And now, here’s a little “Violinspiration” from me and my friend Shelby, who is a blind pianist and accordion player from Salisbury, NB! We recorded these pieces in July, incidentally at the lovely home of Ivan and Vivian Hicks! Hope you enjoy! ~T 🙂