Edmonton Symphony Orchestra inspires love of music in kids—with no strings attached

Alexander First Nation students are learning the basics of violin through three-year pilot program

Students of Edmonton Symphony Orchestra’s (ESO) Kipohtakâw YONA program took the stage at Edmonton’s Winspear Centre earlier this month—pulling at the strings of both their violins and their spectators’ hearts.

After their stage debut in 2018, students from Alexander First Nation performed for another packed house at the Road to Joy concert on June 11.

“For many, last year was the first and only time these students have performed on stage,” says Lauren Dykstra, lead teaching artist at Winspear Centre, ESO's home base.

“It’s really special to see them showcase all they’ve learned throughout the year.”

Dykstra and one other teaching artist make the journey to Alexander First Nation two days a week to teach violin at the Kipohtakâw Education Centre at Alexander First Nation, near Morinville, AB. With 55 violins in total, children in Grades 3 and 4 are taught how to read music as well as play the violin.

YONA stands for Youth Orchestra of Northern Alberta, with the ESO operating two programs under that umbrella. The first, YONA-Sistema, benefits children in Edmonton's priority neighbourhoods, while Kipohtakâw YONA is based north of the city.

“Alexander First Nation reached out to us about the possibility of starting something similar to YONA-Sistema,” says community investment manager Lana Walsh. “They felt it was something that could really benefit their community.”

It seems to be having the desired effect, with teachers reporting higher attendance—especially so on violin days.

At Enbridge, we're proud to partner with and support Indigenous communities near our projects and operational rights-of-way, because we believe in sharing our success with the communities where we operate. We donated $15,000 this year to the YONA programs, specifically to help fund the Kipohtakâw program. The donation will assist in sending teachers out to Alexander First Nation as well as purchasing instruments for student use.

While the program welcomes donations of violins, roughly 75 per cent of the instruments used in the YONA programs are purchased.

“To make this program last beyond the pilot project, we need instruments, space and teachers,” says Walsh. “Ultimately, that means we need funding partners like Enbridge.”

Beyond music literacy, Alexander First Nation students are learning life skills, such as responsibility and mentorship. Dykstra says the students were recently granted the privilege of taking their violins home with them to practice.

“The students have a lot of pride in being able to take their violins home and being able to share what they’re learning with their families,” she says.

The Road to Joy concert incorporated cultural elements from Alexander First Nation such as an elders drum circle, which is a priority for the Kipohtakâw YONA program going forward.

Walsh says it’s a mutually beneficial relationship in terms of sharing culture.

“They have asked that we share our Western music with their community, and in return we are often invited to their feasts and dances,” says Walsh.

“We have felt so welcomed into the Alexander First Nation community since starting the Kipohtakâw program. We’re so grateful.”

(TOP PHOTO: Students from Alexander First Nation perform their Road to Joy concert on June 11, 2019 at Edmonton's Winspear Centre as part of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra's Kipohtakâw YONA program. Photo courtesy, Leroy Schulz.)