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By Lawrence Belanger

Local Journalism Initiative

Students in secondary 3,4 and 5 at Richmond Regional High School have submitted songs to the CBC Music Class Challenge, an annual competition for music classes across Canada. The competition is an opportunity for high school students to learn how to work together to learn, rehearse, and record a song performance; it also has opportunities for funding and music supplies for the winners. Two groups of students submitted to the competition this year.

Richmond High’s music teacher, Mireille Pruneau, as well as sec. 1 students Savannah and Felicia spoke over the phone about their experience preparing and rehearsing for the competition over the last two months. Both students spoke about the difficulties of working with other people while also being responsible for their parts. “You have to focus on your own part but also what your neighbour is doing,” says Savannah. The students played in both bands, as part of their year and as part of a volunteer “passion group”.

Rehearsing had its ups and downs. Speaking about her own playing, Savannah, who plays acoustic guitar on both submissions, said she loved “the riffs” of Heart of Gold, but that playing on Breathless was easier because its chords and structure were simpler. The passion group started rehearsing the Neil Young tune without a drummer.

According to Pruneau, it was the initiative of a student (who up to this point only focused on guitar), stepping in to play the drums on Heart of Gold after only a month or so of having learned the drums. “After teaching her a couple of rhythms, she picked up [the drums] fast,” said Pruneau. Going on to praise this student, she explained that “In a matter of two weeks, she was able to play the song, without the track, accompanying other musicians.”

Over the last two months, creative difficulties and differences would arise, but their rehearsal block was only 32 minutes long, so the pressure of time encouraged levity and humour as tools to diffuse tension. Laughter was a frequent occurrence at their rehearsals. “There were some times when the band [wasn’t] in tune”, said Felicia. She explained that, rather than dwelling on “bad” performance, the students would simply laugh it off, reset, and push through.

For the passion group, these rehearsals took place outside of normal class time. “In order to allow the students to have something they like in their schedule every day,” explained Pruneau, the passion group meets once or twice a week, during a period that Richmond High School created for students to pursue their interests during the school week.

Richmond has taken part in the challenge for five years, says Pruneau. While the competition’s rewards often include instruments and funding for several of the participants, the benefits also come from the experience itself. Students obviously learn how to play a song, but deeper than that, they learn how to blend multiple creative styles and skills with one another, which are important lessons in not just how a band works, but also in teamwork and leadership.

Both students said at times they even forgot it was a competition. They valued the music and playing instruments in a group more. “Ms. Pruneau really gave me [a] love for [the] guitar again,” said Savannah, who used to play it when she was younger but found the level she was being taught at boring.

In a stroke of luck, the first song the group listened to and even though Pruneau ran through the other 30 or so songs, the group picked Heart of Gold, having been enamoured with it immediately. “I think we all had this similar style,” said Savannah. It was the group’s goal to pick a song matching their “humour and style.”

The school’s 9th-grade class submitted “Breathless” by William Prince, while the school’s “passion group”, consisting of students from grades nine through eleven, submitted “Heart of Gold” by Neil Young. CBC Music Class is currently uploading submissions to their YouTube channel and will announce the winners of this year on Dec. 14.

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