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An Open Letter to the Vancouver School Board and the Government of British Columbia,

On the subject of closing music programs and Programs of Choice in the Vancouver Public School System and province-wide.

I write to you today, on “Music Monday” May 3 (link to press release below), to argue against the closure of music programs and Programs of Choice in BC Schools. My name is John Oliver. I am a full-time freelance composer whose works have been commissioned by major Canadian musical institutions, including the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and Canadian Opera Company. My composition, “Five-ring Concerto,” was commissioned by Vancouver’s Turning Point Ensemble as part of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics Cultural Olympiad. As part of my collaboration with Turning Point Ensemble, I am working as an invited guest with young composers at a Metro Vancouver secondary school. This music program is so vibrant that there are over 20 young composers eager to learn from a professional composer. I am also the father of two daughters, aged 11 and 13, enrolled in French Immersion programs in the New Westminster school District and active in the school music programs.

I attended Lord Byng High School from 1973-77. At that time, the Byng Band did not have a string section, but it was a respected band program. When I was growing up, there were no band programs in elementary schools at all, but most high schools had music programs with concert band at the core. Because I had demonstrated music talent early, my family paid for private guitar and clarinet lessons while I was in elementary school, though we had to pinch pennies to do so. It wasn’t until I entered the high school band program that I was able to explore other instruments, such as flute, the various saxophones, bass clarinet and percussion.

In grade twelve I designed a special “directed-study” course, investigating music notation history from the earliest examples of music being written down to the most avant-garde and contemporary music notation. I was able to do this because during grades ten and eleven I had taken part in a satellite program for gifted, self-motivated students at Byng called “Self.” This self-directed studies program encompassed English, History, and Physical Education. Students were required to design their own course of study in these subjects, picking their own activities and topics for study and essay-writing. We also produced our own theatre productions and planned educational trips.

I owe a great deal to the program offerings at my high school. I became a composer because of the breadth and depth of experience I gained within the Vancouver public school system Programs of Choice.

If the Vancouver School Board decides to close the band and other Programs of Choice, they will do irreparable harm. They will deprive our children of a hopeful, bright, interesting, and engaging school experience. They may save some money this year and next, but we will all pay for it in the end, including the cost of servicing the social ills that come with bored youth.

I believe that the BC government must stop funding private schools and put the savings into the public education system. Why should scarce public dollars fund private schools? Why should the wealthy be able to benefit from the mixture of public and private funding that will allow their private school to afford to offer a music program, while kids in public schools have their music program taken away from them?

John Oliver
New Westminster, BC

Music Monday Press Release:

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Full text of the speech presented by Bramwell Tovey to Vancouver School Board (VSB) Trustees at a public meeting at Mount Pleasant Elementary, Vancouver April 20th 2010.

Good Evening. My name is Bramwell Tovey. I am the Music Director and artistic head of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. I am also a parent of two students in a VSB French immersion program, aged 9 and 11. My wife, Lana is a music educator with several years experience of inner-city school teaching in Winnipeg. For four years she volunteered as teacher of music and choir for Queen Elizabeth Annex Elementary School where she taught every class as this VSB school had no provision for music.

The VSO performs to 50,000 children every year in our educational and other concerts for children with a great deal of support from the public and private sector, led by TELUS, our Premier Education Partner.

The VSO Connects educational program works in partnership with school boards across the Lower Mainland. This program provides a link between the VSO and selected schools on a year to year basis and brings the orchestra into direct contact with thousands of students throughout the Lower Mainland. We have worked in harmonious partnership with the VSB and sincerely thank you for your tremendous support of this important program which also brings students to rehearsals at the Orpheum in downtown Vancouver .

One of the modules we present is a “Meet the Maestro” program. I have visited dozens of schools in this program as a guest speaker and performer, speaking to the whole school community, students, parents who wish to attend, and of course, the teachers whose dedication and skill is so inspiring. I talk about music, the VSO, the language of music, the elements of composition and of course, I play the piano- the highlight is usually a short movement by Beethoven whose music always connects with young listeners.

I make the point that Beethoven had a seemingly insurmountable handicap for a musician – he was deaf. He lived in a world of silence yet understood the language of music better than any of his contemporaries. He created some of the most extraordinary music to have captivated hearts and minds during the last two hundred years.

At the VSO we believe an education without a significant musical component is no education at all.

Music is a form of language which reaches every human being. It needs little or no translation. In a school district like Vancouver, where dozens of languages are spoken by our widely diverse community, music is the only language common to everyone.

The proposal to cease investing in the Band and Strings Program is one that the VSO strongly urges the VSB to withdraw. In many Vancouver schools we have witnessed first hand the benefits of the VSB supported band and strings program. The option of a user-pay or school funded program does not embrace the inner city child whose only connection with live music may be the saxophone or drum set that has been offered to them. The saving of half a million dollars is paltry when considering the life enhancing benefits of this contact with the world of music. In fact, I doubt this amount would even buy a family home within 10 blocks of the illustrious VSB building on West Broadway. When I heard the actual figure I found it hard to believe so much had been achieved with so little.

I do not bring these remarks to you from a lofty aesthetic perch. I grew up in England in the East End of London – my father died when I was a boy. Without the band and orchestra experience that I benefitted from in the state school education that I received, I would never have been able to compete and succeed in the music profession. As a single parent my mother could not have afforded the cost of these activities. I have a personal motive for standing here tonight – I don’t want a kid like me to fall through the cracks because of this proposal.

The Vancouver School Board has done a wonderful job supporting the band and strings program. Rather than cutting it I would suggest that you expand it, and consider adding a choral component to it – the magical sound of children’s voices has largely been silenced in many of the Vancouver schools I have visited. This should be the legacy of the VSB in these post-Olympic times.

What kind of message does this give to our children about the values of our society?

“Here’s an instrument. Now give it back.”

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Hello there, my name is Marnie Perrin and I’m the Artistic Director of the Surrey Children’s Festival, I’m a stilt-performer, and I’m a mother of two creative young daughters. I attended the School Trustees Public Forum discussing the budget shortfalls for the VSB on April 18th and was shocked at what I heard. The budget shortfall affects all school districts in BC. Band programs across the board are on the chopping block. If children don’t have access to art programs in school, many will not have access, as parents can’t afford private lessons. What state is this province going to be in 5, 10, 20 years if children aren’t exposed to quality artistic practices through school? Please pass this call-out onto anyone who has a story to tell, we need them all.

Vancouver School Board band programs in jeopardy! What’s next?


The Vancouver School Board is budgeted for a 18 million dollar deficit which means that the provincial government is not giving them enough money to cover their costs. As such, all band programs across the board are going to be cut, unless we can get the provincial government to put more money into the budget.

We are looking for stories of any professional artists, actors, musicians or other, that got inspired due to their school program. “Did art save you?” What about the kids that don’t excel in academics or that don’t like sports, where do they go?

Please e-mail the stories to We will make sure the Minister of Education gets the message.

More information below.

Dear Friends,

The Vancouver School District is facing an $ 18.12 million shortfall in provincial funding for the 2010/11 school year. Without additional funding your school district must make deep spending cuts that I believe will be harmful to our schools and our students.

An $18.12 million shortfall will cause the loss of over 190 full-time equivalent jobs, cuts to school libraries, music programs, special education support, ESL support, a shorter school year, fewer course and program options and a loss of support to vulnerable students in our inner-city schools. Our children and youth deserve better. We know that there is no better investment in the health and prosperity than education, and we need the provincial government to live up to its commitment and responsibility to fully fund our schools.

For months the Minister of Education has refused to provide funding to cover provincial cost increases to the VSB budget and protect important education services. We submitted requests to meet with the Minister last fall but were only granted a meeting for April 23, 6 days before we must pass our budget.

Minister Margaret MacDiarmid cancelled our April 23rd meeting and responded to the VSB by issuing a press release saying she was appointing a Special Advisor to review VSB finances. This was a total surprise; we have sent her invitations to our public budget meetings and included all our budget documents. It’s unfortunate that the Minister of Education is choosing to go this route, but let me clear, we will make every effort to help the special advisor do her job.

To find out more about what Vancouver School Trustees are doing to advocate for our public schools, please go to

Best wishes,

Patti Bacchus

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