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Toronto charity making orchestral music accessible to youth in priority neighbourhoods

Toronto program making music accessible in priority neighbourhoods
WATCH ABOVE: Thirteen-year-old Ayden Davis is one of several hundred students in the city who are learning how to play orchestral instruments thanks to the charity Sistema Toronto.

As 13-year-old cellist Ayden Francis perfects his rendition of one of his favourite songs, Boogie Bass, his steady tunes can be heard filling the bright halls of Military Trail Public School in Scarborough.

While it might seem a bit of an unusual instrument in an elementary school, Francis is not alone. He is one of about 300 children currently enrolled in Sistema Toronto — a program for students between Grades 1 and 8 that was launched almost a decade ago to help bring orchestral music lessons to the city’s priority neighbourhoods.

It currently operates in east Scarborough as well as the Jane and Finch and Parkdale neighbourhoods. Program staff and volunteers teach classical music, but also music from non-western cultures along with music from contemporary sources such as video games and movies.

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“When I first got exposed to playing the cello, the program was brought to me in Grade 3 … I got super excited, I decided to sign the form and give it in to my principal,” he recalled in an interview with Global News on Friday.

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“My favourite thing about the cello… is it’s different.”

Now, he said he plays and practices two or three hours a day, four days a week. An avid fan of Drake and 2Pac, Francis said his music interests vary — groovy, classical and movie soundtracks.

If he can listen to music — whatever the form — and play it, he said it’s for him. Seemingly, that approach to music is paying off.

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“(I have learned) a lot of skills from playing music in general is timing and patience. Once you learn an instrument as I said, you can learn almost all the other instruments,” he said, noting it gives him an outlet to express his emotions.

“When I play a sad, slow tone, it expresses how sad I am. Or when I play with a happy and strong tone, it expresses how happy and proud I’m feeling.”

A longtime student in Sistema Toronto, the program’s executive director said Francis has shown an incredible progression over the years — even as he faced some challenges.

“Yeah, Ayden is an incredible kid. I think that his journey hasn’t always been easy,” Christie Gray said while fondly reflected on his four-year journey.

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“But I’ve really seen him persevere through the tough times and really work towards improving his playing.”

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In fact, Francis’s efforts were recently recognized by Toronto Community Housing. The organization paid tribute to the young resident’s dedication and talent, something noticed by a community development worker.

“My parents are so proud of me. They praise me every day for playing the cello,” he boasted.

“My dad he even hugged me crying yesterday. He read the article and he was so proud of me.”

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When asked about the program as a whole, Gray said students who participated have shown improved critical thinking and focus skills. She added participating students have seen approximately 25 percentage points higher in their school grades compared to peers not in the program.

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Although the program is geared toward elementary-aged students, graduates have gone on the specialized arts high schools in Toronto and are welcome to return back to participate in an honours orchestra.

She said Sistema Toronto, which operates largely based on donations from the community and businesses, is aimed at busting misconceptions — both about skills needed to join the music program and about many of Toronto’s neighbourhoods.

“What we tell any kid in our program is that music is for you. No matter how you start in our program, you can become great – or anything that you want to do – by working hard, by persevering, by showing up every day,” Gray said.

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“Kids who live in priority neighbourhoods are often stigmatized as being problematic or maybe they’re going in the wrong direction, and what I have seen through this program is that there are incredible, incredible kids all over and all of the neighbourhoods. They can do amazing things if you just give them a chance.”

Meanwhile, Francis — who is also aspiring to be an actor — had advice for any other children who may want to study music or potentially join the program — which currently has a waiting list.

“If you want to play the cello, go ahead – it’s a great instrument. If you want to play any instrument, go ahead. It’s good to do what you want to do,” he said.

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