The day the music died: Laurentian closing its music department

·6 min read

'… I can't remember if I cried

When I read about his widowed bride

Something touched me deep inside

The day the music died…'

So go the lyrics of Don McLean’s “American Pie”. Would an ancient song of lamentation or Mozart’s Requiem in D minor be more appropriate to the announcement that amongst all the other departments – such as physics, math and midwifery – music, too, would be closing at Laurentian University?

While eulogies are spoken at a funeral, the voices here tell of the value of music to Laurentian, the north, and of the importance of nurturing the arts. There is from all corners a plea to consider alternatives. Laurentian is insolvent, can't pay its bills and has sought creditor protection under the Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act as restructures.

So far, it has cut almost 200 jobs and cut almost 70 programs, including music.

Sally Lesk was a sessional employee at Laurentian. She was director of the Concert Band, a credit course.

“After I retired from teaching high school I found out through friends that they were starting a concert band. They had not had one there for many years. That was 2008. I loved working with the students towards creating seasonal concerts for the public.

"By 2019-20 I thought it had been a great run. The spring recital of 2020 would have been my swan song, but of course, that was all shut down. I thought it would be a simple two-week lockdown. I was so wrong. Now there is this. It’s breaking my heart.”

What are the options for students?

“Cambrian does have instrumental music, but it is a very small program. There really is not a lot of cross-pollination across institutions,” Lesk said.

“Students have sent me messages on Facebook. Yes, Yoko (Hirota) received a lot of calls from other universities expressing their dismay about what was going on. They offered then to find places for Laurentian students in their programs.”

Hirota, the current chair of the Music department, said she is concerned for her students.

“I have emails from graduates and they can’t believe what is going on. Many universities have opened their doors. Some students can transfer. They have to finish their degree. It is so important. They cannot be left behind.”

Lesk would still be playing timpani and other percussion instruments if Sudbury Symphony Orchestra concerts were happening in 2021.

“My passion for music has not declined. In fact, I am now on the board of the Sudbury Symphony Orchestra. I chair the fund-raising committee, too.”

This closure will certainly impact the SSO.

“When I mentally go through the list of performers so many have connections to and with Laurentian. Instructors, current and former students - and don’t forget many music teachers in the elementary and secondary schools here in the north are Laurentian grads - many of those are performers in the Symphony,” Lesk said.

Nicholas Kuchtaruk, SSO chair of the board, echoed those comments.

“I don't know where to begin. LU touches the SSO in so many ways. It is a major blow to the arts community in Sudbury. The Music Department was always a great supporter of our concerts, fundraisers, etc.

“The bulk of our orchestra members are former faculty, students, and alumni of the Music Department. This will likely impact the musical talent available locally, not to mention a large portion of our audience are suffering emotionally and financially ...

“It is very challenging for arts organizations to succeed in Sudbury, Northern Ontario, and I fear the changes occurring at Laurentian will make it even more difficult.”

Music is an essential part of a university and a community. Students from other disciplines also found a natural outlet and opportunity to continue to follow a passion even if enrolled in physics or computer studies.

“You are teaching life through music; all those soft skills,” Lesk said. “Northern students were way more comfortable at Laurentian.”

What happens next as plans for closure go forward? Lesk and faculty members are concerned about the instrument library and other assets.

“We are afraid they will just take a look at these chattels, and because they are unnecessary, they will dispose of them for pennies on the dollar. In liquidating the instruments, I hope they will stay in Sudbury where people could make use of them will use them.”

Charlotte Leonard has been at Laurentian for 39 years. “I’m the oldest member still standing. I joined as a part-time person in 1981 … full-time since 1985. I’ve seen the whole thing essentially from the beginning when we started at Huntington (Unversity). My last day will be May 15, 2021, but for others, it will be earlier.

“They attempted to cancel our program before. In 2004, I was chair and had a taste of the secrecy and the threats to staff and students. This time I took retirement hoping to save someone else’s job.”

Leonard recalls that last time a third party reviewed the department.

“Then president of LU, Dr. Judith Woodsworth, was really part of our community. She worked with the Sudbury Symphony, and understood where things fit, asking for advice on where we could economize. We went about doing it. (Robert) Haché (the current president of Laurentian), parachuted in and has no clue of the cultural milieu.

“We were included in the design of the new education building including purpose-built spaces. We moved from the modular buildings in 2007. That was then and this is now. No one knew anything of the financial situation. When things get tough, it is always the arts that go first in budget lines ...

“We were warned it was going to be bad, but we did not know it would be this bad. I thought they might phase us out, that we would be safe for three more years. That would have been reasonable.”

Leonard believes in the program: “We created a legacy.”

But now she hears from students looking to reach the finish line in a university with a reduced capacity and that there is nothing at Laurentian left for them to take.

What will students do? Some will try to finish out at Laurentian, perhaps by taking courses from other institutions.

Others will not have the resources to continue. Some will move to other institutions to complete their degrees, often sacrificing financially and often losing partial credit for what they have completed.

Hirota has been with the department for 21 years. “They could have done the restructuring differently," she said. "With CCAA they only see the dollar signs. There is the importance to the north … it cannot be based on numbers.

“We have five beautiful Yamaha grand pianos and more than 10 uprights. There are many expensive percussion instruments. It would be heartbreaking to see them all sold, liquidated. They should have kept this as a smaller program and then allowed it to rebuild in future years.

"No, now the situation is impossible. Hundreds of thousands of dollars expended. How can a program just vanish? We were a very healthy program and the facilities are great. The concurrent education program made this attractive to students even from the south.”

The Local Journalism Initiative is made possible through funding from the federal government.

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Twitter: @SudburyStar

Hugh Kruzel, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Sudbury Star