Group of P.E.I. musicians heading back to school, with a mission

John MacDonald is one of the Band for Life volunteers, and has been sitting in with East Wiltshire Intermediate School's Grade 9 band since January. (Victoria Walton/CBC - image credit)
John MacDonald is one of the Band for Life volunteers, and has been sitting in with East Wiltshire Intermediate School's Grade 9 band since January. (Victoria Walton/CBC - image credit)

John MacDonald hadn't attended a middle-school band rehearsal in more than 40 years. Until this January.

"I haven't been in a Grade 9 band practice since 1976," he said. "So I'm secretly thrilled to be here."

MacDonald has joined the East Wiltshire Intermediate School band as part of a program called Band for Life. Through it, members of the Holland College Welshmen Community Band are able to volunteer at a local school.

Alison Peters, the band teacher and conductor at East Wiltshire, said the program is "trying to make more connections between the students in the schools and the adults who are continuing to play and their instruments in all of the community bands that we have on the Island right now."

So far eight community musicians have joined the band at five schools: East Wiltshire, Stonepark Intermediate, Birchwood Intermediate, Colonel Gray Senior High School, and Three Oaks Senior High School.

Peters hopes it will inspire students to stay in band after they graduate from high school.

"They don't have to study it as a subject in university unless they want to, but it can be just something [that's] part of their leisure time, something that they do for stress relief, something that they just enjoy forever."

'Struggling along'

MacDonald, who plays euphonium or baritone, says it reminds him of his younger days in high school band — "struggling along trying to learn the music and keeping your teacher happy and then talking to friends mostly," as he describes it.

"Right off, you kind of notice they're in a class and trying to earn marks."

Since he's retired, MacDonald has no problem getting up early for school band rehearsals on Thursdays. It's his passion, after all, even though he himself didn't play for decades.

"I couldn't really remember even what a baritone looked like almost, because it had been 30 years," he said. "I could remember the fingerings for a B-flat scale, but I didn't think I could play at all."

But as an adult, he re-learned the instrument through the Second Chances Band. Eventually he felt confident enough to join the Welshmen band and the Great George Street Brass Band.

With more community bands like these popping up, MacDonald is glad other players won't have to choose between setting down their instruments and going professional.

"In P.E.I. in particular, you had to be a pretty good player. In all of those 30 years, you would have to join the Regiment Band, which is excellent players," he said. "So I would have been lost. I never maybe would have reached that level."

New bandmates

Sitting next to MacDonald during rehearsals is Grade 9 student Harry Lewis. Like most of his classmates, he picked up the instrument for the first time just two years ago.

"It was really nice to have him there just to sort of help me along, if he can help me with certain things, like reaching a really high note or sort out a melody," Lewis said. "There's some parts where he helps me know what certain symbols mean because it's all in Italian, like D.S. al coda."

(In case you are wondering, that means to go back and play Dal segno al coda, or from a special signal notation to the alternate musical passage that brings the piece to an end.)

Victoria Walton/CBC News
Victoria Walton/CBC News

The other band members also notice MacDonald's contribution.

"I thought it was pretty cool the low brass has a mentor to show them or help them play the notes," says student Aiden Barbour, who plays trumpet. "Ms. Peters can't always do that because she may be helping the flutes or the clarinets."

Having an adult in the group has opened the eyes of some students about being able to keep music in their lives.

"It shows that you can continue with band and still be good at this," says student Allie Sanford, a baritone saxophone player. "It definitely helps with teamwork… because all these sections have to work together to make the song sound right. Like if you were on some sort of sports team, you have to do your part to win the game."

Making music magic

As the foundation of the band, the euphoniums have an important role to play. As conductor, Peters is glad to have MacDonald lend a hand to the section.

"He just seems to fit right in. The kids just kind of accept that he's part of the band," she said.

She tries not to interfere, but from what Peters has overheard, she thinks the students have learned a lot from MacDonald.

"They're just chatting with him about the sound he's making and how long he's been playing," she said. "And I think his main role is just to kind of give us that little extra idea that there's all kinds of different levels to what they're doing and you never kind of reach the top. You can always keep playing and enjoy playing."

As for MacDonald, having attended a handful of early-morning band rehearsals with the group has reminded him why he got into music in the first place.

"I can hear some out-of-tune stuff, but in the middle it sounds like a band, and it's a nice sound," he said. "I really live for band. For the last 13 or 14 years, it's my thing now, my hobby.

"It gives me something to do. It gives me more than that."