Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Young People and the Ottawa RBC Bluesfest

Every year, Ottawa, Ontario hosts North America's second largest festival celebrating blues music.  Acts from around the world attract hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.  What may be less well-known is that the Bluesfest is also very active in the community throughout the year, bringing blues history, culture and the music itself into local schools (through their Blues in the Schools program).  Also, through their Be in the Band program, they bring together youth from across the city who are interested in playing in a band and matches them with potential bandmates, providing mentorship and rehearsal space, and giving them an opportunity to perform at Bluesfest.

This year, our daughter, Lena, got to take advantage of one of the Bluesfest's youth-oriented good works.  Lena has been taking guitar lessons for the past year and a half at the Ottawa Folklore Centre (OFC) with local blues musician and awesome instructor, Jesse Greene (in fact, Lena, Kate and I think she may be the awesomest in the city).  A little over a month ago, Jesse informed us that every year for past several years, American blues and folk musician, TJ Wheeler, comes to town for Bluesfest and in the week leading up to the festival's final weekend gathers ten OFC student between the ages of 8 and 18 and provides instruction, teaches them some songs and how to play together as a band.  The kids get together with TJ for two hours every day for five days and perform on stage at Bluesfest on the festival's final day.  In addition, each participant would get three passes to the festival for the day of their performance.  All, incidentally, at no charge.  Jesse encouraged Lena to sign up for the program.

Lena is quite a shy and reserved girl, at least when she is among a group of people she doesn't know, and she has been uncomfortable performing even for a small group of family friends.  Also, since the program is advertised as an acoustic band, Lena was not entirely enthusiastic because she found her own acoustic guitar a bit difficult to play.  Nonetheless, after talking with me and Kate and with gentle encouragement from Jesse, Lena decided to register.

Two months ago, I had never heard of TJ Wheeler.  Today, I am one of his biggest fans.  He is, simply, great with kids.  Part music historian, part philosopher, a healthy bit of a comedian and 100% musician and teacher, TJ kept the mood light but focussed and managed over the course of 10 hours of instruction to turn this rag-tag group of mostly pre-teens of varying ability into an impressive and well-choreographed band, which TJ ended up dubbing the Cacophony Blues Band.

Throughout the week, Lena would go to class, sit quietly in her chair without interacting much with the other kids, and rehearse the songs with her bandmates and TJ.  As I say, she is shy and reserved and so didn't volunteer to sing any verses or do any guitar solos but that was fine with us because her just agreeing to do the program was a big step for her.  I sat outside the rehearsal room for most of the sessions and had a great time seeing the kids have a great time, listening to TJ's corny jokes and seeing the group come together.  TJ taught them three songs:  The House of the Rising Sun, Take me to the River, Hey Bo Diddley and together they wrote a fourth song, which I'll call the OFC Bluesfest Blues.

As the day of the performance got closer, Lena began getting nervous about being on stage and playing in front of a crowd.  She became quite quiet backstage in the hours leading up to their performance.  But, when the time came, she climbed on stage with TJ and the other kids ssought out a spot behind the other kids.  She looked a little overwhelmed.  But as they got going on their first tune (House of the Rising Sun), she banged away on her guitar and by the end of it, she had a BIG smile on her face.  The crowd went wild with every song, every guitar or harmonica solo, every verse sung.  The kids were clearly having a great time and the parents in the crowd, Kate and I included, were damn near bursting with pride.

Lena came off the stage PUMPED.  She told us that once they started playing that first tune her nervousness disappeared and she absolutely loved the experience.  She thought the crowd's applause and cheering was very cool.  Where during the course of the week and concert, she was happy to stick to the background and go about her business, she came off the stage saying how if she's lucky enough to do it next year, she'll definitely want to sing (though she's a little uncertain about doing a guitar solo) and take on a bigger role.

I talked with TJ backstage before the concert and was telling him that more than anything the kids may have learned musically during the week, I thought the real value of the experience, which would spill over in all parts of their lives, was the confidence they gained from doing it.  He agreed and shared an anecdote of one kid he taught who had some clear problems socializing with others and who emerged as a solid performer and who he saw year after year develop into a more confident individual who made friends more easily and who was courted by a number of bands.  TJ also shared that being a musician and performer has had a profound impact on his life and that's why he works so much with kids:  "Just passing it on" he said.

Amen and thank you, TJ


The whole day the Cacophony Blues Band performed, all the bands that benefitted from the Be in the Band program also performed.  They were all awesome.  Getting up on stage and performing in front of a crowd, many for the first time, can be intimidating but they all did it with enthusiasm.  I really enjoyed seeing these kids giving it their all.  The head of the OFC music School, Alan Marsden, was responsible not only for bringing TJ Wheeler into the OFC, but was also the coordinator for the Be in the Band segment of Bluesfest and deserves massive praise.  He did a bang-up job.


As I said earlier, Lena was a little hesitant about performing with an acoustic guitar because she's got small hands and finds fretting on the acoustic a lot harder than her electric guitar.  Kate was talking about this with our good friend, Joe, who is both an accomplished musician and guitar technician.  So, he came over and took away Lena's half-size acoustic.  He restrung the guitar with better strings, shaved a good bit off the bridge plate and did whatever else guitar techs do and returned it to her the next day.  My God!  It sounded like a completely different instrument and Lena found it so much easier play.  Joe is an alchemist - turning musical lead into harmonic gold.  Joe says he is frustrated by the general poor quality of student guitars and how they are (or more accurately, are not) set up.  Nothing will turn kids off learning music than  a poor instrument.  Lena said that if anyone had asked her about her acoustic guitar two weeks ago, she would have said it was a decent guitar.  Now, she said, she realizes how wrong she would have been.

As if Joe's generosity in tuning up Lena's guitar was not enough, he also brought over his first guitar, which is a full-sized acoustic to lend Lena for her rehearsals and performance.  Being bigger, the guitar also had a much bigger sound and Lena found it very playable.  So, this is what she walked on stage with.

All this to say, we are very thankful to Joe.


  1. I'm flattered, but thanks is so unnecesary, Lena is family.

    But I will share this: My biggest pet musical peeve -- more than guitar players who play too loud, more than drummers who don't understand dynamics, more, even, than singers who disappear at tear-down but miraculously reappear when the pay envelope comes out -- is the universally poor state of instruments aimed at students.

    Don't get me wrong, I get it: Mom and Dad won't spend a lot of money on Sally's first guitar, because what if she quits in a month? And manufacturers won't spend the money to set the instrument up properly, because that kills the profit and drives the price up (in which case, see my first point about Mom and Dad).

    Personally, I wish that the stores that sell the instruments would take the time and make the effort, because they are grooming a potentially life-long client. But even they have financial constraints that prevent them from setting up EVERY instrument that leaves their shop.

    And so it goes.

    Little Sally gets a pretty-but-unplayable instrument. And when it's done killing every once of desire in Sally, it gets passed on to cousin Bobby, equally eager to learn to play, and equally fated to give up because it's harder than it needs to be.

    And so it goes.

    But we can break the cycle. If you are the parent of a child who is trying to learn on a student instrument, invest the money, get the instrument set up properly. Do not be dissuaded by the tech who, preferring to spend his time in the company of more extravagant guitars, will tell you the setup is worth more than the instrument, and thus unworthy of his efforts.

    Because that is not the right scale on which to measure the value of the work.

    And, by the way, if your tech tells you that, find another tech.

    The value of the setup should NOT be measured against the value of the instrument: I've done lots of setup work on on guitars worth only a few dollars, with the result that the instrument becomes playable, learnable, enjoyable, and it gets USED.

    So how do you measure the value of a proper setup, if not against the value of the instrument being worked over? The true value of making an instrument -- and especially a student instrument -- playable can only be properly measured against how much better an experience it provides for the student.

    So, a $50 setup on a $49 guitar? Don't think twice, do it. You don't have to justify it, because it simply makes sense. A well-setup $49 guitar will in all likelihood play better (and better encourage learning) than investng that same $99 on a guitar that is itself not properly set up.

    And besides, what kind of a piece of crap are you going to get for $99?


    Oh, and Lena: Rock on sister!

    1. You're a good man, my man. And your points are well taken and I couldn't agree more.