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Musquodoboit choir’s small wonders 

Led by teacher Jarred Gates, the Musquodoboit Family of Schools’ Choir rejects choral standards for Canadian indie tunes.

The show's set-list reads more like a college radio chart than typical choral fare. There's no "In the Jungle" or "This Land is Our Land." (Sorry, Pete.) There are a few special guest performers from the local music scene---Rich Aucoin and former Haligonian Mike Evin. And all 80 singers will be covering locals Aucoin, Joel Plaskett and Old Man Luedecke, as well as Evin, Jill Barber, Two Hours Traffic, Attack in Black, K'naan, Tokyo Police Club and Language-Arts.

Eighty-plus boys and girls from Musquodoboit-area grade three, four and five classes are being led by their choral teacher, Jarred Gates. This Friday's performance by the Musquodoboit Family of Schools' Choir at St. George's Round Church on Brunswick Street is the group's first foray into the city.

The young voices---energetic, some half-sung, half-chanting, rich with simple harmonies---elevate the songs en masse, revealing something new.

The bassist and singer for local band The Upbeat, Gates is wrapping up his second full year as resident music specialist for three elementary feeder schools in the Musquodoboit area. In addition to leading the choir, he has also implemented extracurricular guitar and drum clubs to train the students who accompany the choir.

Gates will tell you he didn't expect to be leading a large choir of elementary students in choral renditions of Canadian pop music when he graduated from McGill in 2007. Like any new teacher he was focused on finding work. "I'm seriously the luckiest guy in the world as far as that goes," Gates says. "Nobody, I mean nobody, steps into a position as quickly as I did. The reason why I did was because I was willing to travel."

Ten-year-old Daniel Flemming has been in the choir since last year and loves the fact that the songs they perform are homegrown. "I'm pretty proud that we're singing Canadian songs. I really like them."

Ask him what he thinks of his teacher and some affection slips out. "He's like the best. We love him. He understands us. He knows what kind of music we like."

Gates definitely picks up where Hans Fenger, the music teacher behind the Langley School Music Project, left off. During a mid-'70s experiment in choral greatness, 60-some-odd Langley, British Columbia, children recorded covers of pop songs by David Bowie, The Beach Boys, Neil Diamond and other greats. A magical romp through the '70s guided by children's voices, the Langley Project is said to be one of the inspirations for Jack Black's movie, School of Rock.

Part of the reward for his commute from Halifax to Musquodoboit is definitely his students, says Gates. "I tell you, these kids are amazing. I don't deal with the behavioural issues that they do in the city. I get to run a music program and don't deal with kids fighting in my class, or being disrespectful. It's a dream out there."

He put this luck to good use by transforming the tri-school singers from the traditional order of white-shirt-black-slacks into a bevy of youthful curiosity with a newfound love of Canadian pop. "One thing that made me really nervous about taking the job was choir. I was told, 'This community is very enthusiastic about its choir.' I was like, 'Oh man.'"

Daniel's mother, Michele, is impressed by the rethink Gates brought to the choir. "I thought it was wonderful," says Flemming. "When Jarred came along, with his casual and interactive way with the children, it brought a lot of excitement to the schools."

Gone was the stuffiness and formality. Less a choirmaster, Gates opened a conversation with his students during choir practice. Flemming says, "He has the children participate much more. It's certainly a different type of performance altogether. They're beat-boxing to the songs and he has people doing solos. It's much more interactive."

Yep, beat-boxing in elementary school music class.

"I always kind of classified myself as a 'new school' teacher," says Gates. "Instead of doing the regular music stuff, which is a lot of why I'm doing this, because I really enjoyed it. Talking to my peers, the ones that go to the same rock shows as I do, they've always been like, 'Music class, man, what are you doing? No one liked the music teacher.'"

Musquodoboit Family of Schools' Choir w/Rich Aucoin and Mike Evin, Friday, May 29 at St. George's Round Church, 2222 Brunswick Street, 7pm, $5.


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