For all of the Elementary teachers who are rounding the halfway point of the year, and for all of the Secondary teachers who are finishing up semester 1 report cards today, here is a cool project idea for the spring. This article was completed by OMEA Director Marla Sunstrum for an earlier edition of The Recorder.

Chippewa’s Unintentional Piano Project: Wellness through Music
Marla Sunstrum

When you enter the front foyer of Chippewa Secondary School, you will be greeted by students playing on an old baby grand piano. In the cafeteria, you will find Chippewa’s second piano, painted by our art students. You may be treated to classic tunes such as ‘Heart and Soul’, ‘Moonlight Sonata, or ‘Clocks’, but if you are lucky, you will hear one of our students singing and playing a Norah Jones cover or another student practicing their grade 9 RCM piano pieces. The pianos are part of Chippewa’s ‘Unintentional’ Piano project, inadvertently started by Steve Tanner, a Vice Principal in the NNDSB and Colleen Point, a guidance counsellor at Chippewa Secondary School.

Vice Principal, Steve Tanner, was asked by a student one day if she could practice on a piano in the school for her upcoming RCM exams. Mr. Tanner went on search for a piano and found one in the back of the theatre. He was unable to supervise the student so he pushed the piano to the front foyer. “At the next break, I watched students stare at the piano; students stopped, looked at it, then started playing the piano and started to fill the halls with amazing music.” Mr. Tanner then approached the art teacher, Angela Evans about the possibility of having the piano painted by the art students. She worked with the art students and with the SIP class on the project. The decision to put the piano in the cafeteria was an easy one, as it is a popular hang out spot for the students before and after school:
The fact that our students have access to their first or 5000th interaction with a creative device, and to know that all it took was the relocation of the piano (which NEVER got touched and was actually slated to go to the dump) and that it has been well received by our Chippewa students, makes me smile. This was a simple thing and it makes me proud that I was able to have a part in bringing more music to the students.

Coral Montgomery, grade 12 art student at Chippewa, says that after painting the piano more students started to play on it: “Upcycling and beautification projects are so much fun, and the colorful positive artwork that we decided to decorate the old piano with creates and encourages and a bright pace in our cafeteria. Many students now head to the cafeteria to play some tunes on it.”

When Colleen Point, school guidance counsellor, heard that her old classmate, Tim Smith, was looking to donate his late father’s piano, she knew she had to jump on it:

I think a piano in a public space promotes creativity in the arts. It allows students to explore the instrument because so many don’t have access to one at home. I love hearing the kids experiment and explore the instrument, and I am astonished by our students who play extremely well. The piano is good for our school.

The school, however, had to pay for the delivery of the piano. Colleen, after seeing the benefits from the painted piano did some research on Tim Smith’s late father’s grand piano. She discovered it was a Nordheimer piano in outstanding shape and it was well worth the money to have it moved and delivered to the school (the late Mr. Hugh Smith was a former private music instructor). Colleen wanted the students have ownership over the piano and approached the students’ council to see if they would be willing to pay the moving costs. The students’ council stepped up and paid for the delivery costs. When the piano arrived, it was in excellent shape but as expected, it was a little out of tune. Within days, Victoria Zhou, a grade 11 student at Chippewa and a piano student, fell in love with the piano, and approached the principal for money to tune the piano. Victoria phoned a local piano tuner and arranged an appointment with him to tune the piano. She also took notes on various improvements that could be done on the piano, such as tightening the legs. She then went to the school’s shop teacher, Bryan Quevillon, who volunteered to do some maintenance on the structure of the piano.

For Victoria, the baby grand provides her a place to practice on a quality instrument that is required for her level of study with RCM piano:

The baby grand has a different feel and the sound is different. When the piece called for more voices, you can get more sound out of the piano. It’s also useful to have the sostenuto pedal. When you are playing a nice instrument, you step up your quality of performance out of respect for the instrument.

But the pianos are not only used for practicing. They provide an outlet to distress and unwind from the school day. Colleen Point is passionate about the pianos in the school being good for the mental well being of the students: “I think finding your bliss or pursuing your passion is a part of wellness. So is experimenting and having free creative time. Having the pianos accessible to students provides all of that and more.” Furthermore, Kerri Renaud, the school’s Child Development Counsellor, thinks its important that the pianos remain in the school, a part of the school culture, and that the students have pride and ownership over the pianos:

We were warned that if we put a piano in the main foyer, students would vandalize it. I’ve seen the opposite. Students who have never touched a piano before felt comfortable enough to start playing some notes, other students help teach each other songs. Some play off their phone while others play by ear. The biggest surprise for me was hearing some students who never have played an instrument before, go to the piano and play naturally by ear. Many students come to school early so they can play while others stay late and play the piano for others who are leaving to catch the bus to go home. Lunchtime brings students of different ages, grades and friend groups together to play or listen. While some play when they think no one is listening, others have piano play offs to see who can ‘out do’ the other.

Kerri Renaud perfectly summarizes the importance of the pianos at Chippewa:

There have been many studies done to show that music can improve cognitive performance, elevate moods, relieve symptoms of depressions and induce a meditative state. Music is a very important tool to help heal emotional wounds, to help communicate feelings and emotions, and to help you feel connected to others. When you connect with a song it helps you feel like you are not alone and that someone else just might understand what you are going through.