For Bloor West Village filmmaker Michael Mabbott, the greatest feeling doesn’t come from his film appearing at the 2015 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival.
Instead, his gratitude is based on the opportunity this will open up for the stars of his documentary, which he filmed at North York’s Yorkwoods Public School, in the Jane Street and Finch Avenue neighbourhood.
“It’s amazing. I feel excited and grateful and so happy,” the father of one said.
Mabbott’s 20-minute film Music Lessons will appear at the festival, which runs April 23 to May 3.
The film follows the first year of Sistema Toronto’s program at Yorkwoods, where the organization started in 2013.
Sistema Toronto provides instructions to children in grades 1 to 8 in the city’s underprivileged neighbourhoods. It also runs a program at Parkdale Public School and is opening two programs in Scarborough next year.
Mabbott, an amateur musician himself, was looking for a subject for a documentary related to music, hoping to film a house band, but instead stumbled upon Sistema Toronto.
A few days after reaching out to the non-profit organization, its founder and executive director David Visentin called and said the children in the program would be receiving their first real instruments in three days’ time. They had been using self-made, to-scale and decorated papier mache instruments until then. Yamaha Music Canada donated approximately 160 instruments to the program.
“I went out there and saw what was happening at the program, met these kids, met these teachers and saw these kids get their instruments for the first time,” Mabbott said. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I’ve never seen anything like that, the hope and the joy.”
After that first day of filming, Mabbott knew he had a subject for his documentary and filmed the program running at Yorkwoods from October 2013 right up to June 2014, when the first group of 30 to 35 children in Sistema’s program performed at Toronto’s Glen Gould Studio at the CBC Broadcasting Centre.
Mabbott rode the bus with the children from North York for that day, which gave him great joy. Now, he’s beyond happy the same children will get a similar experience when they get to perform downtown again, this time at Hot Docs.
Music Lessons is getting an hour-long showing: 20 minutes for the film, 20 minutes for a Q and A, and a 20-minute performance by the children.
“The idea that these kids from the orchestra are going to play at an amazing venue with amazing acoustics is hard explain how happy that makes me and how excited I am,” Mabbott said. “It’s beyond my wildest dreams. It’s so cool.”
Visentin shares the filmmaker’s enthusiasm, saying the folks running the organization couldn’t have imagined this happening. Visentin credits Hot Docs executive director Brett Hendrie for making it possible.
“It’s literally the most fantastic exposure of the children’s voices in our program that we’ve ever had,” Visentin said.
“They are in wonder with the whole experience of coming downtown, the lights and the audience,” he said. “They’re on stage doing what they were working so hard to do. This is phenomenally important to them.”
Sistema Toronto is based on a global movement, El Sistema, established in Venezuela more than 35 years ago. Visentin began the administrative work in his home’s basement office and provided music lessons at Yorkwoods along with other instructors. Through donations, the program has grown to include 150 children, who are professionally taught, and the number of students will grow next year when the two new centres open.
The children get instruction at their school after class four days a week. They get a snack, go to their music classes where they learn theory, note preparation, musicianship and more. Then they close each two-hour after-school program by going into one of three classes: choir, orchestra, and drumming.
The students play on string instruments, including violin, viola, cello, flute and clarinet.
Visentin said hearing the children speak for themselves is the best way to gauge whether the program is successful or not.
The children who enter the program get to stay until Grade 8, so a child that enters in Grade 1 will get eight years in the program. Visentin said Sistema Toronto has a high retention rate. Three years in the program is equivalent to more than 1,000 hours of musical experience.
While music is a big part of Sistema Toronto, the program is not meant to develop professional musicians, it’s meant to develop good citizens, Visentin said.
It breaks down the boundaries between grades. Visentin said children as young as those in Grade 1 reveal themselves as leaders in the program, and not just because they excel in music, but socially as well.
Mabbott said he hopes the music program does more than churn out future musicians.
“I want them to be great citizens, and I think they are,” he said.
“They’re kids but they seemed like an extraordinary group of kids to me. They were so kind and disciplined. They were incredibly polite and thoughtful and articulate. I’ve worked with all sorts of people in this industry and these guys were my favourite and they called me Mr. Mike.”
He said he was honoured the children opened up to him, and added music is a great vehicle to start a conversation about other topics.
Additionally, music offers indirect benefits to life, Mabbott said.
“It’s almost a catharsis. If I pick up a guitar and play for half an hour after a hard day, it doesn’t solve the problems but it just gives you a few minutes of mercy and of calm and of joy,” he said.
“It makes these children happy and hopeful.”
For more information on the music program, visit www.sistema-toronto.ca
For more information on Hot Docs, visit www.hotdocs.ca