Choice is key in Master's music program

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Alex Bakir, from left to right, Grace Gunn and Sophie-Jayne Morgan of the ‘Dirty Hippies’ rehearse for the Battle of the Bands during Master’s College music class.

CALGARY – Teens and adults are often miles apart when it comes to their choice of music.

It’s not an issue for teacher Victoria Simpson, however, when it comes to the unique music program at Master’s College. Students are able to explore different instruments and genres until they find their perfect fit, and that includes the songs they play.

It’s personalized music learning, and she says it’s no accident there’s a distinct focus on student choice.

“It’s intrinsic motivation. If you love Led Zeppelin and you get to play ‘Cashmere,’ you are going to be motivated to learn that because you enjoy that song and you enjoy that band,” Simpson says.

Students enrolled in the music program can also choose the tech and recording stream, where they help the musicians sound their very best in the Master’s recording studio, or when playing before a live school audience.

The end goal is to help students become lifelong musicians. Traditional music programs allow students to hone their skills as part of a concert band, but once they graduate from high school she says their options to continue with music are limited.

“I want them to sing and create and play the instruments that are popular these days,” she says. “I’m not saying concert band is invalid or not cool. It’s super cool, but it just doesn’t transpose into real life in the end.”

Real-life skills are also what the tech and recording students gain through the program. Simpson says some are already getting paid to set up the sound at church events and the like, and one student puts in after-school hours as an instrument technician at a local business.

The program’s unique nature hasn’t allowed students to truly showcase their work, until now. Master’s College is hosting its first-ever Battle of the Bands on Tuesday, April 17 beginning 7 p.m. in the school auditorium. Bands and soloists will perform their choice of music – with the recording and tech students providing the sound and lighting – before a paying audience with cash prizes on the line.

“I wanted to give them something that was just, open. ‘School Rock’ is obviously my favourite movie, so we thought it would be cool to kind of base it off something like that,” says Simpson.

The music program is individualized, but that doesn’t mean the students work in isolation. They are free to form bands or groups of their own and their teacher is big on peer tutoring.

Since a number of students benefit from private music lessons outside of school, Simpson often asks them to help less experienced students with a certain technique or skill on a given instrument. She monitors that interaction, and also has the help of two student-volunteers from the University of Calgary music program as well as her husband, a professional musician and audio recorder.

“I’m a facilitator as much as a teacher,” she says.

Despite the element of choice, the music program isn’t a free-for-all. Theory and composition are the basis of the program, as students need that knowledge base to be able to create or variate, says Simpson. Students are also provided with a basic knowledge of technology, so they can mute a microphone or deal with feedback.

Ethan Grozell played the trombone when he first joined the music program, but has since switched over to the tech and recording stream. He says he’s come a long ways in a short time, and credits the nature of the program for his development.

“Doing it, is how I learn best,” says the Grade 9 student. “Just getting taught in a classroom doesn’t work for me. I like getting hands-on and learning it directly.”

Enrolling in the tech and recording stream was a natural for Grade 9 student A.J. Wipf. He’s always had an interest in that area and has been handling the music for school Christmas concerts and the like since he was in Grade 4.

“I’m definitely considering this as a career because it is something I enjoy doing, it is something I know how to do, and something I can learn in school,” says Wipf, who will help provide the musicians with recordings and videos they can include in their portfolio.

The Battle of the Bands will see Sophie-Jayne Morgan playing bass guitar on a couple of indie/folk-rock songs with the “Dirty Hippies.” She, and Grade 10 classmates Grace Gunn and Alex Bakir, formed the group in class earlier this year and have already played a couple of live music venues outside of school.

Morgan had played the piano for almost a decade, but says it was getting a “bit old” for her.

“Being able to come here and pick out an instrument I wanted to play that didn’t have to be part of a concert or part of a bigger group, was a really big deal,” she says. “I wanted to be part of a smaller group, a band like this, and I hadn’t been able to find something like that in school before.”

Bakir was enrolled in more traditional music classes while living in Mexico. She only took up the lead guitar a year ago at Master’s and credits the course philosophy for her growth to date.

“I’ve come this far where I’ve performed live and part of a band now,” she says. “It’s really amazing for one year – the difference from then to now – how much I have improved because of this program.”

Gunn considers the addition of the Battle of the Bands event another feather in the program’s cap.

“We have done a few more performances but it will be so nice to perform in front of our school and as a competition,” says the group’s lead vocalist and ukulele player. “I think it will be really great practice and experience for us.”

Jenna Peters will be among the soloists at the Battle of the Bands, and will sing and strum a couple of indie-folk pieces. Choice is what she loves most about the Master’s music program.

“Music is such a personal thing and everyone kind of connects with a different style,” says the Grade 11 student. “I like this program because we learn how to play in a group setting and how to play music with other people, but we’re also given the opportunity to develop our own music and connect with it in our own personal way.”

For more information on the Master's College music program, go to

Master's College offers a faith-based alternative program for students in Grades 7-12 in Calgary.