Fiddling 'round the Arctic(Tamara Bernstein/The Globe and Mail, 29 November 2007) -- 'Think, my friends, how could any pool table hope to compete with a gold trombone?"
In 1957, those words were uttered by con man Harold Hill, in Meredith Willson's hit musical The Music Man. But by the end of the show, not only has "Professor" Hill found personal redemption through love: to his own surprise, his words about the power of music to transform youth have proved true.
Half a century later, the question of music and young people has gone from cute to urgent: Even as Philistine school boards in North America cut back on arts programs, both popular culture and the media are asserting the importance of music making for young children.
Last month, The New York Times Magazine ran a feature on Gustavo Dudamel, the 26-year-old Venezuelan conducting prodigy who has just been named the Los Angeles Philharmonic's new music director. The article made much of the fact that Dudamel is a product of his country's enviable music education system, which provides a place in an orchestra for all children.
Canada, sadly, has no such commitment to music. But today, Canada's aboriginal community honours a remarkable woman who for 20 years has been working musical miracles with this country's native children. Andrea Hansen—a former second violinist with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra—will receive a Canadian Aboriginal Music Award for lifetime contribution to aboriginal music, becoming the first white person to receive the award in its nine-year history.
Many stories lie behind this event, for Hansen—a blond, gravel-voiced woman of 69 with a big laugh and a heart to match—does not fit the usual stereotypes of classical musicians.
It all started in 1987, when the TSO toured Canada's North. There, Hansen discovered that long ago, Scottish whalers and traders brought fiddling to the region: Marooned by winter ice on the Beaufort Sea, they would take out their violins to while away the long nights.
For generations, those fiddling traditions thrived among the Inuit. But in recent decades, as substance abuse and horrific youth suicide rates have wreaked havoc among the Inuit young, fiddling has been dying out. Seeing the faces of children light up in the TSO's Arctic concerts, some of which they shared with local fiddlers, Hansen decided to do something. In 1988, she and Frank Hansen, an amateur fiddler (and no relation) from Inuvik, founded Strings Across the Sky (SATS), a charitable foundation dedicated to teaching fiddling in aboriginal communities.
Since then, Hansen has made more than 60 trips to Northern Canada to teach fiddling. She has stuffed violins into hockey-equipment bags and hauled them on to tiny planes; she has driven hundreds of kilometres along the frozen Mackenzie River ("It's in better condition than the 401," she says, referring to the major Southern Ontario highway).
Hansen has brought Inuit youngsters south to play with symphony orchestras; in 1999, she took 35 children to Scotland's Orkney Islands—the home of their fiddling tradition—where they processed into a 12th-century church playing "Amazing Grace," accompanied by an accordion mimicking a bagpipe drone. "There wasn't a dry eye in the house," she said. And Hansen does all this as a volunteer.
Hansen has developed a unique, sure-fire method for SATS that can work even when she has to substitute wooden spoons for violins and pieces of dowel for bows, when there aren't enough instruments to go around. "It's not exactly a conservatory method," she laughs.
Paul Andrew, an aboriginal correspondent for CBC North, has produced several television programs on Hansen's work. "I've always seen her as teaching the way elders teach in the North," he said on the phone from Yellowknife. "They push you and they push you—but when the hug is needed, the hug comes. And I think that's why a lot of aboriginal kids have responded to her."
Hansen's method is "very much 'watch and do; listen and repeat,' " said Bob Bromley, a Northwest Territories MLA and an amateur violinist who has helped out in Hansen's classes. "And that's how aboriginal traditions are passed on. So the kids are able to respond well to it.
"She has this ability to demand perfection, regardless of what your individual situation is," Bromley said. "Some people are too 'sensitive' to demand that. But you can see the kids respond: she demands, and they give, and they can't believe it themselves."
Charlie Wabano is a gifted 15-year-old Ojibwa who had always wanted to play the violin; he got his chance when Hansen started coming to Sioux Lookout, Ont., two or three years ago. "She's really fun," he said over the phone recently. "And she always has your attention. Nothing else is going through my head than what she's saying. And she's really patient. She tells you: 'You can do it!' She believes in her students."
Wabano, who aspires to a career in fiddling, is already in constant demand in his community, playing in churches, seniors homes, coffee houses and community suppers.
"SATS started out as an attempt to revive the dying art of fiddling," Hansen says. "But it has become far more intense than that. It teaches learning skills ... it teaches children to listen to others and to focus. It teaches teamwork, reading skills, mathematics and co-ordination. And it gives them self-esteem."
Hansen, who retired from the TSO in 1999, now does some teaching through broadband Internet between visits to remote communities. But with a current budget of just $80,000, SATS is still essentially a mom-and-pop—or rather, a mom—operation. Hansen has received many honours for her work, including the Orders of Canada and Ontario and a lifetime achievement award from the American Federation of Musicians. But this week's recognition from the aboriginal community, she admitted, "is special."
When Hansen was a baby in Kenora learning to walk, she said, she stumbled and reached out to break her fall. Her hands fell on a blazing cast iron stove, and her parents rushed her to the hospital with serious burns. Back home, a Métis friend of her mother stopped by, took one look at the child's hands, which were curled up in bandages, ran home and returned with a homemade salve. The woman rebandaged them with her ointment, gently separating the fingers.
"If my fingers had stayed curled up together, as the hospital wanted, I would not be playing the violin today," she said.
Since childhood, Hansen said, she has had "this sense of obligation and gratefulness" to the aboriginal lore that saved her hands.
The words of Charlie Wabano should assure Hansen that her debt is more than repaid. "Playing the violin gave me confidence in myself; it made me believe in myself," the teenager said. "It gave me something to look forward to—before that, I had nothing. But ever since I got that, it was all I ever needed."
The Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards are part of the Canadian Aboriginal Festival held at the Rogers Centre in Toronto from tomorrow through Sunday (canab.com).