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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 20, Number 3, November/December 2007

Songs of peace

Making the world a better place

Simon Fraser Elementary School Peace Choir

By Murray Dobbin

Marisa Orth-Pallavicini has been the teacher-librarian at Simon Fraser Elementary School in Vancouver for six years, and today she is also the choir master of the school’s Peace Choir. Both themes—peace and music—come naturally to Orth-Pallavicini. The politics of social justice permeate her life and that of her husband, Vancouver City Councillor David Cadman. And music is key to her life as well, she has been co-writing the music for the Euphonious Feminist Non-Performing Quintet for 12 years. She believes music is a powerful force for good in the world and that belief was at the root of her decision to form and lead the choir.

"The Simon Fraser Peace Choir began in April of 2006 when I had an invitation to bring together a choir to perform at the Opening of the Mayors for Peace and the International Peace Messenger Cities’ conference, which was part of the World Peace Forum in Vancouver in June of 2006. As teacher-librarian at Simon Fraser who had led student choirs in the past, I decided that this was a wonderful opportunity to start a choir with a purpose: to sing for peace, and to try to do what we could to make the world a better place."

Membership in the choir was voluntary and was open to all grades except half-day Kindergarten because of rehearsal scheduling. The Peace Choir’s first concert was performed at the Orpheum Theatre on a Saturday morning in June. "It was a very exciting start for our choir. One of the people who heard us that day was Reiko Ono, a survivor of the atomic bomb dropped on the city of Nagasaki during World War II. She was so impressed with the choir that she asked to come and visit our school."

In September 2006, the Peace Choir members met again and decided to sing for the school’s Remembrance Day assembly. After each concert, membership in the choir is again open to all students, so that students can join after having seen a choir performance. "The Peace Choir meets when we have a concert to practise for or when they need to learn a new song. The repertoire of the choir is now up to 12 songs." They meet at lunchtime once a week and on Wednesday afternoons during the last period of the day. The choir has grown from its original 40 members to 71 and they need to hold separate rehearsals for primary and intermediate students until the last week of rehearsals before a performance because the space is limited in the library.

Word of the choir gets around. Last December, they received an invitation from the teacher-librarian at Emily Carr Elementary School to do a concert. That led to an interest in Simon Fraser’s Student Council (Orth-Pallavicini is their teacher/ advisor) project to raise funds for children in Malawi who had been orphaned or seriously affected by HIV/AIDS. The council was raising money by selling beaded AIDS ribbons made by the children in Malawi and their caregivers. "The students and staff at Emily Carr decided to have a penny drive and sell some of the pins to support our efforts," says Orth-Pallavicini, "The Peace Choir worked on a song, For Nkosi, sung in English and Zulu, and a script explaining the issue of HIV/ AIDS. This was a real challenge for them but it turned out wonderfully."

Teacher newsmag spoke to five of the young students in the choir: James Cuevas, Anika Hundal, Amber Looi, Misa Lucyshyn, and Kieryn Silver. All were enthusiastic about the singing—James revealed, "I used to just sing in the bath tub and in the shower but in the Peace Choir I could really sing." But they were just as excited by the theme of the choir and its overseas project. Misa Lucyshyn said, "What’s important about peace?

The world is not all peaceful. If children see violence every day they will grow up to be violent and afraid. If children grow up in peace they will grow up to be peaceful people that will make the world better and safe."

All five were especially proud that they were helping people in Africa who were suffering from AIDS or who were orphaned by the disease. The impact of the lives of orphans on the lives of Canadian children was obvious. "The children in Africa have just been forgotten," said Amber. "Their parents have died of AIDS and now they just have to find a way to fend for themselves. It’s very sad."

All the choir members have their favourite song, it seems, but one was top of the list for several. That was For Nkosi. The song, written by Orth-Pallavicini and her fellow songwriter, Pat Davit, is a dedication to Nkosi Johnson. This slight 11-year-old South African captured the hearts of millions of TV viewers, when his address at the 13th International Aids Conference in Durban, South Africa in 2000, was televised worldwide. Subsequently he and his adoptive mother, Gail Johnson, established a series of Nkosi’s Havens for mothers with AIDS and their children. Nkosi died in 2001. His entreaty to everyone—"Do all that you can, with all that you have, in the time that you have, in the place where you are"—is featured in the song.

After the choir performed at Emily Carr Elementary School on March 12, the school community raised just over $500 selling the beaded AIDS ribbons. In June 2007, the peace choir recorded a CD of eight songs called Songs for Peace with the support of the parents and the school. These CD’s are still available at a cost of $10 to cover recording and production costs.

For Orth-Pallavicini, the choir experience has been both a joy and a challenge. The biggest surprise? "I had expected the older kids to be the most eager to join initially but was actually deluged by the youngest ones—Grade 1s and even Kindergarten—wanting to join. And even more surprising, the young ones loved the more complex songs and had no trouble with foreign languages (like Zulu). They were fine with complicated lyrics and for many of them English was their second language."

The challenge in the HIV/AIDS project is "...keeping alive the links and connections with real people in Africa. Those personal connections are powerful learning experiences. We get letters from CAYO (Counselling of the Adolescent and Youth Organization) the group on Malawi we work with. CAYO’s Executive Director Fryson Chodzi visited the school last June."

The next major external gig for the Peace Choir will be at the BCTF’s Public Education Conference on Friday evening, January 25. Orth-Pallavicini is a little nervous as any choir master is when challenged by an important performance. But she’s confident her children will be ready.

Murray Dobbin, a Vancouver author and writer, is acting assistant director and Teacher editor, BCTF Communications and Campaigns Division.

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