This article appeared in the past sunday star about my highschool reunion.
Jun. 4, 2006. 07:44 AM
POP MUSIC CRITIC
"Fear" is the motivational slogan Kevin Drew has scrawled across a blackboard to rally the young troops arrayed before him in the Etobicoke School of the Arts auditorium, but the Broken Social Scene frontman's return this particular morning to his old high-school hallways is actually a rather comforting one.
For students living and breathing the very sorts of cultural pursuits that are usually first on the chopping block when governments start tightening the education system's belt, the international success of the Broken mob and its numerous indie-rock offshoots is reassurance that devoting your life to those arts so often dismissed as "fluff" by a business-minded society can eventually pay dividends.
Indeed, Toronto's recent indie renaissance has established the Etobicoke school — attended in overlap roughly 15 years ago by Drew, his Broken compadres Amy Millan of Stars and Emily Haines of Metric, as well as Tangiers and Deadly Snakes members — as an historical pillar of the contemporary Canadian music scene.
ESA, as it's known, has even come to rival Thornlea Secondary School — a Thornhill institution known to some of its grads as "Rock 'n' Roll High" as the breeding ground for notable late-'90s acts from Hayden to hHead to the Philosopher Kings — as the region's most fruitful supplier of rock-inclined graduates.
ESA's "incubator" status isn't hard to explain, since it's the sort of place where the halls get littered with sheet music for Romberg's Concertino: Opus 51 for cello and piano rather than discarded potato-chip bags. Its annual auditions draw 800 to 1,000 students from points well beyond the city limits (and sometimes beyond the border) vying for a chance to immerse themselves daily in classical music, vocal training, theatre, dance and visual arts.
The school celebrated its 25th anniversary this weekend with a reception Friday night at the Drake Hotel and a gala at the school last night featuring alumni stars and today's students performing works that span its curriculum.
"It wasn't like any other high school," says Drew. "They pushed you in a direction you chose at a very young age. You were constantly asked what you wanted to do with your life. Your age didn't matter — age was just a number there ...
"You get a big chunk of time at ESA to figure out what you want to do and to express it constantly. It was a gift, and if more people had that opportunity, we'd be in much better shape, I think."
While the "starving artist" stereotype is often invoked by opponents of liberal arts education, it's a satisfying turnabout that an environment such as ESA's — where artistic and academic achievements are treated with equal importance, and cultural endeavours aren't shunted behind sports as in so many other schools' pecking orders — can actually lead to sustainable careers. Be they Broken Social Scene-sters, National Ballet conscripts or Shaw Festival actors, many graduates go on to earn a living through their art.
The school "taught you about the work you needed to do and the work you had to do," says Drew. "And it was always testing your emotions, not just your art. For all of us drama kids, it taught us `drama' at a very young age. You've gotta have `Don't give up' tattooed on your eyes to go there."
Haines, who transferred into the musical theatre program alongside Millan in Grade 10, remembers ESA as "a life-saving escape from high school jocks, and a chance to play music all day." And that perception seems to be shared by attendees old and new.
"It was very much like Fame," laughs Lorraine Lawson, a local songstress who arrived at the school in its fifth year of existence. "It had an energy unlike anything anyone had ever seen before. It was literally people singing and dancing in the hallways."
`(Thornlea) was kind of a stoner school. It was funny, but the very culture of the school to some extent — and I say this, maybe, because I was in that culture — was a lot of kids walking around the building with guitars'
graduate, musician, CBC personality
At ESA, the "artsy" kids aren't a pack of outcasts. So naturally, a remark dropped by Drew during his speech about never having to worry about "jocks" or fitting in with the "popular" kids draws a loud whoop of approval from the ESA auditorium — almost as loud as the moment when he hauls Paris-exiled Broken starlet Leslie Feist onstage as a surprise guest.
ESA might be sort of a clique, but at least it's a unified one. The intermingling of disciplines there — so that, for instance, music majors compose scores for theatrical productions and art majors design posters and T-shirts for the annual, student-run Solstice music festival — negates any stratification of subjects and encourages ensemble participation by the various faculties on major projects.
"It's not like other schools where people are just there because they have to be," says Jamie Peters, 18, a music major. "Here, I've met a lot of interesting people because everyone is interested in something."
"You're just immersed in arts in general," concurs Phil Nozuka, 18, another music major. Teachers "give you a good attitude. They really, really support you in your aspirations. You feel great about it. There's no guilt about wanting to be an artist because it's not the `best' career."
Thornlea's "Rock `n' Roll High" reputation stems from a similarly supportive attitude towards the arts.
The school was hailed as a landmark experiment in unstructured, progressive education during the 1970s, and although some of that '60s-born idealism had cooled by the '80s and '90s, it still helped to spawn a diverse roster of musical talent that includes Moxy Fruvous, Hayden, Poledo, half of the Sadies, members of By Divine Right, hHead and the Philosopher Kings, go-to Canrock producer Gavin Brown and one of his successors in the drummer's seat for Danko Jones, Damon Richardson.
Ex-Fruvous member and current CBC radio and TV fixture Jian Ghomeshi recalls "a real emphasis on arts and fine arts" that found space to thrive in a trimester system. Students were able to get "serious" subjects like math and science out of the way during the first two semesters, then spend all day indulging in music or drama for the rest of the year.
"Really, really strong teachers" addressed by their first names didn't hurt either, he says. Ghomeshi described one of his music instructors (and Thornlea "cult figure") Bob Leonard as the "late 20th-century, CanCon version" of the Richard Dreyfus character of Mr. Holland's Opus.
"Plus, I've gotta say this, it was kind of a stoner school," says Ghomeshi. "It was funny, but the very culture of the school to some extent — and I say this, maybe, because I was in that culture — was a lot of kids walking around the building with guitars."
By Divine Right's Jose Contreras, who tipped his hat to his alma mater in a song entitled "Rock High," wonders if the late-'90s band boom of which he was a part might have stemmed from Thornlea eventually clamping down on its "very hippie" past.
"When I went to Thornlea, about halfway through, they changed back to the `three Rs,'" he says. "My theory is, we got that taste of freedom and then the taste of that authority. Maybe that makes it all more poignant.
"Still, it was a very Neil Young, Pink Floyd, pot-smoking kind of school. I remember turning up to class very, very stoned many times and nobody calling me on it. There were lots of Pink Floyd lyrics scratched into the walls. All the lyrics to The Wall were somewhere on the walls."