Working outside the system
By Michael Bull
With the transition to university status in full swing, Mount Royal is becoming more and more well known. However, there are still a few parts of the campus experience
that tend to get overlooked in all the hubbub.
Brad Mahon and Murray Visscher have been co-coordinators of the Guitar Academy program at Mount Royal for the last five years, and one could argue that through their efforts alone, the guitar program has not only maintained but also thrived.
“The Guitar Academy sort of came alive around 1991 or 1992 but for many, many years there was usually only one student or two students in the class,” says Mahon. “Then our very first year, when Murray and I came, there was six students and the next year there was 10, then 12, then 18 and so on.”
By going out into the community and inviting fellow musicians to come back and lecture, they quickly built the program through reputation and word of mouth, from the ground up.
“We really believed in the program,” says Mahon. “And what we tried to do is get our colleagues in the community to believe in it too. So [we would] commission them to come and give classes…then, after a while, they started sending students to us.”
Visscher explains: “We are trying to expand the community as much as possible. We’ve been looking at national guests to come in and teach for us, and international guests as well, like the Italian duo that is playing [on Feb. 24]. Mount Royal actually really stepped forward on that, so it’s nice to have that support.” Interestingly enough, the Guitar Academy is not specifically aligned with the Conservatory and is a pre-post-secondary program, with students ranging from ages 9-19. However, if desired, the staff at the Academy prepares all students who want to continue on to post-secondary programs.
In addition, both Visscher and Mahon both looked at other Conservatory programs and wanted to structure their own in a similar fashion. Right now, there are junior, intermediate, and advanced sections. Although it is a pre-post-secondary program, the requirements for entrance are not any easier to accomplish than if it was a degree program. Students have to audition and are required to have been taught by a private instructor for at least one year beforehand.
While students might not continue with guitar after they finish the program, according to Visscher they will have “understood what level of commitment is necessary to study in other fields.” “Whatever they go into,” adds Mahon, “we would like to think those lessons are applicable, but we don’t push post-secondary onto them. We certainly encourage them if that’s what they want to do, but we try not to push anybody into a career in music. That’s a decision that they should come to on their own.”
As for teachers, the selection process is a little less arduous. Browsing through Calgary guitar sites, both Mahon and Visscher are able to continually find high-class talent with a willingness to teach.
“One of the things that we do like to look at is that we like to see some teaching ability,” says Mahon, “because you can be a great performer but if [you] can’t communicate with our students or what [you] are saying goes over [the students’] heads, then it can be quite a disappointing experience.”
It’s clear that neither the attitude of the teachers, nor the number of students in the class, has any real effect on the outlook of Mahon and Visscher. Since taking over the Guitar Academy in 2004, they have poured their hearts and souls into what they’re doing and it seems like the only direction to go is up.
“You know, we’ve been doing this for decades, that right now it just seems like a fabric of what [we] do,” says Mahon.
Visscher smiles: “I couldn’t imagine doing much else. There’s been a one-year plan, a five-year plan and it just keeps going. We’re lifers.”