Learning from the Regent Park School of Music

Since it’s inception in 1999, the Regent Park School of Music (RPSM) has grown to provide over 200 lessons a week and operate as a creative landmark in the local community. Coming on board this past winter, Director Richard Marsella is working to build a strategic plan that will continue the school’s success and build new avenues that serve and foster creative music education in both Regent Park and Toronto. On March 19th, Richard and I spoke about the school’s current position, future goals, and advice for other community arts organizations.

How does Regent Park School of Music interact with the local community?
Our roots are firmly planted in Regent Park. Local arts organizations work with us on different events. There are many ways that we can grow with the community as the revitalization happens. We’ve currently submitted a proposal to Artscape to be considered for the new Regent Park Arts and Cultural Centre as an anchor tenant. We want to be out there and visible, while remaining supportive to our parents and students. The mandate of our school is to provide subsidized music education to the families in the neighbourhood that need it most. That’s how we can make our biggest impact, by focusing on what we do best, music education. Our kids have gone on to university to study music, and it’s a direct correlation to what we’ve given them here as a foundation.

the process of growth for an organization needs to happen slowly and prudently

How do you take on students from other parts of Toronto while maintaining service to the local neighbourhood?
It’s a bit of a challenge and we’ve had to adjust our fee structure. The lessened fee structure will be based on the annual income of parents so that we can continue to effectively meet our mandate. But yes, people are coming from across town which is testament to the quality of education. We’ve chosen an insane model that is at least 85% percent subsidized from the school.

By attracting people from outside the community can you provide more subsidies to other students?
Exactly, it helps balance out and it’s a fair model. Since we’ve sent messaging about the new fee structure we’ve had no resistance from parents. They get it. Most of our parents are actually in the lower fee category. We’ve put up these measures to look to the future, because of the revitalization and gentrification that is happening in this neighbourhood to insure that we are future forward serving the demographic that we are out to serve.

We’ve put up these measures to look to the future, because of the revitalization and gentrification that is happening in this neighbourhood to insure that we are future forward serving the demographic that we are out to serve.

We know that a challenge for many community arts groups is the lack of a permanent space to work from. How does having a permanent space benefit RPSM?
People know us from our location. The benefits internally are that it keeps our operating costs down to a minimum because we own the space. In terms of flexibility in what we can do with the building, we’ve maximized every nook and cranny. It’s an old house that’s been modified into teaching studios, and Monday to Saturday we run music lessons out of every room. We have no more room to grow. Our choir rehearses down the road at an affordable permit rate given to us from St. Paul’s Elementary School. We need a larger space. It’s been very beneficial for us as an organization to get on our feet, and therefore now we’re ready to expand.

Organizationally, what is most challenging for RPSM?
Three weeks from now we are starting our strategic planning process where we will explore the challenges, opportunities, and threats that face us. One of the larger challenges is the space. We have a waiting list of about 150 students and our student population is about 175 kids. Some students will come to the school more than once a week, so it tallies to over 200 actual lessons per week.

Is that an issue of lack of space or lack of funding?
The two go hand in hand. We have satellite locations, we have expanded into Jane and Finch. We’re also part of the Toronto District School Board and the Toronto Community Foundation’s Beyond 3:30 program. We are offering programs outside of the building, but internally at our home location over the next 2-3 years a move will most likely happen, or some type of expansion because our waiting list is so big.

What is most successful at RPSM?
The choir is our major success, they sang for the Blue Jays home opener 2 years ago, they’ve sung for the Queen. It’s remarkable to see how much media attention our choir attracts. So one of the things that I’m looking to do is build from that model. Wayne Strongman is an incredible professional and the conductor who has worked with us pro bono over the past 7 years, developing this choir that’s grown up to 30 kids. The senior choir is naturally mentoring the younger kids who are just learning to read music. That’s where you get the community feel, sense of ownership and leadership. I want to take that model and grow it to 4 or 5 major ensembles that we can have doing the same thing across the city and beyond; whether it be an orchestra or a jazz big band, those are just some ideas.

I want to take that model and grow it to 4 or 5 major ensembles that we can have doing the same thing across the city and beyond

Does the choir sing all types of music?
They’ll sing anything from Opera to pop… mostly classically based, but they have been very fortunate, they have become such media darlings. We’re actually having to turn down a lot of gigs this spring/summer, because they’re kids! It’s unfortunate at this point that we have to say no to so many people, there are many opportunities that we are being offered, but these are kids in school, so we need to keep that into consideration.

You don’t want to exploit students, but is the choir also a way to generate funding?
Well it does, inevitably every time we send them out. That’s why we’re picking and choosing with a smart sense of management. It is a great opportunity if they can perform for the right crowd. People get the story of RPSM immediately after hearing the choir sing.

Do you have any words of wisdom for smaller community arts organizations who may wish to grow in a similar way to RPSM?
I heard something interesting the other day… I’m trying to think of who said it and how it was said… but paraphrased “the process of growth for an organization needs to happen slowly and prudently”. It’s easier said than done. It’s a supply and demand thing. It’s one of the challenges that we faced and are currently facing with our waiting list that is almost as big as our student body. But I think smart and slow growth is the way to go, making sure that you remain true to your mandate every step of the way.

For more information on Regent Park School of Music visit http://www.rpmusic.org

For more information on Beyond 3:30 visit http://www.tcf.ca/vitalinitiatives/beyond330.html

Robyn Shyllit is a graduate of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, and a student in the Cities Centre Community Development Program at the University of Toronto completing a Masters degree in Planning.

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