Sarah McLachlan brings music school for at-risk children to Surrey

McLachlan's music school will be set up in three Surrey elementary schools.

Canadian recording artist Sarah McLachlan announces the expansion of her namesake music school to three Surrey elementary schools on Tuesday night at the Surrey Arts Centre.

SURREY — “Music saved me.”

On Tuesday at the Surrey Arts Centre, Sarah McLachlan was – as is often the case for talented singer-songwriters with Grammys and Junos and Lillith Fairs to their credit – incredibly busy.

She had just announced the expansion of her namesake music school to Surrey, and then spent 60 minutes talking up the heavy-hitters in the local business community and posing for an endless stream of selfies.

And then she was candidly – and passionately – explaining the impetus behind the Sarah McLachlan School of Music.

“I was really, really bullied in school. I didn’t have any friends,” MacLachlan told the Now.

“So I’d disappear into the gymnasium and play the piano for hours. It was the one thing I could go to that gave me a sense of my own value. I could have gone in a lot of directions, but music channelled me and kept me going on a positive road.

“I grew up surrounded by it and protected by it. It saved me. So when I became successful, I thought, well, what can I do that’s more meaningful. I love making music, I love giving that. But how can I do something bigger?”

In 1999, that something bigger came when she founded the Sarah McLachlan Foundation, a non-profit organization targeting at-risk youth in under-served communities. Three years later, the school, through a partnership with Arts Umbrella, came into being.

“I’d looked around and saw all the music programs were being cut from the school system. And I thought this is a tragedy. Children need to have this opportunity, and I thought that’s what I could do. I could start a music school.”

Today, the school works with nearly 1,000 kids – 450 on-site at a donated 16,000-square-foot space in Vancouver’s Mt. Pleasant neighbourhood and 600 more off-site at “satellite” schools.

Neither the kids or their parents pay a cent (tuitions are covered by corporate support and donations), and indeed, musical knowledge isn’t even a prerequisite.

Executive director Rob Appelton explains.

“In Vancouver, we work with the school board staff. Teachers and social workers identify at-risk kids who might benefit from the program. The vast majority of our kids, there’s an economic barrier to taking music lessons. There are social issues as well.

“And there are no auditions. If a child is deemed at-risk, we don’t even test their music skills.”

Surrey Board of Trade CEO Anita Huberman played a key role in the concept of the Surrey expansion.

“A third of our population is under the age of 19,” she said.

“It’s not always about having more police on the ground. It’s about making sure we are harnessing our youth from the very beginning and steering them in a positive direction.”

The Surrey branch of the Sarah McLachlan School of Music is tentatively set to launch in spring of 2016 in three Surrey elementary schools. Which three schools are yet to be determined.

Holly Elementary and Mary Jane Shannon Elementary are two under consideration, said Surrey School District spokesman Doug Strachan.

The search for a permanent site has already begun.

“We plan to be here for the long haul,” says McLachlan.

“We don’t step into these kinds of things lightly.”

If Zabrina Hay is any indication, Surrey would do well to get behind the initiative. Seventeen now and in her fifth year with the institution, Hay was one of three Vancouver students to perform at the event, playing piano and singing a ridiculously catchy original tune that everyone was humming afterwards.

When asked if the school is all it’s cracked up to be, she replied simply, “Without a doubt. It inspires me every year.”

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