Unique centre dedicated to making music with community partners launches at U of T Scarborough

A woman playing steel pan at Soundlife Scarborough's first symposium
A new centre at U of T Scarborough hosted its first symposium on May 6, complete with music-making sessions (Photos by Alexa Battler)

Alexa Battler

A new centre launched by the music and culture program at U of T Scarborough is removing barriers to making music — and not just for students.

Called Soundlife Scarborough (SLS), the research centre is working to teaming up with local organizations to create more opportunities for music-making on and off campus.

The centre supports community partnerships and community-engaged research excellence grounded in the principle of reciprocity,” says Laura Risk, SLS co-lead and assistant professor in the department of arts, culture and media. “We're trying to help facilitate connections and really think about how we can contribute to the already vibrant musical world in Scarborough.”

Laura Risk at the Soundlife Scarborough event
Laura Risk and symposium attendees participated in a music-making session that traced the history of the steelpan. 

SLS faculty member Roger Mantie calls the centre “the glue” that will hold together the music and culture program’s several partnerships, initiatives, research projects and programming. Professors in the program have frequently incorporated local organizations into their courses and research, but these relationships risked fizzling out when professors taught different classes or began new projects. 

“Now we have a hub that can create stability and sustainability,” says Mantie, associate professor in the department of arts, culture and media. “And organizations have a point of contact beyond a singular faculty member.”

The centre will also find new ways the university’s resources and strengths can support anyone pursuing their love of music. Risk says new partnerships and programming will always begin with the question: “What’s in it for the community?” What the university gains will come second. 

“SLS is meant to be a very porous interface between the university and the community,” says Lynn Tucker, SLS lead and associate professor, teaching stream, in the department of arts, culture and media.  

Lynn Tucker drumming at SLS' symposium
Lynn Tucker (left) and community members got hands-on at the symposium, held the day after SLS' launch and titled "Mapping Music Pathways."

All programming intends to be free and accessible for everyone, and already includes pop-up and weekly music-making events for hand-drumming and ukulele, along with Brazilian Maracatu sessions with Juno-nominated master percussionist Aline Morales.

“The age range for some of those Maracatu sessions is eight to 80,” says Tucker. “We have families coming in with their kids. We've had people come in for date night. People drive up from downtown on a Thursday evening to attend.

Music program marching to a new beat

SLS is just one of the ways the program is challenging what studying music at university can look like — students don’t have to audition to get into the program, and any student can join its bands, choirs, string orchestra and small ensembles, no matter their course load or field of study. The program evolved in response to students’ interests and goals, and in 2015 it adopted three new areas of focus that guided what would be taught and who would teach it: community music, music and society, and music creativity and technology.

“The main thing that differentiates it from almost every other university music program in Canada is that there's no audition to get in. Different and diverse musical backgrounds are celebrated in the curriculum and you get people from all walks of life,” says Lloyd McArton, a PhD candidate at U of T St. George’s Faculty of Music and research associate with SLS. “The focuses are really special, music and technology isn't really prominent in a lot of music programs in Canada.”

Lloyd McArton at the SLS symposium playing steel pan
Lloyd McArton, now an assistant professor of music education at the University of Lethbridge, was one of several attendees to try out the steelpan and attend the symposium's panels.

The refocusing guided four hires and a slew of new courses, including ones on DJ cultures and digital music creation, and others that explore music’s intersection with health, movies, society and technologies. A suite of courses dedicated to community music were also introduced, which have students observe and interact with local organizations’ music programming.

One of the community music courses’ culminating projects is to write a mock grant proposal for a new community music project in collaboration with an existing organization, then pitch the idea to the class and community partners. Fourth-year student and SLS research assistant Delicia Raveenthrarajan took this course and had previously acted as a teaching-artist-in-choir with Sistema Toronto, a free music program for students in underserved communities, so she proposed a new staff role dedicated to community engagement. The organization has used her proposal to inform their systems and practices.

“It was really cool because I got to interact with them through my studies and in my professional life,” says Raveenthrarajan, who is double majoring in music and culture and mental health studies. “It's important to de-centre the university at some points so we’re going out into the community and amplifying the voices of community partners.”

Delicia Raveenthararajan at the symposium
Delicia Raveenthrarajan was among several panelists to speak at the symposium on a range of topics, including opening access opportunities in post-secondary education.

To learn more about Soundlife Scarborough or to get involved, visit soundlifescarborough.ca