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Spreading music in the heart of the city

Photo: Rémi Yuan

Sometimes, the key to success comes from a set of white and black keys.

Ottawa’s chapter of the Heart of the City Piano Program is primarily run by University of Ottawa students looking to make a difference.

Heart of the City began in Saskatoon, Sask. in 1995 and has since spread across the country, taking children who would typically be at risk of alcoholism, drug abuse, and violence and giving them the tools to learn piano. This encourages them to avoid troubling behaviour.

The program is celebrating its 10th anniversary this April with a grand recital on campus to show their appreciation for the support of their students.

Based out of four Ottawa public schools—Vincent Massey, Manor Park, Connaught, and York Street—the program has provided a place for underprivileged children to express themselves positively through music.

Mirgine Amankwa is a fourth-year sociology and communications student at the U of O who has been a volunteer coordinator for Heart of the City at York Street Public School for more than a year.

“I think it’s phenomenal,” she says. “They will go from knowing nothing about piano to playing at their recital at the end of the year.”

Amankwa has been playing piano since she was 11 and understands the privilege of being taught to play a musical instrument for free, since she was mentored the same way when she was younger.

“It feels good to teach children who normally wouldn’t have the opportunity,” she says.

From September to April a child is partnered with a teacher to learn piano once a week. Free lesson books and keyboards are provided so they can practise at home and stay focused. Priority is given to children to have never been in the program before, but a few have come back for a second year when there are spots available.

Amankwa has seen a major difference already in one particular student. Despite having behavioural issues, the student has immense talent and can play a song back by just listening, without looking at the musical notes, says Amankwa.

“She’s an amazing student. She learns so quickly,” she says.

She says her student’s talent is impressive, but the student still has to learn the theoretical and disciplinary aspects of learning an instrument. “I’ve seen her grow in the past few months for sure,” she says.

At the program’s decennial celebration, children from the Ottawa chapter will perform and receive a certificate of participation. Amankwa says she hopes children continue to love music as they learn the foundations of theory, which can be applied to other instruments.

“Even myself, my first experience with piano was just a few chords,” she says. “I hope they learn to love it.”

The Heart of the City Piano Program performs their recital April 8 from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. at Huguette Labelle Hall in Tabaret.


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