By Jane Litchfield
Music, youth, and community will be in the spotlight on Sunday, September 30, as Guelph singer, songwriter, writer, teacher, and community builder Sue Smith becomes the newest inductee to The Guelph Youth Music Centre’s Wall of Fame.
“Sue Smith has generously parlayed her love of music and her creative spirit into teaching and empowering young people in Guelph for three decades,” GYMC said in a news release. “Hundreds of students have begun their musical journeys of discovery in Sue's piano and singing studios and through her two popular musical youth initiatives.”
Smith says it is a great honour to be recognized by the community, and the event is also an opportunity for her to share with her students – past and present. “They’re being honoured as well. The process of learning is being honoured.” She points out that GYMC was built by community for community and that ultimately “music is community.”
All are welcome to attend “A Sunday Afternoon Salon” with Smith and guests, emceed by Guelph artist/musician Nick Craine. The “gathering time” begins at 1 p.m., with a concert and the award presentation beginning at 2 at GYMC on Cardigan Street.
‘Uniting in voice is profound’
Many young people know Smith for her role as Artistic Director of Season Singers, which began when a parent asked her to start a choir for his daughters in 1998. The children asked for lines as well, and when Barbara Bryce came on board and began creating sets and costumes, the choir became a performing arts troupe. Smith wrote and produced 14 original plays on themes from voyageurs to whales, and enchanted forests to rocket ships, using popular song to flesh out the stories. Eventually Smith started writing the songs as well, creating nine original musicals.
Smith sees singing together as an antidote to our tech-bound world. (She is not on social media and doesn’t own a cell phone.) “I just wanted kids to have a normalized experience. The human act of uniting in voice is profound. It is profoundly joyful.”
A playground of sound
Smith also founded Sonic Playground, an interactive musical adventure for children using instruments made from everyday items. From 2004 to 2012, Sue brought the program to elementary schools and festivals across Ontario encouraging hundreds of children to make music, often for the first time.
Each of Smith’s music students is encouraged to find their own path, as evidenced by her annual “piano party” recital, where her students perform a wide range of piano and vocal numbers from pop to classical, including some original compositions. Smith also convenes a “teen salon” of her older students, that meets once a month in her cozy home studio in downtown Guelph. “We play, listen and converse in an imaginative and fun way.”
Smith says she is proud that the youth in Season Singers and the teen salon have created their own communities through singing together. “The plot of every Season Singers show involved working together to solve a problem, and the singers also had to rise to a challenge, work as a team, help each other, and put on a show.” (All in three weeks!) Smith is famous for remembering every child’s name and every character name, and honouring each child’s abilities and desires.
Smith is also is co-artistic director, with Shannon Kingsbury, of Ondine Chorus, an adult group that performs original choral music Inspired by nature, community, and the beauty of the collective voice. Plus, she is co-producer of Spring Awakes! and a member of the Ravenstring Collective. Smith was part of the internationally acclaimed vocal trio, The Bird Sisters, and one of the founders of Guelph’s renowned Hillside Festival.
“Our community is richer for her work,” says GYMC in the news release.
Memorabilia on display
During Sunday’s “gathering time” guests will be able to browse a retrospective display of Season Singers props and small set pieces and a chronology of the productions. They can also have their photo taken with the Ursa Major bear costume made by Bev Matson of Guelph Little Theatre. The costume was so beloved by the Season Singers that bears were written into several shows to include it, and a pair of Season Singers mentors wrote “The Life and Times of Ursa Major” to honour it.
The display will also include an “outreach binder” exhibiting the causes Season Singers donated to, which related to the theme of each show. “School for Stars” supported the Syrian refugee backpack program and “Home is Where Your Honey Is” donated to the Ontario Beekeepers’ Association. Another show sponsored a blue whale. “I wanted the singers to be aware that what we do together can be helpful beyond our community.”
Guests can also pick up “Sue Smith’s Little Book of Musical Inspiration: In the Words of My Students,” which is a curated collection of quotes gathered over 20 years, such as “Breathing reminds me of slowing down” and “Have you ever noticed your parents are rubbing off on you?” Smith handcrafted 50 of the Little Books, stitching the pages onto the binding, hand-knotting the thread, and pressing them in a portable book press. Special edition “Sue’s Picks” are bound in a unique piece of fabric, complete with origin stories. CDs by Smith and Ondine Chorus will also be for sale. All funds raised will go directly to Guelph Youth Music Centre to support music education programs for children.
A mass choir of past Season Singers will perform at the event, and Smith will play and sing her own work. Other performers include Smith’s partner Jeff Bird, Ondine Chorus, the Teen Salon, and Sam Boer, a former student, Season Singer, and mentor. Smith has asked two people who have inspired and informed her work to speak. “I wanted to show my students that I am also inspired by others. It doesn’t stop with me.”
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