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  • Kevin Vuong

"The TSO is like Hotel California - 'You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave!'"

This past Thursday (November 4th) at 9:30AM, freshly off classes for the semester and coffee in hand, I signed on for my first day of my placement with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra Education Department, starting the day with their daily check-in.

The TSO Education Department (colloquially the "E-Team") is large by Toronto arts organization standards with four full-time staff members (when I worked in education at Opera Atelier over the summer, I was a department of one!), but still, by many measures, a very nimble team. Nicole, (Director of Education and Community Engagement), leads the daily check-ins with her colleagues Pierre (Education Manager), Ivy (Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra Manager and Community Assistant) and a soon to be hired Education Coordinator. These meetings serve as a touch-base for staff members to replace the immediacy of in-person office conversations, but also a time to share a cup of coffee, build community, and banter.

And speaking of banter - I was but 10 minutes into my first meeting when my colleague Pierre welcomed me by saying "[The TSO] is like Hotel California - 'You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave!'". I must've made an inadvertently funny face, because Pierre immediately reassured me that all this meant is that I am now (and forever will be) part of the TSO family! This felt comforting to know, that even though I am only here for a short, unpaid time, that I would be considered part of this team and community, and that my contributions will be tangible and valued by the organization.

This November is an exciting time for the Toronto Symphony - Conductor Gustavo Gimeno is finally (after 2 years!) conducting his first performances as Music Director of the TSO, a return to in-person concerts at Roy Thomson Hall, a reinvigorated dedication to new music and diversity and equity in programming, and the release of Zoophony - a digital education concert produced in partnership with the Toronto Zoo.

Hosted by TSO Principal Education Conductor Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser and Toronto Zoo Learning and Education Coordinator Shawn Blackburn, this 45-minute film introduces students to various zoo animals and how they use (or don't use) sound, which are then followed up by introductions to instruments in the symphony orchestra by way of small ensemble recorded performances that are connected to the animals (Tuba Tiger Rag and Tigers, The Aviary and Birds, etc.). The recorded concert concludes with a reading and performance of Kiwis Can't Play Violin - a children's book especially written for the concert (authored and illustrated by Pierre, the Education Manager!), accompanied by music by Emilie Lebel.

Zoophony is to be my major focus for the month! As previously mentioned in my blog posts, the Toronto Symphony Education Department develops guides and resources for teachers, students and families that complement and extend the concert experience - at home or into the classroom. Often times, it consists of activities that will make cross-curricular connections between music and other subject areas, and incorporate collaboration, technology, play, inquiry, critical thinking, discussion - all in service of engagement students with the (subject area) content of the concert. It is important to note that these are not necessarily full lesson plans - this gives an opportunity for teachers to use them as a launchpad for lessons and units, rather than setting something in stone that may not be malleable.

Selections from the TSO Education Concert Guide for a Halloween Concert - "The Ultimate Guide to Eating Halloween Candy". The full guide can be accessed here.

The most interesting thing about this program, in my view is how this is a mutually beneficial collaboration between the Toronto Zoo and the Toronto Symphony. Collaboration with community and educational partners was one of the identified "opportunities for enrichment" in the 2010-2011 Symphonies Education Program Report (2013). This is an especially unique collaboration, as it reaches across disciplines as well - two organizations that don't have much to do with each other but who serve the same audience. This is also reflected in the TSO's Education and Community Strategy (2019)* - where one of their main strategic goals is to "Build Community Purpose" - developing opportunities for the TSO to build partnerships with organizations that might not have an artistic link to the orchestra. It is heartening to see research informing policy informing initiatives, especially when it has been difficult to locate academic sources relating to symphony education programs.

Speaking of audience: my main project this month is to develop discussion starters, classroom activities and lesson resources for Zoophony - the main audience for this concert being Kindergarten - Grade 4 students. I am generating these resources with particular focus towards developing rich connections between the arts and science, arts and literacy, arts and math, etc.

Screencap lifted from a draft version of Zoophony (2021) featuring Maestro Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser at the Toronto Zoo.

So. Would you look at that. I am waaaaaay out of my comfort zone. I am used to facilitating, teaching and developing lessons for I/S in Music and History. I have never worked with Kindergarten - Grade 4 students, never mind in music. Heck, I'm already an old soul - and I have to prepare resources for kids less than half my age?

Thus, I freaked out for about half an hour. After I came to my senses, something I know I will have to be mindful of reminding myself as I go through my placement is that I am a teacher-first. If my learnings from OISE and conversations with peers and colleagues in the field have taught me anything, is that we serve the students in front of us regardless of ego or specialization. It is an opportunity for us to be creative, and apply our unique lived experiences and knowledge to our practice.

Moving forward, I am putting down my secondary lesson plans and ideas in favour of scouring Grade 1-8 Arts Curriculum, learning about inquiry and play in the primary classroom, and trying to stretch my own creativity and looking to new inspirations (P/J colleagues, existing TSO resources, the world around me) to inform my ideas and activities. I'm starting from almost zero, but I am confident that this will be a very fruitful learning experience - hoping to be an open-minded sponge - soaking up all that I can learn and contributing my unique perspective to the TSO over the next three weeks.


Thomas, R., Couchman, S., & Einarson, K. (2013). A Measure of Success: The Contribution of Symphony Education Programs in Canada

Toronto Symphony Orchestra. (2019). Education and Community Strategy

*Note: The TSO Education and Community Strategy (2019) is an internal document shared in confidence with me by the E-team. I have been given permission to cite and paraphrase it over the course of my placement.

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