Tanya Sanders and the W.H. Ballard Band

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Tanya Sanders is the music teacher at Hamilton’s W.H. Ballard School. She has been there since 1995, and has established, through her effort and ability, a thriving music program. I’ve determined to find out more about her and her work. I caught up with her one day after school for a chat. How did she get started as a musician?

I started music when I was five and I didn’t have a choice. A lot of my mother’s side were musicians; we all had to take lessons and do something. My sister and I weren’t allowed to listen to the radio in the car unless my mom taught us a song in harmony. My mother sang in quartets and was a drummer. At her high school, Delta, they had a trumpet band, and a drum corps.

My grandfather played accordian all around the city in various church halls. My grandfather played with Mr. Viola of the Viola Music Centre. Mrs. Viola was my piano teacher.

My uncle had bands. His son is Gary Peterson, my cousin, who is the drummer for the Guess Who. His brother had a country band, his sister is a singer. My niece is going into music therapy. My nephew, my sister – we all are into music. It was really great growing up. My mother exposed us to all kinds of different music.

W.H. Ballard is a K-8 school with a diversity of student abilities. Its families cover a very wide range of social, economic and ethical perspectives. It takes a very firm and committed leader to hold the ship on course on any given day.

The teachers at Ballard work together to support each other in the daily challenges of managing students. They especially support Sanders in her various musical projects. It’s good they don’t mind, because she is everywhere. In her preparation for school musicals, she has performing groups meeting in the school’s centrally located open concept auditorium before school begins. Whether it is an upcoming STOMP performance, a dance routine, a choir practice, or a class ensemble, the sounds of student music are heard in the halls every day.

Sanders lucked out when the school’s wood shop was dismantled. She inherited the large, open room with its separate teaching area. The old finishing room was converted to instrument storage. Although her top floor room is in an outside corner, the sound of music still leaks out the door.

Her teaching colleagues don’t mind, because everyone benefits from the positive musical involvement at Ballard – especially the kids. In a few days the band will be going to the Golden Horseshoe Musicfest. They will also be travelling in May to the National Musicfest competition in Ottawa, having received an invitation from doing well at last year’s GHMF.

What is it like to bring a band like W.H Ballard’s Grade 8 Band to Musicfest? What does it take to prepare for a competitive music festival like this, and most telling, what kind of leader is needed to make it happen? Sanders’ musical background is diverse and exciting. In her own words, here are a few highlights.

I’ve loved the flugal horn ever since I got one in my hand back in drum corps. I started in Ridge Raiders, then moved up to The Ventures all girls corps in Kitchener, eventually becoming drum major (the conductor). My mom drove us up there once a week. We won many world championships. I got to go to Japan twice, playing flugal.

We would travel around North America all summer. Practice at 7 AM, perform at 7 PM. I was eventually hired as an instructor in Hamilton for Ridge Raiders, and I helped out in other drum corps throughout North America, and eventually became an assistant administrator. I would tour all summer, and then have a week off until school started up again.

When Sanders arrived at Ballard in 1995 she knew what she was stepping into.

When I first came here, they weren’t playing instruments. Only the gifted class used instruments. For the first couple of years it was pretty hard. I had to encourage them and convince them.

When Sanders is asked what motivates her and keeps her going through the intensely busy schedule, her response is golden.

In this community, it’s something they want, and something they need. In a way, the kids motivate me. They push me too.

I was once kicked out of class because I corrected the music teacher in middle school, who had claimed that the notes in the bass clef were the same in the treble clef. I told him my piano teacher taught me otherwise. It was at that point that I wanted to become a music teacher. I wanted to perform, but then I decided no way, because I had a taste of teaching at that point.

There’s that one group of committed students. Your band, your choir, they love to come to practice. They’re here often before I arrive. If I didn’t have that group of kids, it would be difficult.

On February 27th she took her band to the Golden Horseshoe Musicfest. They won a silver award.

I arrive at the McIntyre Theatre in time to see the W.H. Ballard Band arrive. The kids look great and set up quickly and efficiently. They know what to expect, and they’ve been taught that one part of musicianship includes how you behave before you play. The band performs its three selections, sounding more relaxed and confident as time progresses. The two adjudicators, myself and only about a dozen other people make up the audience. 

After the concert, the band is shepherded to a downstairs classroom by a friendly Mohawk College music student. As the students walk through the halls, instruments and music in hand, I’m sensing an air of authority and calmness in the air, although I can’t quite put my finger on why. Then I realize that Sanders has brought her mom along to help as a chaperone. Now I get it.

Adjudicator Jim Ferris is from Parry Sound, a music educator with 32 years of band leadership and coaching behind him. Jim is enthusiastic and positive as he looks out over this young group. Unperturbed with the lack of music stands, the students have stood up their music on a reversed chair in front of them. Ferris counts them in to play Nottingham Castle. “One and a two and yes and play,” he says, and the music begins.

Soon Ferris has stopped them and is explaining how simple changes to their breathing and phrasing will improve the overall sound. He affirms the work of each section, underlines the special challenges they must overcome, and teaches the kids how to do “musician applause” to encourage their bandmates by rumbling their feet on the floor. They soon become more relaxed and their sound and concentration improves.

I love the way he so positively and gently affirms their improvement. “You just did it! You solved one of your major problems. You were clipping off your phrase,” he bubbles over with excitement. The kids are attentive and responsive. In a few minutes he has built a sense of trust, and has them in the palm of his hand. He makes sure he praises the percussionists, who have been tapping their parts out on desks, “Good for you. You’re playing with a confident, steady beat. The music must have a meter. Trust me, I’m right.” The kids blush from the attention.

As I leave the clinic to go and hear other bands, I’ve been reminded of how important this session could be to these kids. It may be what makes them want to continue in music through high school. Young performers habituate. They get “stuck” in a musical rut and end up with strange phrasing, stiff tempos, or inappropriate articulation. Great is the teacher who can win the students’ trust, bring them a larger musical perspective, and motivate them to make their music better.

I’m confident that as Tanya Sanders goes back to her classroom with the W.H. Ballard Band, she’ll be the very one who can do it. Perhaps the only one.

She has the recipe for success.

I love teaching, but I think I love music more.
I love sharing my love of it.

Best wishes to the W.H. Ballard Band as they travel to Ottawa to perform at Musicfest National Band Festival in May.

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