It’s hard for drummer Mark Kelso and jazz guitarist Ted Quinlan to contain their enthusiasm when discussing what it’s like teaching in Humber College’s music program
In a half-hour speakerphone call with the Straight from Quinlan’s office, they swapped stories about everything from the creativity of their students to the school’s famous graduates to the jazz scene in south Etobicoke, Ontario, where the music program is housed on the college’s Lakeshore campus.
“Creative people create change,” said Kelso, who heads the percussion department. “They’re the ones who come up with inventive ideas. For me, in my program, I’m always stressing that the student try to do something unique and different. I don’t want a classroom of drones where everybody is doing the same things.”
According to Quinlan, who heads the school’s guitar department, there are approximately 350 music students enrolled this year. He explained that there are “instrument departments” devoted to keyboards, brass, woodwinds, and bass, as well as a vocal department.
“A subset of the guitar department is the violin-string department,” Quinlan said. “We’re starting to deal with string players here, too. We’re the largest in the country.”
Humber College’s school of creative and performing arts encompasses nine broad areas, including theatre performance and theatre production, comedy, acting for film and television, and arts administration and cultural management. The music department has its own label, Humber Records, which produces CDs by student ensembles and faculty members.
“It’s an opportunity for our students to get their product out there and get heard and for networking in the world,” Quinlan said. “We’re continually blown away by the level of the music. We don’t want this to be just an academic exercise.”
He said that Humber has traditionally attracted large numbers of students from other parts of Canada, including B.C. With a chuckle, he said that some have been the “hot kid on their block”, but they find themselves in the company of many talented players after they arrive at Humber.
“They’re suddenly thrown into a pressure-cooker environment,” he noted. “It’s quite demanding. The workload is heavy.”
The school describes its bachelor of music degree as “unlike any other four-year undergraduate degree in music in North America” because it combines entrepreneurial business strategies with songwriting and composition in a wide range of musical styles.
Kelso was a student at Humber in the early 1980s and recalled being attracted by this diversity of sounds. He said Humber’s ensembles play all types of jazz, including traditional, contemporary, advanced, and big band and small band.
There are also vocal ensembles, a gospel choir, a country ensemble, a Beatles project, Cuban and Brazilian music, African hand drumming, and Indian jazz.
“Students here can get a really good education on a diverse amount of musical styles that exist out there, as opposed to one or two things,” Kelso said. “They might come in being a folk guy and leave being a jazz guy. They can transition or they can do both.”
Quinlan said that Humber is about an hour from downtown Toronto by transit, but students can also visit local jazz clubs near the college and hear their peers play outside of the school environment. Among the graduates are Vancouver-born pianist and vocalist Laila Biali, who has recorded with Sting, and Greg Wells, who has produced music by Adele and Katy Perry. The drummer for Walk Off the Earth, Joel Cassady, also attended Humber, as did Snarky Puppy drummer Larnell Lewis.
“People talk about doom and gloom in the music business,” Kelso said with a laugh. “But you know what? It’s always been doom and gloom since 1920.”
Besides a bachelor of music degree, an ability to improvise in front of an audience can yield other benefits, according to Quinlan.
“Our students have done really well getting accepted into graduate programs both in Canada and the States in fields completely outside of music, like medicine, like law, like music therapy,” he said.
“All of the feedback that [the former students] are getting is they love the music undergraduates in other programs because they are so creative. They’re bright and they think on their feet better than most students do.”