Last Stops, Leduc (Pt.2)

Steve Trueman Well, that was certainly an action-packed three days delivering presentations at six schools in just a couple of corners of the vast Black Gold school District here in North Central Alberta. We wrapped things up with Leduc Composite High School this morning and Leduc Junior High School this afternoon. There were a couple of nice neat reasons to end on the note we did today:
1. In this morning's blog, I mentioned that I'd met the co-author of the Social Studies Discussion Guide from Black Gold that I'd stumbled across on the web a few years ago. Well, it turns out that my contact for that particular honour is not just an education consultant for the District but also a teacher at Leduc Junior High. That's him, Steve Trueman, in the picture! So it was great to finally make the connection and have a little bit of a chance to talk about how we might deepen the links between Six String Nation and the curriculum as we go forward.
2. Principal Paul Wozny is someone I met back in February at the North Central Alberta Teachers' Convention. I remember him being very moved by the presentation and very enthusiastic about the project in general but I also remember him being a bit shy about holding or playing the guitar as a bunch of us gathered in the lobby to take pictures and sign books, etc.; but Beaumont Principal John Mair told me Tuesday that Paul was actually quite a good player and I should really try to get him up for the "performance pocket". He denied that he was much of a player but after performances by teacher Zane Zalechuk and student Jacob Byers we were able to coax Paul into the spotlight for a turn and he turned out to be quite the wizard! You can see a picture of all three from my Twitter feed here.

Thanks once again to all the students and staff I met on this trip – it was a real pleasure. Also a very special thanks to the retiring John Mair – principal at École Secondaire Beaumont Composite High School – for bringing the whole thing together this time, and to District Supervisor Norm Yanitzky for promising to do it all again with a whole new set of schools next academic year. I'll look forward to seeing you all back in Alberta then!

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Last Stops, Leduc (Pt. 1)

Carlos, Kaitlin, Jeff A couple of years ago, I was looking for something Six String Nation-related online and stumbled across a PDF distributed by a consultant for the Black Gold School District in Alberta. It was a discussion guide for the social studies curriculum based on Six String Nation. It was so great to see the project being used in this way and I got in touch with the contact, Steve Trueman, and we had a great little correspondence. When I got the invitation from Beaumont principal John Mair to come and present this week at six schools in the Black Gold District, I wondered if I might bump into Mr. Trueman; but, as I discovered, the district covers a huge amount of territory so it seemed kind of unlikely. However, it turns out that one of the co-authors of the study guide, Jennifer Lasychuk, is a teacher at Leduc Composite High School – site of this morning's presentation – and was in the audience so we got a chance to connect.

Jennifer's Social Studies colleague Britain Olischefski was there to greet me on arrival and show to the gymnasium. Today was also a major music performance event in the school's theatre space so it took a little while to scavenge all the right gear but between Britain, Tim, Vince and Jesse from the theatre, we were able to get up and running on time no problem.

For the "performance pocket", teacher Jeff McLellan (pictured, right) got things started with a really great original song; student Kaitlin Coulson (pictured, centre) followed with a Mark Kozelek-ish instrumental of her own composition; and Carlos (pictured, left – didn't get his last name as he was a last minute substitution!) re-tuned Voyageur to finish things up with a DADGAD improvisation.

Thanks to all the staff and students at Leduc Composite High School!

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Bye Bye Beaumont

Bellevue School, Beaumont Four of the six schools I'm visiting on this trip to the Black Gold school district south of Edmonton are in Beaumont and we wrapped things up there this afternoon with a visit to École Bellevue at the south end of town. This was the youngest group I'm presenting to this time around. I always worry with the grade 1-3 set that a lot of what I'm saying about the project is a bit of a mystery but it never fails to inspire me watching the things that the younger kids really gravitate to in the project: like Joe Labobe's oyster schucking knife and the Golden Spruce. And here near Edmonton, of course, Wayne Gretzky's hockey stick!

Students Erick de Aguayo and Alex Goulding bravely attempted a performance in front of a gym full of their classmates (I'm always astonished by the enduring attraction of the "Iron Man" riff!) and teacher Yvette Berube (pictured) got the whole school up and moving to finish things off.

Today wasn't quite the last I'll see of Beaumont on this trip – I'll be driving through on my way to Leduc tomorrow morning!
Thanks to principal Patrick Gamache-Hutchison and all the staff and students at Bellevue.

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Growing Town Growing Talent

Norm, Tyler, August, Mike In getting directions to Beaumont AB for my series of school presentations in the area, I was advised not to blink or I might miss Beaumont, south of Edmonton. I needn't have worried. The town is bursting at its seams with new housing developments and shopping malls. By the end of today I will have visited 4 schools in this "small" community and a brand new $50M school is now under construction to serve the expanding population.

Principal Ray Cable welcomed me to Coloniale Estates School first thing this morning and music teacher Allen Choromiec helped me get hooked into their state-of-the-art AV system. The gym was soon filled with a tremendously focussed group of students from grades 4-8. When it came to filling the "performance pocket" in the presentation, there was no shortage of talent. Teachers Tyler Fisher (second from L) and Mike Berg (R) went first with some CANCON instrumentals and even Black Gold District Supervisor Norm Yanitski (L) stepped up to play a little "Rising Sun". But the absolute revelation of the day was recent student August Suggitt (holding Voyageur). I've seen a lot of students perform in my time in schools. Quite often you'll see even the very talented ones kind of trying on different personas and vocal styles. August was fully herself, delivering a powerful and unique vocal with one of her own compositions, which showed all the marks of a great songwriter at the beginning of a serious career. I wish we'd been recording but alas I only have a few stills as proof of her first encounter with the Six String Nation. Nevertheless, you can see her in action on YouTube with several other original songs. Mark my words – this is a name you'll want to remember in Canadian music and I hope we'll have a chance to put Voyageur into her hands again in the future.

Thanks to all the staff and students at Coloniale Estates for showing such enthusiasm and appreciation – it was a pleasure to be there.

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Beaumont Swing

Bill Wesson I said in my last post that the reasons for my speedy return to Alberta at the request of École Secondaire Beaumont Composite High School principal John Mair would become clear in this entry. I spoke to soon. See, back in February when John and I started talking about this project, John mentioned that he was anxious to have me back this academic year because one of his more musical teachers – a longtime circuit musician and cowboy singer named Bill Wesson (pictured) – was retiring at the end of the year and John wanted to make sure Bill had a chance to play Voyageur before he left. When I got to ESBCHS today, John informed me that, in fact, Bill was staying on another year but he had decided to make this his last year as principal!

It was a large and attentive group that gathered in the gym and three players were lined up to cover the "performance pocket" part of the presentation: Bill, another teacher named Marc Harun (who also plays in a band with Bill called the Ranger Creek Wranglers) and student Nick Reich (whose mother is another ESBCHS teacher). They all got a great response from the assembly but it was clear when Bill came up to the mic that he had a serious fan base at the school. Bill lists his influences as people like Neil Young, Bob Dylan and The Byrds but his first tune had a distinct echo of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys – hence the "Beaumont Swing".

Thanks to John, Brad, Chris, Bill, Marc, Nick, Kaley and all the rest of the staff and students at ESBCHS for a great end to Day 1 of our 3-day run in the Black Gold school district.

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Black Gold (Albert Ed, not Texas Tea)

J.E. Lapointe staff and students Principal John Mair of École Beaumont Composite High School in Alberta saw my presentation in February at the North Central Alberta Teachers Convention in Edmonton. For reasons that will become clear in my next post, John was anxious to bring the Six String Nation presentation back to Alberta this school year. In order to make it all feasible, he pulled together six schools in the Black Gold District to host presentations over three days this week. I arrived in Edmonton last night and hit the ground running this morning with my first presentation at J.E. Lapointe School, also in Beaumont.

With help from Shane, we got things set up pretty quickly and welcomed a gym full of the grade 7-8 students (to the customary sounds of Justin Rutledge). The presentation went very well and I got lots of comments afterwards from students taking pictures and touching Voyageur – with special attention paid to the Golden Spruce and (not surprisingly) Wayne Gretzky's hockey stick. Performance duties were handled by teacher Darren Maltais (pictured, left) and students Jack Lascelles (holding Voyageur) and Johnny Nelner (second from right). That's principal Marla Tonita on the far right.

Thanks to all the staff and students at J.E. Lapointe for such a warm welcome back to Alberta!

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Help History Take Flight

Scott Knowlton's Pietenpol project In my last post, I talked about my second in-flight encounter with Air Canada pilot Captain Scott Knowlton. Scott is a big fan of the Six String Nation project and we had a chance to chat for a while after deplaning at Pearson following our flight from Edmonton back in February. And since he asked me to email him the photos we took on that day, we continued an email correspondence after that. In one of those emails, Scott told me that Voyageur had inspired him to take a fresh look at a project he currently has on the go at home.

Like so many pilots I've met, for Scott, flying isn't just a job: it's a true passion that finds expression on and off the job. One expression of that passion is currently taking shape on Scott's workbench at home in Burlington, ON. What you see in the picture above is the skeleton of a Pietenpol Air Camper home-built plane. Bernard H. Pietenpol (1901-1984) was a Dutch-American based in Cherry Grove, Minnesota who sought to bring flight to regular folks with the design of an affordable plane that people could build at home with spruce, plywood and a car engine. He flew his first model back in 1928. It's been a popular kit plane for generations and now Scott Knowlton is building his own so he'll have something to fly when he isn't piloting an Airbus for Air Canada!

But this is where you come in: inspired by Six String Nation, Scott suggested that maybe he could include pieces of material representing Canada's aviation history. It's a wonderful idea and there are precedents for other projects inspired by Voyageur: of course there's Tyler Aspin's Canada Tree that started independently in Pinette PEI around the same time I started work on Six String Nation. As you probably know, Tyler died in a freak lightning strike in 2001 and he's represented in Voyageur with part of one of his mallets contributed by his mother and stepfather; there's Professor Doug Larson's Storyteller Guitar – a project directly inspired by Six String Nation that embodies the natural history of Guelph Ontario; and there's the YMCA Canada Table Project (for which I was a creative consultant) that was crafted by the remarkable Brothers Dressler from objects contributed by each of Canada's local YMCAs.

Now, Scott has already got a line on some important potential contributions from his contacts in the aviation world but he's looking for more things that he might potentially incorporate into his Pietenpol. If you have something that you think might be significant to Canada's history of flight, please get in touch with me and I'll put you in touch with Scott. I'm always pleased when Scott and his colleagues carry Canadian history on board in the form of Voyageur and I'd be honoured to help him put more Canadian history in Canadian skies.

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Up In the Air

Jowi with Captain Scott Knowlton (and Voyageur) My 6'4" uncle flew Spitfires for the RAF in WWII ("I was a little more exposed than the other pilots", he said) and my dad took me up in a Cessna 172 a couple of times before he gave up trying to maintain the costs and log hours of having a license. Flight is an amazing thing and I always feel that – even amongst all the distracting devices and in-flight service and seat-back entertainment and all of that stuff – we should always take at least one brief moment to look out the window and marvel at the very fact that human beings figured out how to do this amazing thing. But people love to complain about air travel – the seats and the service and the delays and the over-bookings and the turbulence and whatever else they can. And in Canada, people especially love to complain about our national airline. I would just like to offer a little perspective on this.

As much as I enjoy flying, I am nervous every time I fly with Voyageur. We've all seen Dave Carroll's harrowing musical account of his experience on United Airlines and I've got lots of musician friends who've had bad experiences with a variety of airlines. I usually fly Air Canada because it covers most of the places I need to get to in this country but I've flown a variety of regional airlines and I've flown Porter and Continental and I've flown in everything from Beavers to Twin Otters to Fokkers to Embraers, Bombardiers, Boeings, Airbuses and all the rest. And although I've been delayed once or twice and had baggage go astray once or twice (and subsequently delivered to my hotel!), for the most part I've found travel by air to be factors smoother and more reliable than getting on a clogged freeway and making my own way – and that's because the people who do the job of delivering you and your stuff from one destination to another by air are - for the most part - working with all the latest gear and applying all their best effort to make that experience go well.

The reason I'm writing this today is that people are always asking me about what precautions I take flying with a piece of national treasure. After all, if I arrive at an event without Voyageur the event cannot go on. And if Voyageur is damaged or destroyed there is no replacing it. It is the only one of its kind in the world and there is not some warehouse of all the historical parts from which it was constructed. All the history that is in it and all the history is has accrued to it through its appearances and performances and photos and encounters would be lost forever. It's a daunting prospect to say the least, and so I rely on a small bit of special treatment however I travel. An early agreement with Air Canada's marketing department that allowed me to carry Voyageur into the cabin (or at least to the gate check) expired last year (as I was informed mid-way through a trip to Calgary!) I suppose because the job of the Marketing Department is...well...marketing. And in spite of the Air Canada banners we put up at events and the logos we included on thousands of portraits, Six String Nation's impact in terms of "marketing" must have seemed pretty insignificant compared to all of the other ways (and all of the real budgets applied to those ways) that Air Canada tries to reach the public and differentiate itself in a highly competitive industry.

Now, I know I'm hopelessly idealistic (what is this entire project if not hopelessly idealistic) and possibly naïve but the Six String Nation project is fundamentally about connecting Canadians to each other and to the broad range of diverse and evolving stories that define us – it's not about selling anything. I've always felt that the merit of the project should be its passport, that connecting people is its real currency, that identifying the individual character of a collective endeavour is its ongoing mission. And when you think about it, what is any organization – from a government to a school to a community to an airline – but an association of individuals engaged in a collective endeavour. So I've been tremendously fortunate that so many individuals within organizations like Air Canada have recognized themselves in the Six String Nation project and taken it upon themselves to make those small gestures of care for Voyageur that make all the difference in the world to me. I'm also fortunate that the essence of social media marketing that has emerged in recent years is in cultivating personal relationships between individuals and brands. I don't know who it is that is responsible for managing the @AirCanada Twitter account but my relationship with that anonymous person (or team) is better than any I ever had with an official department of the corporation and I'm grateful for the care they show for the project in 140 characters or less over and over again.

When I first started flying with Voyageur and my agreement was in place, I frequently had flight crews ask to see the guitar and want to know more about it. One crew even proposed to make an announcement about the presence on board and we'd take all kinds of photos with pilots and flight service staff, lounge staff and ground crews. That came in handy when I was boarding a flight home from Edmonton back in February. The Air Canada staff had kindly permitted me to pre-board with Voyageur and when the pilot boarding with me recognized the case and said "I know that guitar!" I was able to bring his picture from 2006 up on my iPhone in seconds. That pilot was Captain Scott Knowlton and that's a picture from his second encounter with me and the guitar above, taken upon landing at YYZ. Scott expressed a lot of admiration for the Six String Nation project and he's got a very special project of his own that I will tell you about in my next entry. For now, as I wait in the Maple Leaf Lounge for my latest flight to Edmonton, I wanted to express my thanks to all those Air Canada staff – from the air side to the ground side to those behind the scenes and online – who help care for this piece of national treasure by carrying me and it safely across the country.

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A Capital Idea

George, Cassidy, Joanna and Aidan Today was my second visit to the Confederation Education Centre – a teachers' professional development space in Ottawa – and I encountered a few familiar faces of teachers I've worked with in the past; but we came together today for the first shot at what they hope will become an annual tradition: National Capital History Day – a chance for students and teachers to focus on all kinds of stories and histories with roots in this region. I was delighted that both those who already knew the Six String Nation presentation and those who were helping to build this inaugural event saw me and Voyageur as an inspirational fit!

I'm almost always pleased by the attentiveness of students but I suppose it is just that much easier when the students you're addressing are already engaged in their own projects exploring history and the quiet stories that lie behind the dates, places and names. As usual, I let the organizers know that we'd need one or two students or staff to volunteer to play Voyageur for their peers in the "performance pocket" near the end of the presentation. Often, organizers are worried about trying to find those players among shy students but today we had an embarrassment of riches and time for only four of the many volunteers (and volunteered!) to share a tune: from left to right in the photo, that's George Zelikov, Cassidy Kinderman, Joanna Abalos and Aidan MacAdam. Thanks for the music, all of you!

I was very lucky today that Six String Nation was kind of the "opening act" for a keynote address by Tragically Hip guitarist Rob Baker. I got a chance to have a little hang with him during the break and show him around Voyageur (which he'd already studied up on a little online!) and got to hear him play on it. He sounded great and, of course, looked the coolest. We also talked a little bit about our mutual friend Justin Rutledge, whose all-Hip-covers album "Daredevil" comes out in just a couple of weeks. We've both heard it and we're both looking forward to everyone else hearing it too!

Thanks to Ruth Dunley, Ruth Bouttell, Greg Wysynski and all the staff, student and guest participants in the very first National Capital History Day, presented by the Ottawa Carelton District School Board, the Ottawa Catholic School Board, Fullbright Canada and the Ottawa Citizen.

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Sackville Sunrise

Voyageur "scarfed" Checked Facebook this morning and read the sad and terrible news about Doug Queen, a public school music teacher from my neighbourhood who'd been missing for three days before being found dead in Lake Ontario yesterday. I'd met Doug a number of times in the past when his band Jughead – for whom he was the accordion player – played regularly at Harbourfront Centre, where I worked. But my more recent connection was his twin brother Andrew, who played Voyageur as part of a presentation at Hillcrest Public School in Campbellford where he was also a music teacher. Andrew is just a sweet and lovely guy and my heart breaks for him and the rest of the Queen family.

I digested this news over breakfast in the vast dining room at the Marshlands Inn before setting out for Moncton in an hour or so. Had a very nice conversation with proprietor Barry Dane over coffee and told him a little about last night's event as I perused the list of some of the Inn's more famous guests, which includes quite a few connected in one way or another to the Six String Nation. And I suppose, thinking about Doug Queen and about Dan Steeves' moving tribute to Tyler Aspin last night, that there are many threads that draw us together in so many different ways.

A brief note about the photo: I have a huge collection of travel mugs from schools where I've presented in the past. So I was extra delighted when, following my presentation at Brunton Auditorium last night, Mount Allison president Robert Campbell "scarfed" me - a newly traditional bestowal upon guests of the official Mount Allison scarf. I was told later that while Mt. A does not regret adopting the burgundy and gold colours, it has made the scarf a popular item among Harry Potter fans.

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