A Royal Return @RoyalSGC

Owen Barney The last time I did the Six String Nation presentation for the students of Royal St. George's College in Toronto's Annex neighbourhood was back in 2011 at their public speakers series. But a few months earlier there'd been a fire in the school's historic chapel on Howland Ave., so our event took place at the Walmer Baptist Church a few blocks away. Emma Totten, the school's Coordinator of Global Partnerships and Real World Connections, had been the organizer of that earlier series and she got in touch with me a few months ago about coming back this year to launch the school's sesquicentennial activities. This would be my first visit to the actual school site but Emma Totten would prove to be just one of many lines of continuity I discovered over the course of two presentations at the all-boys school yesterday.

The first presentation - for the more senior students - took place in the beautifully restored chapel where they'd brought in a rear-screen projection system for the occasion. It has been so grey here in Toronto the last few weeks that it was easy not to be able to anticipate the impact on the screen of sunlight coming in through the stained glass windows. In fact, the effect was quite striking - though not ideal for the presentation. Fortunately, by the time we'd finished our tech check and filled all the seats the sun had moved around the building sufficiently that the screen was visible to most.

The "performance pocket" in the presentation was handled by student Owen Barney (pictured), who was quite a revelation. He sang two songs - including Neil Young's "Helpless". It's a song I've heard students play at many other schools but never quite like this. I was told later that he'd been a bit of a novel phenomenon in his younger years in the school as a pre-pubescent country singer and accomplished guitarist. But staff wondered if he'd have the same charm once his voice broke. They needn't have wondered. He has brilliant pitch and tone and a real feeling for the songs that came through with confidence and easy musicality. Apparently, he's performing as a solo artist outside of school and I wouldn't be surprised if we started to hear more about him from the local music scene and beyond in the years ahead.

I confess I almost always feel that I've managed to touch on relevant stories and core Canadian values in my presentation but - as Headmaster Stephen Beatty pointed out in his closing remarks - to have these values of connection and inclusion reinforced following the weekend's murders in the mosque in Quebec City seemed especially resonant for all of us in the room and I was very grateful for the opportunity to be part of that common feeling.

For the afternoon presentation to the junior boys, we moved into the small black box studio under the main building. Before the presentation even started there were a parade of staff coming to say hello: art teacher Myles Vivares came by to make the connections between his immigrant experience, his love of the Fairmount bagel from his years in Montreal and his association with the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry - all reflected in Voyageur; French teacher Rachel DeBlois came and got me to sign a copy of the textbook she wrote for RK Publishing called "Tu Parles", which includes a whole section on Six String Nation; and student Jamie Stephenson-Smith and his mother Janet - a teacher at the school - came by to get their picture taken with Voyageur. We are related by family connections and I'd met Janet before - though never Jamie, who has known about me and the project since he was little; and then Headmaster Beatty came into the room bearing the official portrait we'd taken of him and his daughter back in 2007 when he was principal at Montcrest School. He let me know that his daughter is now in university - GULP! The presentation went very well and - yet again - the students were engaged and attentive and participated beautifully under the direction of music teacher Emily Johnson, who performed Bryan Adams's "Summer of 69" and a sing-along rendition of "This Land Is Your Land".

Thanks once again to Emma Totten and all the staff and students at RSGC for making me feel so welcome. Thanks also to Chris Ramnath from StageVision who handled the tech in the Chapel and Christopher Newton (no, not that Christopher Newton) who assisted with tech in the studio theatre. Oh, and thanks to the kitchen staff for the delicious lunch!

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