Feature Story

Video Conferencing Connects Students

Innovative technology connects students in Canada's North with National Arts Centre Orchestra musicians in Ottawa.

Written By: Diana Boehm

 It is a beautiful Saturday morning in Nunavut as a group of young trumpet players arrive for their music lesson.  There is no instructor waiting for them, unless you count high school music teacher, Mary Piercey.  Instead the room in Inuksuk High School in Iqaluit features one of Cisco's videoconferencing technology  units, TelePresence, that will make this lesson possible.

 Soon Karen Donnelly, principal trumpet player for the National Arts Centre Orchestra, appears on the screen and it's time for the private lesson to begin.  It makes no difference that Karen is hundreds of kilometres away in Ottawa; the technology is so good she may as well be in the sameroom.  
"Karen is fantastic and really engages the students," says Mary.  "The kids feel relaxed."
That's music to the ears of everyone at the National Arts Centre.  It's proof that ConneXXions North, a new initiative that connects members of the NAC Orchestra with music students in Iqaluit through broadband videoconferencing, using Cisco equipment, is making an impact.
"We have a mandate to support education in the performing arts," says Maurizio Ortolani, New Media Producer at the NAC.  "One of the best ways the NAC can deliver on that mandate is by supporting music programs across Canada through innovative technology.   ConneXXions North provides an opportunity for mentoring that otherwise wouldn't be possible."
ConneXXions North, which will officially begin in September, is the legacy of the NAC's "Year of the North" and the Orchestra's Northern Tour.  In 2012, the Orchestra used technology to reach out to the students in advance of the Tour.  They then connected in person during the Tour, which made a lasting impression on members of the Orchestra.  "Our musicians were emotionally moved by the connections they made with the kids in the North.  The tour was an eye-opening experience for them.  They learned just as much as they taught," recalls Maurizio.  "Now the musicians are jumping at the opportunity to engage with students through the ConneXXions North program."
Meanwhile, in Iqaluit, Mary's 45 band students from Grades 10, 11 and 12, are also jumping at the opportunity to receive mentoring from professional musicians.  "These kids don't normally have access to private instruction on their instrument," she admits.  "I teach them what I can but there are certain intricacies of playing an instrument that will come from the professionals at the NAC. The program is already making a difference.  After just one lesson, the positive reinforcement they received from their instructor has inspired them.  At least two students have expressed an interest in going to music school."
And that's only the beginning.  Mary hopes her music program – the only official high school music program in Iqaluit – will benefit from what she calls, "such attention from a prestigious institute".
"In the past all the promotion and money for travel has gone into our choir which promotes the Inuit culture and language.  There hasn't been a whole lot of financial support for classical music," says Mary.  "This program will hopefully change that and show students this music is important too.  It will show Canadians that in addition to honouring their culture, our students can do all kinds of things."
Maurizio couldn't agree more.  He sees ConneXXions North as a valuable opportunity to reach out to students beyond Inuksuk High School.  "As the network grows, I hope we can connect with other schools across Nunavut," he says.  "We're also looking at mentoring from north to south.  We would love Northern artists, such as throat singers, to connect with students in Ottawa.  We want the connections to be balanced, for the mentoring to flow both ways."