Portrait of a Music Classroom: Ruby Ba Drums Up Community to Transform a Music Program

December 19, 2022
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If you stepped into Ruby Ba’s classroom at John Norquay Elementary, you would see a vibrant music room with plenty of instruments. You’d hear many languages spoken by confident, connected young people. You’d see a beautiful set of drums, each carefully and lovingly painted by hand. You may assume this music room has been this vibrant for years. This classroom that offers such diverse programming and creates a safe, joyful space for students is actually the result of over a decade of tireless effort from a community of people and championed by an exceptional educator, all of whom believe that kids deserve engaging, enriching music education at their school.

Over ten years ago, Ruby, who holds a Bachelor of Music and a Bachelor of Education in Secondary Instrumental Music, was working as a Teacher-on-Call, moving from school to school before finding an opportunity to establish roots and build a community at John Norquay Elementary in Vancouver, British Columbia. Even after the long wait, that opportunity was not as a full-time music educator. It took nearly ten years before the chance to focus her expertise and teach music - and only music - arose.

“Music is just comforting for a lot of us, and it doesn't hurt to educate ourselves on the thing that a lot of us turn to.”

-Anderson, student at John Norquay Elementary

Ironically, it was in early 2020 that the full-time position came up. Ruby took stock of what she had at her disposal, and like many music educators in Canada, realized that incomplete sets of guitars, ukuleles, and boomwhackers wouldn’t cut it. Even if it were the best of times - and the early months of 2020 were certainly not - Ruby did not have enough to operate a program that would adequately serve students. As the pandemic wreaked global havoc, teachers like Ruby pivoted and adapted, delivering innovative music programming at a time kids really, really needed it. “Music is something many of us listen to, no matter what our mood is,” said Anderson, a Norquay student. “Music is just comforting for a lot of us, and it doesn't hurt to educate ourselves on the thing that a lot of us turn to.”

Norquay may not have had sufficient resources to outfit the music program, but it did have one critical well from which to draw: the firmly-held belief of staff, administrators, and parents that music education is a priority. The Parent Advisory Committee banded together to get a handful of Orff and percussion instruments into the classroom. While this was a great start, Ruby saw another opportunity. “I also had a vision of building a class set of Indigenous drums for Norquay,” she told MusiCounts, “but funding was an issue in realizing this dream.”

Luckily, she’d come across a flyer for the MusiCounts Band Aid Program in a local music shop. The idea of getting a cash injection into the school made her dreams of Indigenous drumming and a sufficient inventory seem much more possible. Armed with knowledge from an Indigenizing Music Education course taught by Sara Rhude at the University of Victoria, Ruby felt like she had the necessary elements aligning to make this innovative and community-focused program come to life. Ruby also connected with Suzi Bekkattla, the school’s Indigenous Education Worker, to help put this dream of a drum-making project into motion.

After hearing that the MusiCounts Band Aid Program application was successful, Ruby shared the news with the school. “Some students immediately understood the significance of this grant, but some didn’t quite clue in what they were about to do as they have never received opportunities like this before,” she said. “However, when the actual instruments and drum materials arrived at the school, the students became really excited about this special ‘gift’. The news of receiving the grant would have been thrilling under any circumstance, but after two years of learning and teaching in a pandemic, this news was particularly significant and it was no doubt the best news that year.”

In the end, it took the commitment and dedication of the three Grade 7 teachers at the school, the Student Support Workers, the Teacher Librarian, Administration, and even retired colleagues to deliver this program responsibly and authentically. It truly does take a village, but the combined effort was worth it. Students, who had been learning separately in a cohort system through the pandemic, fostered new friendships and gained an appreciation for each other’s lived experiences through this program. As Ruby describes, “students who participated in the drum-making project worked with their hands to build drums together. They wrote stories and painted them on the drums; they drummed and sang together; they spoke the languages [they speak] at home and felt safe to speak at school without worrying if they would be laughed at. All of these happened in music class. Music is not just about notation and meters. Music is to be redefined, and that is how I see decolonization in music education.”

"It was no doubt the best news that year.”

-Ruby Ba, music educator at John Norquay Elementary, on receiving a MusiCounts Band Aid Program grant

“The Legacy Project,” as the drum-making venture came to be called, also provided an opportunity for students to explore themes of reconciliation. Students “made personal connections to the land by acknowledging that [they] are all visitors on the unceded territories of Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-waututh Nations,” explained Ruby. “This project allowed students to explore their heritage/identities through a land-based and hands-on experience.” Ruby was gifted permission to teach the Gratitude Song by Jessica Sault, an Elder from the Nuuchahnulth Nation. Students performed the song at their Leaving Ceremony in June as they graduated and prepared to move on to their next school.

“None of us had really expected to do this sort of project. This project was very meaningful to me," said Anderson, "because it really helped with making new friendships among the Grade 7 classes after coming back from covid and cohorts. Along with making new friendships, this project further showed our support and appreciation for the Indigenous culture and community."

Ruby’s determination is inspirational. With vision, community, and resources, teachers can move mountains for students. As Anderson so aptly said to MusiCounts, “this may sound biased, but I think music education is important because music is just amazing.”

While many Canadian music classrooms are underfunded, they do benefit from a resource whose well runs deep: the passion and dedication of educators. MusiCounts offers resources to help empower those teachers to bring the best music education has to offer to kids who need it most. There are countless classrooms bursting with potential just like Ruby’s, and those teachers are asking for our help.

Make a contribution this holiday season, we'll be able to unlock that potential and reach kids who need it most with the power of music.