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CCP Exclusive: Exploring inside Musical Minds

Pam-Voice & Piano Instructor/Co-founder

I recently had the pleasure to engage in a conversation with one of the Centre for Community Partners Grant recipients-Musical Minds Outreach Program (MMOP). Zahra, one of MMOP’s founder and current executive director for the program was kind enough to do this interview on a Saturday morning over the phone with me. Zahra is one of the most enthusiastic and friendly person I’ve ever met over the phone so it was no surprise to me that we went from an initially scheduled 30-minute interview to having over an hour long conversation. Zahra had so much to share and I was all ears. It was just delightful to have front row seats to hearing the stories about Musical Minds, on its journey to becoming the impactful program it is today, on the challenges of outreaching on campus and on the joy in mentoring youth beyond just music. So if you’re reading this right now, I promise you’re in for some great inspiration on how to start and run a club, how to make the best out of your club’s limited resources and how to find opportunities to support your club just to name a few.

Co-founders of Musical Minds, Left to right: Pam Ng, Greg Peniuk, Zahra Rajan

 

This right here was the highlight of my weekend, just sayin’.

Me: *dials the number, Zahra picks up in two seconds, wait, you picked up the phone too quickly, I need a few more seconds to gather my thoughts, shoot, where are my interview questions, I swear I just saw……oh hey, found them. Ahem, now I’m ready*

Zahra: Hellooo!

Me: Hi, hi. Good morning.

Zahra: Morning morning!

Me: I mean, good afternoon, cuz it’s almost twelve, hehe *casually hiding how nervous I was*

Okay, so I’m going to try my best not to be firing questions at you.  

Zahra: Even if you do it’s totally fine, don’t worry.

Me: Cool. First of all, congratulations on getting the CCP grant! 

Zahra: Thank you thank you, much appreciated from us!

Me: So a short introduction of myself, I’m a blogger for the CCP at the Life at U of T blog and I also work with the CCP as their promotions assistant. This week I’ve decided to write about grants that the CCP has given out to community projects. So this brought me to you and your club Musical Minds!

Zahra is currently pursuing her second bachelor degree at U of T, she first got involved with the precursor to Musical Minds five years ago. Before that, the club started off as Vivace Outreach, started by a student who brought her interest in teaching kids music back in Stratford to the university. At the time, the Multi-faith Center was the only place that allowed music lessons to take place without tight regulations, Zahra has been an instructor from the very beginning and later co-founded Musical Minds with Greg and Pam who also started as instructors at Vivace. 

Me: Wow, lots of history there, tell me more about the backstory of how Musical Minds became Musical Minds!

Zahra: So the biggest reason why Pam, Greg and I wanted to recreate the club and build a whole different program from the ground up by coming up with the new name Musical Minds and setting new goals. We wanted to implement the idea of a mentorship aspect that gives a sense of community which the previous program, Vivace lacked. Previously, Vivace operated solely as a private lesson program which we decided wasn’t providing the most beneficial outcome for the students. Hence, in a nutshell, this is how Musical Minds was created!

Me: *following through my interview plan like a cookbook, okay so, “say congratulations”, check, “introductions”, check, hmm, what’s next*

Okay, so let’s get straight to the reason why I’m interviewing you today, everyone is dying to know what great things you’ve accomplished with the CCP grant!

Zahra: I remember I was talking to Amina (one of the co-curricular learning coordinators at the CCP), she knows that we were having some issues getting funding from other places and we had to jump through so many hoops like we either didn’t get any funding for two years trying grants from other places. We did however get UTSU funding but they are very specific on what you can use your funding on. As a music group and the way we run our program, the families that have children in our program don’t necessarily have their own instruments so we try to provide them with instruments that they could “rent”, but basically we are loaning to them for free as long as no damage is done to the instruments. The biggest part of our funding issues was with either getting enough instruments and venue booking. We had to keep saying no to families that couldn’t have access to instruments. For example, if we only had three or four instruments to loan out and we’re taking in twenty to thirty kids each year, there’s only so many families/candidates you can take into the program, so we had to say no to really great candidates 🙁

Me: Hmm, yeah, that’s unfortunate, but I’m glad the CCP grant helped you guys in overcoming this huge barrier. 

Zahra: Yeah, that is just the gist of why we loved the CCP grant and how it worked out that way.

Me: So, what’s the timeline around when you got the grant to when you got to use it? 

Zahra: Um, I think we applied in the spring time of last year so when we got the grant in around March, we had the whole summer to make arrangements and purchase our instruments and now we have more instruments available to rent out to the kids which is really really nice because we get so many great candidates every single year and some candidates seemed perfect for the program but we just couldn’t take them because we simply didn’t have enough instruments.

Me: What would you use to describe the students at Musical Minds?

Zahra: Very diverse, we actually had a student from a Syrian refugee family! Many students come from single parent families so it’s great that our program is helping out families to support their children’s music education who otherwise couldn’t afford private lessons. 

Me: Take me through a typical day of lessons with Musical Minds.

Zahra: Well, our lessons operate during the weekends during the Fall and Winter semesters at U of T. Lessons are happening all day starting from 10am-6pm at Multi faith centre each weekend (Saturdays and Sundays). Our instructors come in during their designated lesson hours and gives a 30 to 45 minute lesson to the kids. There will always be an executive around to help ensure the scheduling goes smoothly and resolve any issues that come up.  

Me: I find that it’s really hard to find volunteers willing to teach music instruments when there are paid jobs around the GTA for music teachers, especially teachers with high qualification in their instrument. As an executive for the club, how do you work around getting volunteers?

Zahra: Usually during club fairs, it’s too expensive to have a booth at the King’s Circle club fair event so we set up booths at some colleges instead. By the time when clubs fair is happening, we have already made a plan on how many instructors we’d need and the qualifications we require, we usually require grade 8 and above in RSM, so we have a clear goal in mind when targeting teachers to accommodate the students we have taken in for the program which was done beforehand.

Me: Do you think you can share some of our outreaching ideas that’ve worked well for your club?

Zahra: Preparing way ahead is essential. We’ve been getting ready since the summer so everything is set to go when the new semester starts. 

Me: 61 kids and 30 instructors, that’s a lot of kids!! How old are the kids?

Zahra: Their age ranges from 6 to 12 years old. It is a lot of kids, so each instructor takes on around two to three students!

 

Me: What instruments do Musical Minds’ teachers offer lessons in?

Zahra: Piano, guitar, violin and voice!

Me: You mentioned a year-end recital for the students, when does it usually occurs? In what ways do you think having a recital help build stronger relationships between the kids and their instructor but also foster a community amongst the kids and/or beyond?

Zahra: We usually book the music room at Harthouse. Unfortunately, students aren’t allowed to play the grand piano inside the music room which is shame since they kids learn their music on keyboards all year round it would’ve been great for them to experience the feeling of a real piano at least once a year during their recital. 

Me: I have a feeling that at Musical Minds, it’s not just about kids taking music lessons from your instructors, but more of having this mentorship that helps develop qualities in addition to musical skills in these kids. Do you agree?

Zahra: Yes, that is actually our focus. To mentor kids. That is also the reason why we prefer the kids coming onto campus and have their lessons at the Multi-faith Centre instead of having teachers go to their schools, etc. This helps to demystify the concept of UofT students and university and foster conversation around university, high school with the kids which I think is an integral part of our mentorship goals.  

Me: You talked about the diversity of your volunteer instructors, can you elaborate on how diverse it is, and what this diversity has brought to Musical Minds?

Zahra: Having such a diversity within our team of instructors definitely provide a wide range of perspectives on resolving issues. Having a bunch of different ideas to share each time during our meetings and workshops is very beneficial to the team especially for handling situations in the future.

Me: What is the size and structure of your team? 

Zahra: We have an executive committee and an instructors team. All our executives have either been teachers or is still teaching music. The size is not big at all, we have roughly five execs and thirty instructors this year.

Me: If a student at U ofT who is running a club/group comes up to you for advice and you’ve only got a few minutes to give them your best tip, what would it be?  

Zahra: Hmm, that’s a great question because it’s such a hard question to answer, but I’d say being open to all the diversities and perspectives is the key in everything from maintaining a fully functioning club/program to community outreaching. 

Me: With the continuous support from the CCP and Multi-faith Centre, where do you see Musical Minds heading in the next few years?

Zahra: We have been considering possible expansion ideas to providing an early child music education (only a thought for now), but our focus at the moment is placed on the transition of the executive team this year and next so we’re not looking to make big changes, but incremental changes to the existing structure that works pretty well and refining the program we are offering right now instead.  

Me: Is there anything you’d like to add that I totally forgot to ask, feel free to take it away!

Zahra: Well, I’m always asking people this: if you have a friend or know of anyone who would like to work with us send them our way, we are always looking for passionate people to join our team and help build a better program! 

Me: Well, I’ll be sure to keep that in mind (you hear that my musically talented friends, here’s an opportunity that you can’t possibly pass on wink wink*)

Me: Thank you so much for taking time out on a weekend to chat with me! Your insights have been very valuable and I’m glad the CCP grant has been a great support to your program!   

Zahra: Thanks for connecting with me and I hope I didn’t talk your ears off!

Me: Nah, it would’ve been totally worth it anyways, thanks again!

Anson-Piano Instructor