There is an emphasis on natural ability in the arts, and I think access to opportunity is often overlooked. … What fosters a successful musician is much greater and more complex than just natural talent. A young person needs the opportunity to develop his or her talent, focus and dedication, and a support network.

Cellist Judith Manger founded Axis Music, a free music program for children and youth in a Scarborough community, as a way to help promote equal access to music education and opportunities. Read about her thoughts on the importance of such access to the success of future musicians.

Profile picture of Judith Manger

Judith Manger, cellist and
founding director of Axis Music

Tell us about yourself. What is your interest or involvement in the performing arts?

I’m a cellist, and I also sincerely believe in the importance of access to opportunities and education. I am the founding director of Axis Music, a tuition-free music program in Scarborough.

Can you tell us more about Axis Music? As founder of the program, what was your motivation for starting it? What do you feel are the most important skills the program is teaching?

Axis Music provides tuition-free music workshops to children and youth living in the Gordonridge community, which is made up of Toronto Community Housing residences in south-west Scarborough. Participants study violin, cello, or piano and attend weekly private and group lessons, guest artist workshops, and concert trips. Yunior Lopez (viola/violin) and Janice Lindskoog (piano/harp) facilitate workshops with me.

The inspiration for Axis Music came after I visited Community MusicWorks in Providence, Rhode Island in 2006. At Community MusicWorks, a resident string quartet provides tuition-free music lessons, workshops, and performances for young people in the community. This program helps build meaningful relationships between professional musicians and young residents and their families. This concept had a profound effect on me, so I decided to see if I could start a similar program here in Toronto.

Axis Music encourages excellence through music. We promote equal access to music instruction, engagement, and performances. Participants maintain their enrolment by practicing regularly, which helps them build a dedicated and focused work ethic. I believe that building a strong work ethic and learning other important skills not only help participants realize their artistic potential, but also help them in other academic and personal pursuits.

What projects or upcoming events are you currently working on?

Axis Music just completed a series of guest artist composition workshops with Kevin Lau, affiliate composer of the TSO. Kevin and Axis participants collaboratively composed a work for solo violin called “Axis Dreams.” This piece was written for TSO Concertmaster Jonathan Crow, who performed it at Gordonridge at the end of November. It was an incredible experience to collaborate with Kevin and Jonathan!

Axis Music also just launched a partnership with Kerri McGonigle and the Academy Concert Series (ACS). Participants are scheduled to perform at each ACS concert during their 2012-13 season. At the first performance in December, Axis participants performed Brahms’ Lullaby.

What do you see as the main challenges for those in the performing arts?

Funding. It seems like resources are continually being cut, and competition for funding is fierce. I find this lack of financing devastating, because I know it means that many exciting artistic initiatives are not able to happen. I guess the challenge now lies in proving to public and private funding bodies that arts support needs be a priority, and for independent artists to initiate their own fundraising and entrepreneurial activities.

Do you have an example or examples of the kinds of challenges that you have faced yourself as a performer or music educator? How did you overcome them?

It can be really discouraging when a project doesn’t go as planned. When this has happened to me, I’ve tried to stay focused on the main goal of the project rather than letting obstacles deter me.

For example, when Axis Music was first launched, recruitment of participants was low. We weren’t well known in the neighbourhood, and it was difficult to reach out to find potential participants. Skip ahead a few years, and we now have an amazing group of 18 eager and dedicated young musicians and a growing waitlist. If someone had told me three years ago—when I showed up ready to teach and was greeted with an empty room—that we would have the enthusiasm and support from participants and parents that we have today, I definitely wouldn’t have believed them.

What would you like to see happen in support of the performing arts, and why should it be supported?

I would love to see music education and performances become more financially accessible. I think accessible education develops support for the arts and fosters new audiences. It would be ideal if there was no need for Axis Music because young people were able to engage in quality music education in public school. Unfortunately, this reality seems a long way away.

What role do you see a service like BeMused playing in supporting the performing arts community?

I absolutely love that BeMused is a free service. I think this is a fantastic way to promote access to quality concert information, and aligns with the equality approach I’d like to see more often in classical music. I sincerely believe that there is a lot of interest in classical music, but it’s not accessible for people, financially and otherwise. BeMused helps break down some of these barriers. Your proposal to live-stream performances at a reduced price is so innovative and sounds like a fabulous idea. And your blog is also a great resource that helps connect people in the arts with a larger audience. I’m excited for the official BeMused launch!

What words of advice do you wish you had been given when you were first starting out?

There is an emphasis on natural ability in the arts, and I think access to opportunity is often overlooked. There’s an excellent quote by Malcolm Gladwell from his book Outliers:

We are so caught in the myths of the best and the brightest and the self-made that we think outliers naturally spring from the earth. We look at the young Bill Gates and marvel that our world allowed that thirteen-year-old to become a fabulously successful entrepreneur. But that’s the wrong lesson. Our world only allowed one thirteen-year-old unlimited access to a time-sharing terminal in 1968. If a million teenagers had been given the same opportunity, how many more Microsofts would we have today?

What fosters a successful musician is much greater and more complex than just natural talent. A young person needs the opportunity to develop his or her talent, focus and dedication, and a support network. I think an awareness of these various aspects helps put “success” into perspective, and I wish I had this understanding when I first started teaching.

From your perspective as director of a music education program, how can schools better prepare future performers to be successful in a music career?

Exposing students to quality musical opportunities and resources is critical. Musical experiences can ignite a young person’s desire to develop their potential, and I believe this drive is essential for a successful music career.

As someone who had had to take piano lessons all through junior high and high school, I can definitely vouch for the benefits of music lessons beyond the ability to play an instrument: improved memory, better self-discipline, a creative/emotional outlet for teenage angst.

If you’ve ever taken lessons in music, dance, acting, etc., what are some of the additional ways you benefited from them? Again, as always, feel free to share your stories with us below.