Henry Klassen says humans need music.
Just like they need food, water and love.
Sitting in his living room, with the sun beaming in picture window, Klassen, who has been teaching music for nearly half a century, reaches for the right words to explain what has been the centre of his life.
“It seems like the human body, for some reason or another, is hard-wired for music,” he said.
In 1967 when he and his wife first arrived in the territory, it seemed that Whitehorse’s young music scene was, for some reason or another, also in need of something.
“If you’re trying to excel and you’re trying to improve yourself, you’re trying to get better, you need to have goals,” said Klassen.
The couple were welcomed into the music teaching community, and together batted around ways to help their students set goals.
“Something where they could achieve, where they could excel at something,” said Klassen.
They tried the standard approach and tried to get conservatory examinations hosted in the northern capital, but to no avail.
So they were forced to try something not so ordinary.
In May 1969, Klassen and three others started what would become the annual Rotary Music Festival, now in its 44th year and underway in Whitehorse this week.
“It has grown tremendously,” he said. “It continues to get a little bit bigger and a little bit bigger each year.”
In its first year, there were about 150 participants, counting every single member of the bands and choirs. This year 1,200 young musicians are taking to the stage.
One adjudicator has grown to six or seven now needed to critique all the different categories.
The festival has also grown as an organization. The schools and government have also helped. They offered scholarships, workshops and school bus transportation.
Its other major change has been a “philosophical” one that was made after the first 15 years, said Klassen.
That’s when organizers decided to change it from a competition – which ranked the students – to a festival that critiqued them and awarded all participants either a bronze, silver or gold medal.
“The kids actually started being aware of each other and how they were playing and what they were aiming for and what they were trying to achieve,” said Klassen.
“It’s a challenge to try and figure out ways to make it interesting for the student, to make them aware of what they’re doing and make them also aware of the fact that nothing comes for nothing, that everything you do, you have to work at and you have to work at it hard sometimes.
“And sometimes it gets so you’re slogging through the mud a little bit and you’ve got to really work at it to get from one level to another level.
“But the rewards of seeing the kids do that … and the satisfaction that they get out of having achieved something is all very worthwhile.”
Klassen left teaching music in the classroom in 1996.
“Classrooms are strange birds,” he said, looking out the window almost wistfully.
“I (still) teach music privately. It’s a lot of fun when you teach one-on-one. You have students that respond to you and generally you get the people that are very interested in learning. They’re there because they want to be, not because somebody pushed them to be there. So it’s different than the school system.
“But fortunately, in all the years that I taught, most of my students were actually quite willing to learn,” he said.
Some even follow in his footsteps.
One of his young voice students recently picked up the French horn and trumpet, just like he did after getting his music degree in voice.
Despite nearly half a decade of teaching and running the festival, Klassen says he’s not done yet.
“I like it,” he said plainly. “Why shouldn’t I (teach)? I enjoy music, I enjoy when my students are learning stuff and when they have all these wonderful little ‘aha’ moments. They just learned something and it comes and they realize, ‘Hey, I have really improved on something, I’ve really got this.’”
If you ask Klassen why music is important, why it should be kept in school curriculum or why festivals matter, he’ll tell you he’d need about three full days to give you a satisfactory answer.
When pressed, he simply shrugs his shoulders and says, “We have this innate need for music so we do it.”
Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at firstname.lastname@example.org