Red-eye to Whitby

The Atkins Family at E.A. Fairman

Andrew Watson - a teacher with the Durham District School Board who had played host to the Six String Nation presentation twice in years past - reached out a little while ago to see if I'd be available to come back to his school, Dr. Robert Thornton Public School in Whitby ON (note to teachers, have me back!). As always, I suggested trying to bundle a visit with a neighbouring school so as to get a discounted rate and make the day have greater impact. It didn't take much for him to convince Amy Humphries at nearby E.A. Fairman to get on board since she'd seen my presentation at a recent conference. The only snag was the date and the one that looked like it was going to work for both of them was Monday November 19th. I like Mondays just fine but I had a show at the Port Hardy Civic Centre at the north end of Vancouver Island on the night of the 17th and would need to make the connection through Vancouver on the way home. That could mean only one thing: the dreaded red-eye flight!

I'm glad I took the earlier afternoon flight out of Port Hardy because it gave me a chance to tour the hangar and see Pacific Coastal's fleet of Grumman Goose amphibious aircraft (and even sit in the cockpit of one!) and to make sure an unforeseen delay wouldn't make me miss a flight to Toronto, I opted for the red-eye. Thank goodness for the Air Canada Maple Leaf Lounge when you've got 8 hours to spend at the airport!

Here's the thing, though - I can't sleep on an airplane. Doesn't matter how long the flight, what time of day or how tired I might be. And that's even having taken a couple of Tylenol and bought myself one of those goofy neck cushions! So it was pure adrenaline (and some coffee) that got me off the plane, through baggage, into a rental car and right into the thick of morning rush-hour across the top of Toronto on the 401 to Whitby.

I apologize to Andrew and the staff and students at Thornton if I wasn't quite at my best but I actually think I managed things not too badly. My presentation software manifested all my exhaustion on my behalf, however, and crashed a couple of times during the presentation - which it's never done before... figures! My last time at Thornton was back on January 16, 2014. On that occasion, for the "performance pocket" song, Andrew was joined by fellow teacher Lee Hruska for a rendition of the Tragically Hip's "Ahead By a Century". For this year's appearance, they "got the band back together" and did the Hip's "Wheat Kings".

From there it was off to meet Amy Humphries and her charges at E.A. Fairman. Amy is new to Fairman so she wasn't sure what kind of talent they might have access to for the "performance pocket". But the moment she asked anybody at the school, they all said: "You need to call the Atkins's". Daughter Shelby Atkins (pictured, right) had been a student at the school and father Mark (left, holding Voyageur - that's mom in the middle for good measure) had long been a willing volunteer any time musical assistance was needed so they stepped up instantly. Mark was already familiar with the Six String Nation project - having seen Voyageur in the hands of several of his musical friends over the years - including the wonderful Greg Godovitz. For the presentation, I had hit my second wind, the students were fantastic, the software only glitched once instead of twice and Mark and Shelby's performance was nothing short of amazing - I really wish there was a way for me to both continue to do my job at these events AND capture recordings of the performance segments. Mark started off with a short (and surprisingly sweet and gentle) instrumental excerpt from Rush's 2112 called "Discovery" before they launched into a gorgeous rendition of Bob Dylan's "To Make You Feel My Love". Together they genuinely made Voyageur sing.

Thanks to everyone at Dr. Robert Thornton and E.A. Fairman Public Schools and a special thanks to my Starbucks barista for the extra shots!

Share this article:

The Preview and the Show

Cody Woelfle plays "Wheat Kings" on Voyageur to kick things off at Port Hardy Civic Centre

After Friday's two school sessions, Elizabeth and I swung back to the HQ (home of the Chamber of Commerce, Tourism Office and North Island Concert Society) to conduct a FacebookLive session with Saturday's two players, Jeremy Parker and Cody Woelfle under the direction of the North Island Gazette. We set it up like a festival workshop with me acting as facilitator - doing a bit of interviewing between a couple of songs each from Jeremy and Cody.

Cody is a tall, laconic Albertan with an easy manner and a smooth-as-silk stage presence. We found common ground in the music of Steve Earle and Cody tends to that country-tinged singer-songwriter style. He's got a great natural country voice and oozes presence. Jeremy is almost the exact opposite - a self-taught instrumentalist full of self-doubt and nervous energy, still finding his style and voice as a guitarist. Suffice to say that he customarily plays a classical guitar and tends toward finger style improvisations but is loathe to define himself just yet. The FB live session was a chance not only for me to get to know them a little bit before the show at the Civic Centre but also for them to get to know Voyageur a little bit and find their comfort zone on the instrument.

Cody took to Voyageur easily - breezing through a cover to warm up and testing out both an original and a Neil Young tune for Saturday's show. Jeremy had a further distance to travel - being accustomed to a wider fretboard and nylon strings but in spite of his nerves he seemed to make the transition seamlessly. During his second piece, something strange and beautiful happened with the sound emanating from the guitar - almost as if a second player had kicked in or someone had flicked the switch on an expander module but it was all coming from Jeremy and Voyageur. I had wondered whether it might have just been the acoustics of the room but it happened again during his Saturday performance at the Civic Centre. Cody kicked off the performance segment of the presentation with Tragically Hip's "Wheat Kings" then played an original, "Getting Gone", to follow up. As the final song, Cody played and sang "The Needle and the Damage Done" on Voyageur while Jeremy added tasty fills on Cody's Fender acoustic.

Jeremy Parker's instrumental.

As always, I was so grateful for the comments after the show as people lingered to take photos, tell stories and get books signed.
Thanks to North Island Concert Society director Elizabeth Aman-Hume and her team - including Malcolm, Verna, Sandra, Bob, John, Muffy and other volunteers. A very special thanks to event sponsors (and my hosts for my stay in Port Hardy) Sharon and Marty of First Choice B&B.

And another very special thanks to the team at Pacific Coastal Airlines - including Paula, Lorne, Steve and Meaghan, who not only figured out a way to make my baggage work without extra charges but also took me out to the hangar to view the spectacular collection of four pristine-looking vintage Grumman Goose amphibious planes - even letting me climb into the cockpit. Lorne explained that in spite of the fact that they were over 80 years old and had all been wrecked at some point or another, they were all in perfect working order and looked brand new. It's not often that you wave goodbye to your ground crew as your flight takes off but that's what I did and they waved right back. Thanks everyone!

Share this article:

Hardy Buoys

Just one of the monuments in Rotary Park, Port Hardy.

Technically speaking, Mile 0 of the TransCanada Highway is at the intersection of Douglas and Dallas streets in Victoria BC but it jags up to Nanaimo on the eastern side of Vancouver Island as a kind of extra branch. From there, provincial highway 19 extends the TCH way up to the north end of the island. And if you take that road right to the very end you'll find yourself at Rotary Park in Port Hardy BC.

Elizabeth Aman-Hume had seen my presentation at the Destination BC conference in Victoria a couple of years ago where she was attending in her role with the Port Hardy Chamber of Commerce. As a former orchestra manager with a tonne of experience around the world, it was only natural the she also take on the role of director of the North Island Concert Society and it was in that role that she invited me to be the launching act of their 2018/2019 season. As is so often the case with communities far flung from my home base in Toronto, I recommend to organizers that they maximize the impact of my visit (and expand their outreach potential) by organizing additional appearances at local schools and other community events. Elizabeth took that suggestion to heart and arranged for a couple of school visits as well as a FacebookLive event with help from the North Island Gazette, who were the media sponsor for the event.

Teacher Frank MacLean and student Ben Coward, players at PHSS.

Our first school stop was at Port Hardy Secondary School - yet another great school audience with performances on Voyageur at the end by student Ben Coward and teacher Frank MacLean. Inspired by spying Eddie Schwartz' portrait in the presentation, Frank lead students in an impromptu rendition of "Hit Me With Your Best Shot"!
Thanks also to principal Adrian Pendergast and all the staff and students at PHSS.

Angela Hagen plays Voyageur at Eagle View

Next up, Eagle View Elementary School. 
Principal Jillian Walkus had asked whether she might invite the grade 3 students. Normally, I say the presentation is for grades 5 and up but increasingly I'm finding that grade 4 students are aware of some of the more delicate subjects raised by the presentation. But grade 3s? I always worried they're going to be bored and restless and that much of it will just be blah-blah-blah for them. But they were a rapt group - hung on every word! Not only that - teacher Angela Hagen, who had volunteered to play Voyageur in the "performance pocket", organized a group of grade three students to accompany her on a rendition of "Land of the Silver Birch" for an encore!

We would see Angela again at the Civic Centre show as a member of the Sisters of Song choir playing a 1948 Martin inherited from her uncle - another storied guitar to add to a weekend of guitar stories. That's her with both guitars in the picture below.

Angela Hagen with Voyageur and her late uncle's Martin OOO (on which Voyageur is based)

Share this article:

Vancouver Reunions

Voyageur meets Douglas Coupland's "Golden Tree" in Vancouver.

I had arranged the trip to B.C. in advance to be ready to accept a deluge of Vancouver-area school bookings that never materialized. But it was all worth it just to be able to spend some time with my dear friend and radio documentary collaborator Paolo Pietropaolo, his amazing wife Natasha Aziz and their unbelievably perfect children, Mela and Tasio. Apart from getting to spend some all-too-rare and much needed quality time with them, it gave me a chance to meet some of their friends and immerse myself - however briefly - in their East Van community. And being there in Vancouver for Remembrance Day meant that I got to experience the Vancouver Police Pipe Band playing at Memorial South Park - one of the city's oldest cenotaphs.

Some great meals, some great coffee, some great cocktails, some great walks. It was the usual Vancouver experience. On a forest loop walk near Spanish Banks, Paolo and Natasha's friend John Irving - the Director of Engineering for the city of Richmond - told me about Douglas Coupland's latest public art installation at a new development at the corner of Cambie St. and Southwest Marine Drive in South Vancouver. It's a 43' tall construction of steel-reinforced, gold-painted fibreglass in the scale-sized mirror image of a beloved Vancouver landmark - an 800-year-old hollowed out cedar that was a meeting place for some, a hazard for others and a symbol of the city's relationship to the ancient nature that it inhabits. In fact, it has nothing to do with the legendary Golden Spruce of Haida Gwaii - part of which forms Voyageur's resonant top - but the comparisons would be inevitable so I just had to visit.

I had the good fortune of meeting Doug Coupland at a dinner at the home of our mutual publisher, Scott McIntyre, back in 2009 - and, while we had a brief correspondence thereafter, I haven't spoken to him in years. I consider this visit to Cambie and SW Marine something of a reunion!

Share this article:

ImaginED in Surrey 2

Peter Hongsen Nie plays Voyageur at Fraser Heights

After a quick lunch with Gillian Judson following our morning at Erma Stephenson, it was kitty-corner to Fraser Heights Secondary School. Fraser Heights is no stranger to musical notables: K-pop star G.NA graduated in 2004 or 2005 so she wasn't an option to perform with Voyageur. Current student Ashley Pater would have been perfect but she had a show in Arizona while I was visiting her school!

Instead, we were fortunate to have had a first in the Six String Nation performance repertoire: a song sung in Mandarin by student Peter Hongsen Nie (pictured, above). Given Voyageur's Chinese-Canadian link with the piece from Victoria's Fan Tan Alley as left-shoulder kerfing in the guitar, it's about time we heard a song in Mandarin!

Special thanks to sound-guy Justin, the very engaged students in attendance at the assembly, Principal and Vice Principal Hardip Rakkar and Angele Thibault and Aboriginal Teacher Advocate Brenda Sampson.

Share this article:

ImaginED in Surrey 1

In front: students Joshua, Tzari and alumni Griffen; backing them up: teacher Jeff Hook.

It's always tough trying to build a tour from afar without an agent to speak on one's behalf. Basically, you're putting the message out there saying "Hi, I'm the greatest thing since sliced bread and you should hire me to come to your school while I'm in your neighbourhood". Without a proper introduction it can be a tough sell. I'd built some time into my schedule before heading up to Port Hardy hoping I could generate some activity in and around Vancouver while I visited with dear friends in East Van but the challenge remained. Luckily for me, I'd had an introduction some months ago to Gillian Judson, founder of the Centre for Imagination in Research Culture & Education and the voice of imaginED - both out of Simon Fraser University - with whom I'd found common ground in advancing inquiry-based learning. Gillian was intrigued by Six String Nation and I was intrigued by her work but we'd never met in person and she'd never seen my presentation. She scraped together a small honorarium to bring me to a couple of schools in Surrey, southeast of Vancouver.

Erma Stephenson Elementary School was first for the day and I drove against the rush hour traffic for an early start at the school with the older grades in attendance at the assembly. They were an extraordinarily attentive group. Sometimes I worry that especially younger grades are going to get a bit restless after half an hour or so but they remained riveted for the whole hour. They let loose near the end of the session, though, seeing their classmates (and a former classmate) bring Voyageur to life in the "performance pocket" part of the presentation. Guitar teacher Jeff Hook graciously forewent his opportunity to play in order to make time for former student Griffen to play Eric Clapton's "Tears in Heaven" as an instrumental and  Tzari (on guitar) and Joshua (on vocals) to perform Vance Joy's "Riptide" (I believe that is now the sixth or seventh student rendition of that song I've heard in my travels!)

I'm so glad that Gillian got to see the presentation in person and especially at her daughter's own school! We hope you'll be seeing some Six String Nation/CIRCE collaborations in the educational realm in the not-too-distant future! In the meantime, thanks to Gillian and her team as well as Vice Principal Shelley Stark and all the helpful staff and students at Erma Stephenson.

Share this article:

Brought by a Song

Scott Perry with Voyageur

Scott Perry got in touch by email some time ago. Some time in 2009 or 2010, Scott's dad had shown him a copy of the Six String Nation book and Scott was inspired to begin work writing a song about the guitar at the heart of that story and called it, appropriately enough, Voyageur. At the same time, Scott's dad was encouraging Scott to get his songs on tape, though he remained reluctant to do so. When his father died, a few years ago, Scott felt a bit adrift - so weighing anchor (so to speak) in a houseboat in North Vancouver was just one of the steps he took to begin to give some shape to the forces at play in his life. He started recording and reached out to share with me some lyrics he was considering for this song about the guitar his dad had introduced him to and which remained in a prominent place in his musical mind. I offered just one suggestion (not to try to fudge the word "oar" in place of "paddle" for the sake of a rhyme) and that was about it until he sent me a copy of his finished CD, "Follow Up" a few months ago.

It only seemed appropriate that Scott should have a chance to play the song that he wrote for this guitar on the guitar itself so this current trip to BC presented a perfect opportunity. Shortly after landing in Vancouver, I made my way to the marina where Scott is both literally and figuratively moored (after a brief misdirection to Coquitlam!). In the presence of the Six String Nation book his father left him - along with his dad's guitar and the guitar with which he recorded his album - Scott ran through "Voyageur" a few times while Shawn Major shot some video (keep your eyes peeled for that on YouTube via

It was great to meet Scott and it got me thinking about my own dad and how he never got to see the Six String Nation project come to fruition but I know he would have had a lot of advice and ideas to offer. Thanks for the chance to reflect, Scott. And thanks for the honour of the music.

Share this article:

Wexford’s 40th brings a 1st

George Kerr plays Voyageur (and sets a record!)

I grew up in Don Mills and went to VicPark Secondary. That was on the west side of Victoria Park Avenue. Some of my friends went to Wexford Collegiate. That was on the east side of Victoria Park Avenue. Between the school and the retro-futuristic Parkway Plaza (recently awarded heritage status and the Cedarbrae Cinemas and a bunch of places you can read about in Paul Quarrington's final book, Cigar Box Banjo, Wexford felt like part of my neighbourhood and an important neighbourhood in the development of Toronto - especially in more recent years which have brought huge changes to that part of the city.

Growing along with those changes since 1978 as a fixture and hub for the community has been the Wexford Senior's Residence. To celebrate the institution's 40th anniversary, CEO Sandy Bassett and her team kicked off a fundraising drive with this sparkling gala to make sure the Wexford remains a community hub for the next 40 years: a new capital program for a new site, new building, new services, increased capacity and more. Saturday's gala was a chance to invite some local leaders to help support that vision and I was thrilled to be asked to be part of the proceedings.

Photographer Doug Nicholson and I set up our portrait station in the lobby in front of Hall B while a sumptuous Indian wedding was going on in Hall A.  I wished we might have been ready to get some portraits with some of the spectacularly clad guests but their reception party was already underway behind closed doors by that time.

Former Ontario Health Minister Dennis Timbrell served as emcee for the evening - only occasionally having to pause for a drum break coming from behind the wall between the two ballrooms. The presentation went very well and I confess I am always profoundly touched and amazed by the audience response to the Six String Nation story - especially when we get to the part about the Golden Spruce.

For our "performance pocket" player, Sandy and co. had enlisted Wexford resident George Kerr to do a few tunes. We sat with George for dinner before the presentation and got to hear a little bit about his time growing up in Scotland, his experience during the war and his many roles (usually as the villain, apparently) in a string of amateur musical productions over the years. Sure enough, the medley of songs he played from memory with Voyageur in hand included a number of familiar Rogers & Hammerstein  tunes, all ending with a rendition of "Danny Boy" - sung in a rich Scottish burr with plenty of power and range still behind it.  At 97 years young, George officially the oldest person to play Voyageur for an audience!

Thanks to Sandy Bassett, Bree Grant and all the staff and volunteers who made the evening such a success. Thanks also to our portrait station volunteers Sandeep Sharma, Joli Kadier, and Bijaya Singh for keeping the line moving smoothly. Thanks also to all the guests who came out to support this important cause and to lend their lovely mugs to our ongoing portrait project. Keep your eye on our Facebook page for when the portraits are posted online.

Share this article:

Proud to be part of #SongStudio 2018 @HughsRoomLive

Just some of the <em>Voyageur</em> players at the SongStudio finale night at Hugh's Room The 14th year of SongStudio is now in the history books.
Every year, aspiring songwriters from around the city, across the country and all over the world, gather for a week in Toronto under the mentorship of an extraordinary group of musicians, songwriters, arrangers, producers and guest speakers (this year's faculty included Voyageur veterans Dayna Manning, Andrea Ramolo and Ron Sexsmith!) for a comprehensive immersion in the art, craft and process of songwriting. For some, it's about career development, for others it's simply a personal challenge but each year friendships are made, collaborations are fused and music is born in an atmosphere that is part seminar and part summer camp. The spirit of generosity - both among the participants toward each other and between the budding artists and their more established mentors - is a thing of beauty and it's all there to share when the group hosts their Thursday night showcase at Hugh's Room to road test the material they've been working on all week. With a crack band including musical director Allistair Bradley and guitar hero Rik Emmett working without any rehearsal whatsoever, songwriters hear their pencil sketches come to life in living colour before an audience of friends, family and a bunch of appreciative strangers.

I've been very honoured to have been invited to participate over the years by founders Bill McKetrick and Blair Packham. Bill asked me to be part of the proceedings this year with the announcement that he'll be stepping away from his role over the next year and handing the reigns to the supremely talented Jeff Giles so I was keen not to miss it. My role at these events is pretty easy. After making a brief introduction to the story of the guitar, I get to enjoy dinner and a show in some marvellous company while Voyageur sits on stage for whoever would like to use it during their performance. It's kind of a perfect role, in fact, for this special evening. Voyageur is literally built out of stories and when I'm not telling those stories, it's the job of musicians to bring their own stories to the instrument simply by playing it. During a week in which these artists are exploring their ability to bring their own story into song form, it's a true honour that any of them at all - with lots to think about besides picking up an unfamiliar guitar for the first time - would choose to make Voyageur part of the debut of new material but it's also fitting that these new voices fuse with the voices of all of those who have played the guitar in the past - first-timers and icons alike.

It was an awesome display of talent on stage this year. From among many highlights, I can tell you that you will be hearing a lot more, I'm sure, from a young singer named Amir Brandon and that Tania Joy wrote a song called "Drought" that was rich and complex and moving and new and yet managed to sound like it has existed for all time. I was especially thrilled that so many of the participants picked up Voyageur for their performances, including Cole Fraser (pictured, left) with Tracy McTaggart, Ingrid MacDonald (pictured, second from right), Gibson Himbault with Greg Kelly, Peter van der Maas with Mark Fitzpatrick, Jeff Giles (pictured, second from left) with Michelle Gold, Christie Simmons (pictured, right) with Peter Benes, and Sean Thomas (pictured, centre) both solo and in collaboration with friend-of-the-Nation Henry Lees.

Thanks once again to Bill for his hospitality, to all the SongStudio sponsors, faculty, players and participants and to the Hugh's Room management, crew and staff for hosting this important showcase for the songs of tomorrow.

Share this article:

Mini WE Day is a Giant Success @RHCornishPS @DurhamDSB

Cohen performs for classmates Yesterday's trip to the Scugog region of Ontario was a collaboration between two Durham District School Board teachers, Lindsay Bauer at McCaskill's Mills P.S. in Cannington and Suzanne Guimont-Garriock at R.H. Cornish P.S. in Port Perry. Apart from the return to Cannington, where Voyageur had lived with Don Ross for a couple of weeks, it was another homecoming of sorts. Although Voyageur was built in Nova Scotia, when I first met luthier George Rizsanyi he was living in nearby Greenbank so it was familiar territory.

While the morning presentation was a pretty standard school gym assembly type affair, Suzanne had let me know that my presentation was going to be part of a larger event taking place at Cornish. Inspired by an earlier involvement with the and WE Day children's charity event, students at Cornish had mounted a number of initiatives at the school and the day was kind of Mini WE Day and a celebration to update their progress on various drives - including the collection of more than 2800 food items for the local food bank and hundreds of pairs of socks for shelters in the region. The students designed and executed every aspect of the show - from screen presentations to musical performances to dance breaks to guest speakers to special awards for work in the community and it all went off like clockwork. I felt lucky to have got to hang out a little bit with traditional/contemporary Plains Cree and Taino hoop dancer Beany John from Alberta, whose guest performance just blew me away with an extraordinarily complex and acrobatic traditional storytelling dance performed to Diplo's "Revolution"!

So, in a way, my presentation at the end of the day had the added element of attempting to draw together some of the many threads that had run through the afternoon and I hope it succeeded in doing that. It seemed to hit the mark with many students and staff who came up after the presentation to take pictures, ask questions and tell stories. I was especially moved by the story of one teacher who had come to Canada from Ireland and found in the presentation a way to connect with her feelings about the country of her choice.

Equally moving were the performances by student Cohen Arndt-Perris and sound man and local guitar-club leader Mike Murczek. Cohen (his parents were in attendance and told me that, indeed, he was named in honour of Leonard!) had some trepidation about taking on the "performance pocket" role since he's normally a nylon-string classical guitar player but after a quick run-through before the show he found his fingers easily and had no trouble at all wowing his classmates with a classical medley and probably the best student rendition of "Blackbird" I've heard yet. Mike did a medley of Neil Young tunes, complete with harmonica rack. He also spoiled me by outfitting the guitar with a wireless transmitter for the pick-up and now I don't know how I'll go without one!

Thanks again to Suzanne and Mike and all those incredible, motivated, dedicated students who are doing such great work in their community and let me play a part in their Mini WE Day!

Share this article:

Page 1 of 6512345...102030...Last »
© Copyright Six String Nation -