Can Singing For Love contribute meaningfully to ending the Attawapiskat suicide crisis?

Map of northern Ontario showing Attawapiskat, on the shores of James Bay, 1,054 km northwest of Toronto, and 221 km NW of Moosonee.

Attawapiskat First Nation is a northern indigenous community beset by poverty, lack of support and resources, and a suicide crisis that still hasn’t been adequately addressed. Singing For Love has joined forces with documentarian Jackie Hookimaw and others from the community to raise funding for a musical intervention.

I don’t know if you can hear me
but sometimes I feel so small
I can still hear your laugh perfectly
tell me how did you stay so strong…

—Ali Fontaine ‘I Miss You’ (2016)
Anishinaabe singer/songwriter

We’ve drafted a curriculum for teens that deviates slightly from our signature ukulele program in content, but not in focus or intent. The educational philosophy of Singing For Love is based on the premise that children who are provided tools to express their emotions and a safe, supportive environment in which to do so, will engage with their hopes and those of others to create art that reflects a refreshed positivity, while gaining self esteem. Upon taking our own crash course in Native American Music we’ve put together a course of study for young people that will explore the significant history and influence of indigenous peoples on the music we all listen to today, expose them to the voices of many up and coming young people who look like them, and hand them the tools to find their own voices. The curriculum will be made available on Singing For Love dot Net, a site we’re launching in the new year, to permit early access to the course and also to make this and future Singing For Love curriculum available to others.

The funds we raise will purchase instruments and subsidize our travel and stay for a week in Attawapiskat, where the course will take place over an intensive 6 days in March of 2018. We’ll also launch a GoFundMe site with additional details of exactly what we need and how your donations will be used to help. But you needn’t wait… all funds raised between now and March 2018 through the donation button at the upper right of this window will be applied to this project.

Proud of Being Canadian

YouTube playlist: two summers of Singing For Love

2017 was a very productive summer at Singing For Love. Although camp and other activities affected attendance, as expected this time of year, the small group of talented kids achieved a great deal. They learned he chords C, CMaj7, Am, Am7, F, Dm, Dm7, D7, G, G7, Em, Em(11), and E7. They learned a Blues in A, using a a sliding “double-stop” (a two-note shape that creates an “interval,” in this case a tritone), and heard that it will eventually allow them to quickly and easily play a Blues in any key. They learned why do re mi isn’t just child’s play, and one of the girls, C.R., then used solfege in order to compose the melody of the song we wrote. They shared the reasons they think people want to write songs, and explored several ways to approach songwriting. Together they chose a theme to write about—Canada’s 150th anniversary—brainstormed “power ideas” that form the main concepts they wanted to communicate about their chosen theme.

The kids drew pictures of their favourite things about Canada, to get more ideas for lyrics. They all contributed ideas and lyrics, which Rosy and Richard helped them to organize into 3 verses that built on the “power ideas” they brainstormed in the first two sessions.

Proud of Being Canadian

In Canada we are very patient
We wait for those in need
We are kind we also feed I’m proud of being Canadian.

In Canada we practice acceptance.
One hundred fifty years!
We kept peace through respect I’m proud. of being Canadian.

In Canada we persevere in freedom. We’re grateful to others.
Our help is strong we sing our song We’re proud of being Canadian.

© 2017 Singing For Love

We talked about Truth and Reconciliation—but perhaps not enough. We know our workshops took place on the traditional territory of the Missisaugas of the New Credit, who never ceded the land. We know Canada has not always lived up to all the ideals the kids chose to be in their song. In keeping with the student-centred guidelines we set for ourselves we felt it isn’t our place to tell the kids what to put in their songs. We only encourage and guide them in shaping their own ideas into music, and acquiring the musical and instrumental skills they need to do their ideas justice. We came to trust that this generation will lead Canada ahead in the direction sharing, caring and daring to build a nation on tolerance, acceptance and peace.

2017 — the kids will sing about what makes them happy

Photo of Rosy and child at the whiteboard
Rosy deconstructs songwriting, while the kids work on constructing their song.
Singing For Love is off to a great start this year. The eager group of kids have all had some previous exposure to the ukulele and/or other instruments, and we’ve been moving at roughly twice the pace of last year.

Most referrals this year came through Nellie’s Shelter, meaning their participation isn’t necessarily related to parental involvement in a PARS program. While we’ve talked about the history of music in helping individuals to overcome sadness, physical oppression and the effects of violence, it’s not with the same personal attachment and focus as last year. As always, we are focusing on dignity, respect for self and others, and personal expression.

On the first day the children told us what makes them happy, and what they’d like to write about. Canada, and Canada’s 150th birthday received the strongest interest. So we asked what makes them happy about Canada… and their answers are the stuff of song!

Photo of whiteboard, kids answers to why people write songs
Why do people write songs?
Photo of the kids writing their ideas on the whiteboard.
The chorus will contain the idea of 150 years of learning and teaching acceptance of others.
We worked on learning the parts of the ukulele, proper hand position and  already 6 chords and a C Major pentatonic scale across 3 strings. This week, Rosy asked, “Why do people write songs?” She then outlined the basic structure of a song, suggesting different roles for the chorus and verse.  The kids then put their ideas  on the whiteboard.

We picked up the ukulele and I showed them where to find the remaining 2 notes of the C major scale. We played them in order and then I asked the kids to make up little motifs that match the syllabic flow of some of the ideas they’d written. Some were willing to show us what they came up with, and they all said they’d work on it more at home. Rosy provided one more example of developing an idea into a lyric with a melody, I harmonized it with 3 of the chords they know and… we played it!

Singing for Love 2017 kicks off Tuesday, June 13

Our first session begins 5:30 pm, Tuesday, June 13, at Counterpoint, Suite 605, 920 Yonge St, with 10 participants. There’s still time to get in on the fun! Use the form on the Contact page to get our attention.

photo of ukulele with all parts labelled and additional chart showing string names and numbers
Parts of the Ukulele
Closeup photo of a ukulele bridge with circled numbers 1—4.
The strings are numbered from the ground up. The numbers are circled so they look different from finger numbers.
Photo of the left hand, palm out, fingers apart. T is for thumb. The other fingers are numbered from the index (1) to the pinky (4).
Fingers numbered 1—4; T for thumb

Supermarket Restaurant and Bar, Saturday April 8

Photo of Richard and Rosy in Kensington Market
Rosy & Richard in Kensington for the El Inmigrante video shoot, Summer 2016

This year’s fundraiser for the Summer 2017 session of SingingForLove will take place Saturday April 8 at Supermarket Restaurant and Bar, 268 Augusta Avenue, in the heart of Kensington Market. Proceeds go to transportation and nutrition for the kids, and to supplement curricular resources.

Photo of Certifiably Strung
Certifiably Strung GovFest 2016 promo shot, featuring the original core members

This year Rosy Cervantes y La Sana Rabia will be joined by very special guests, the ukulele ensemble Certifiably Strung, 1st runners up at last year’s GovFest Battle of the Bands Hard Rock Toronto location!

Also appearing: Evanoff, cantante Mexicano, Rock/Pop/Alternative!

Photo of Rosy Cervantes y La Sana Rabia 2016, with logo
Rosy Cervantes y La Sana Rabia 2016

SingingForLove offers the opportunity for young survivors of domestic violence to be heard, to tell their own stories in their own words, and to use music to find and grow their strength.

Children age 9 to 12 will receive instruction on the ukulele in tandem with a history and inspection of the Blues, write and record two pieces of their own. Guided by discussion and encounters with stories of dignity, respect and self discovery, participants collaborate to produce two story-songs on the theme of their happiest and saddest family memories.

Singing For Love empowers youth

When the Blues artist works a short motif into a solo it’s like making a statement. As a young musician practices to master an instrument, developing a sound and style of their own it’s like finding a voice. The Blues is the story of improvisations on poverty, slavery, oppression and struggle, and the transformation of a people.

The basics of the Blues—5 notes and 3 chords—are relatively simple to grasp, and yet they are seeds that grow and may bear fruit for years to come.

This workshop offers young people the way of music as a path to self knowledge, self worth and self expression. Music works physically through rhythm, emotionally through melody and dynamics, and cognitively through the musical and lyrical structure. And the ukulele… just makes everyone smile!

Recording Day — and the kids were hot!

This Wednesday just past, an excited group of kids came out to Quantum Vox Recording, who graciously donated this time to round out the kids’ experience. Due to such things as camp and vacation a couple kids weren’t able to be there, and they were missed. But as we all know, the show must go on!

Owner/Engineer Jimmy Kiddo was fantastic, answering the kids questions as he helped us get set up, and then set up a variety of microphones in strategic locations. The kids learned how to wear the headphones with the cords over their shoulder so they can hold the ukulele. We experimented with a click track, but in the end we decided just to follow my playing/conducting like we did back at Counterpoint. It was a hot and humid day, and after a couple rehearsals the ceiling fans had to go off. That might have been what motivated the kids to do such a great job! We did both songs in two takes for the backing ukulele tracks. Then we nailed the vocals and the girls overdubbed a call and response-inspired vocal on Sad Song. We all sang It’s a Very Happy Time — and headed onto the front porch for a much deserved ice cream!

Next week we’ll wrap up and play for an audience of parents, caregivers and friends. Where did the summer go?

Singing For Love 2016 – a celebration “…of music and friendship”

That’s how it was described by an observer of several sessions – who happens to be 6 years old. When we asked the kids what they liked best about their summer with ukuleles they told us it was the friendships they made.

In a close second came the snacks! We did our best to keep them healthy. Their sugar fixes came in the form of fruit and juice.

This isn’t snacks, but part of the catering spread from performance day with parents.

Photo of a table filled with food and flowers.
Catering by Santo Pecado

On “teaching” empathy

Image of hand-written note by George Harrison, on music store stationery, dated Feb. 2, 1999.

When? Where? Why?

Singing for Love began as a sidebar, intended to attract greater participation in an existing program supporting survivors of domestic violence, by giving the participants a no-cost solution to child care issues that discouraged many moms’ regular attendance at sessions. Quite by accident, it had come to our attention that kids find ukuleles completely irresistible. I had already leveraged this knowledge to talk to young people in our local public alternative school about Blues history—slavery, Jim Crow, the northward migration, and the roots and emergence of an art form as a people’s response to various forms and levels of violence. With considerable help from their classroom teacher, I drew connections between art, history, language, and the human need for self expression, and wove it into the grade 7/8 Ontario music curriculum (“The Ontario Curriculum: Elementary—The Arts”). Could this strategy be expanded and adapted specifically for children who had experienced violence in their homes? How would that help them?

By creating a sense of normality and stability, teachers can provide a protective barrier from violence and conflict for traumatized children and youth…

(UNHCR/GEM Report, 2016, p. 11 – PDF).

The need to express… it’s personal

My own upbringing was relatively idyllic. I grew up in the USA, in the liberal northeast, with two educated parents, both teachers, in a house, with my own bedroom. We had family time, discussed current events and watched dad’s news before Batman and Robin. I was 9 years old on April 4, 1968, when Dr. Martin Luther King was shot. The summer of ’68 became my political awakening, and I slowly began gaining awareness of my privilege. At some point that year I picked up a guitar.

Among the first songs I learned were protest songs, union songs and songs of social commentary by the likes of Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Johnny Cash, and The Beatles. I wrote two songs when I was 9, with lyrics inspired by hippies and the anti-war movement. My parents moved us abroad and taught us to notice things and to ask questions. The guitar remained my soulmate all through my teens, and my first course of study. Whether I was happy or sad, felt like socializing or staying in my room, the guitar was my first choice to deal with my feelings.

Singing for Love offers the kids in the program a safe situation, with conditions and resources that give them time and tools to explore what they’re feeling, and an opportunity to make of it what they, individually, wish to. They come away with a different sense of themselves. We know we can’t always protect people from violence, or change other people’s behaviour. We hope to provide one more way to deal with their own emotions.

What do kids care about?

Fairness. And pop stars. Not necessarily in that order, nor to the exclusion of many other things, but they’re a safe bet. If we, as educators, believe there’s value in making connections, we soon find our way to student-centred approaches. We learn to focus on understanding what the participants value, and how we might engage them in those areas. We learn to follow through on such understanding and forethought by designing learning situations thick with opportunities to access authentic practitioners and feedback, by providing the catalysts and conduits to assure our own curricular goals, and unleashing the elements required for serendipity and creativity to happen. We don’t try to teach empathy directly; we put kids in situations where they want to discover what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes, and to imagine doing it.

This kind of learning is “messy.” If we’re to push the limits of young people’s creativity I believe we must embrace messy learning. Our job is to orchestrate a “…transition away from messiness and towards focus and commitment” by building scaffolding into the project and, in Singing for Love’s case, the recording and performances they’ll do.

What worked well?

For all of us, a high point of the summer was what we’ve come to call “the Dignity lesson.” It’s based on a similar one I did in the classroom, using mainly photos from the same series by Dana Gluckstein. I chose the photos more carefully, and I tailored the questions. I was certain to include boys and girls that resembled our participants, but also old people, and people very different from any of us. The final picture is always Robert Johnson, to bring it all back to the Blues.

Before starting the slideshow I found out what they already knew about “dignity.” We came up with pride and self-esteem. I changed the technological delivery such that the photos were always full screen. We looked at each one and quickly judges whether they were “Happy or sad?” and “Has dignity? How do you know?” The discussions were good. At one point I needed to make sure everyone understood what “indigenous” is, by letting one of the kids who already knew explain. Then I asked them to remain silent as I cycled through all the photos, and gave explicit instructions to look at the subjects’ eyes and guess what they’re thinking and feeling.

Finally, I showed a contact sheet of all the photos, asked which was their favourite and, why? In this group many chose one the same age and gender as they are … or Robert Johnson! Again the kids enjoyed sharing their opinions and reasoning, and imagining what it would be like to walk in the shoes of their favourite.

Then we picked up the ukuleles and I asked them to handle it with pride, and stand with dignity as they play. We strummed the 12-bar pattern we’ve been working on with much enthusiasm, then I told them to channel all that energy into the lyrics we need to write. The rest of the session was them telling us how to work pride, dignity and self-esteem in with the ideas we’d brainstormed a week earlier into words, and the words into verses. As the expert practitioners we hummed melodies, enforced form and meter when necessary, and modelled other songwriting techniques.


We don’t so much “teach” empathy as “experience” it together. Fairness and pop stars offer many entry points to draw young people into meaningful conversations. Ukuleles are something many kids will work and persist at, with a relatively high success rate. Young people in today’s multicultural classrooms may not be as aware of the Blues as an art form as they were when I was their age, but they can be introduced to it through stories about fighting for fairness to overcome oppression. They’ll listen to music, and exercise critical thinking over its sound, the meaning of lyrics and how it might influence other styles—such as the ones they like and listen to today. They’ll look at the faces of diverse people and consider familiar concepts, such as fairness, from perspectives other than their own. The songwriting process is a design approach to organizing, analyzing, and synthesizing thoughts and emotions. It provides a tool to assist many forms of self-knowing and expression. Educators can leverage these connections to teach a wide variety of topics and curriculum, not just music.


Reference & Further Reading

Gluckstein, Dana (2010) DIGNITY for the Seventh Generation Coming, Amnesty International blog, November 10, 2010.

McCarthy, John; Student-Centered Learning: It Starts With the Teacher, blog post, Sept. 9, 2015, EduTopia

The Ontario Curriculum: Elementary (2009) The Arts []

UNHCR, Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report [UNESCO] (2016) Policy Paper #26, May 2016

Holding the ukulele

The video pauses to allow you to read and look at the pictures. Press Play again to continue.