At Elmira District Secondary School, students and teachers alike are singing the praises of their new music teacher. As he speaks, you can tell Paul McLeod, known around the school simply as Mr. Mac, is more comfortable communicating through music than just chatting. His fingers drum on the table, he mimes a guitar and several times during our conversation, he jumps up to demonstrate on the piano.
Mr. Mac came to EDSS in September as the new head of music and his focus on creativity and performance, in combination with his musical enthusiasm, has caused a stir.
McLeod’s passion for the subject has spread to the students, creating a wider interest in music, said Art Wombwell, head of guidance at EDSS.
“It’s amazing what he’s done with the department.”
McLeod began his school-year by expanding extracurricular activities for music students to see where their passions lie and has discovered a wide interest and musical talent.
“We’ve been running a concert band, a string orchestra, a string quartet and then I started a jazz ensemble,” said McLeod, listing only some of the groups performing at the school and in the community.
McLeod also tried several stage combos, a jazz band and a choir, only the choir didn’t take. He even formed a teacher band, which made its debut performance at the Christmas assembly.
“We had a few trumpets, a sax, a clarinet, a couple of violins and a viola. Our English teacher played electric bass. It was great,” he laughed. “We did this rock song. A number of students said it was a hit.”
When teaching, McLeod places an emphasis on group work and performing, having the students play pop songs as often as not.
“If they enjoy the music they’ll want to play and they’ll play more and the more they play the more they’ll improve,” reasoned McLeod, whose personal experience has proven this to be true.
“When I was a kid, I was taking private piano lessons growing up and I quit. I hated it. I hated practicing, I’d rather be out on the street playing ball hockey, but when I got to high school I started tinkering around on the piano for a bit, for fun, and then I started playing pop music,” McLeod said this triggered an interest in the piano and he taught himself how to play.
Only three years into his teaching career, McLeod obtained a business degree from Ryerson University before going back to teacher’s college while majoring in music.
McLeod uses music to teach more than just notes: he conveys important life skills, like teamwork, confidence and perseverance.
“You learn to function as a team when you play in a band. In our stage combo, for example, if our drummer doesn’t show up, that’s like a hockey team without a goalie,” he said.
Playing together students learn the responsibility of working in a team, but also gain the confidence to stand out.
“With a lot of the groups that I have, I have a lot of soloists,” he said. “For a Grade 9 to stand up, who’s only been playing an instrument for four months, and play a solo, that really builds confidence. So I can see their confidence level has gone up, and up, and up, which is really neat. It’s exciting.”
That same inexperience that can be exciting can also provide McLeod with frustration. He finds students join the music program not expecting the level of work required to learn a new instrument.
“We live in an instant society, coffee in 45 seconds in the microwave and it’s ready, but you can’t microwave a musical skill,” he said. The furrow this brings to his brow disappears quickly when he talks about his students.
“I love the students here. I’m very proud of them. They’re topnotch. You certainly have to maintain that professional relationship – I am their teacher – but a friendship does form as well,” said McLeod, who’s own high school music teacher still calls him every year on his birthday.
“A special bond can take place between a music teacher and their students. It’s not just the relationship that forms in the classroom, but it’s the stuff you’re doing extracurricularly as well. There’s a togetherness that I think is harder for, say, an English teacher to form with their students.”
With a vision for the music department that focuses on incoming students, extracurricular activities and expansion, McLeod plans to be at EDSS for awhile.
“I’m a teacher at heart. That’s what I love to do.”