L'Ensemble de violoncelles de Montréal shows how children can fall in love with cello

Montreal musicians and OSM cellists volunteer their time to teach children because music training is “essentially off-limits financially to a lot of families.”

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Musical notes slip through the edges of doors and cracked-open windows, sweeping onto the walkway of the N.D.G. church and toward the sidewalk.

Inside, there are around 30 children of various ages with cellos of various sizes. They are in the foyer and nursery and basement of the Unitarian Church of Montreal, and there in the sanctuary, facing a stage where children practise for an audience of parents and empty chairs, is a little girl in pink polka-dot pyjamas holding a child-size cello that is nearly as big as her. She’s Eleanor, and she’s been on the periphery of l’Ensemble de violoncelles de Montréal since she was four months old.

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Eleanor’s parents, Orchestre symphonique de Montréal cellist Geneviève Guimond and fellow musician Josh Fink, are two of the founders of l’Ensemble, an intensive music program designed for families who want music to be a bigger part of their lives. Each child in the program is given a scholarship and use of a cello.

“There’s been a good number of families who didn’t know what a cello was before coming in,” Fink says, and that’s exactly who they are reaching out to. “Ideally, we’re looking for kids who are starting from scratch and have had no musical training.”

Like eight-year-old Amaka, who auditioned four years ago.

“I didn’t even realize she was musically inclined,” says her mother, Joan Idaboh. “She likes to sing, but that’s as far as it went. I don’t know what they saw, but they saw her potential.”

“Amaka has one of the most amazing ears I’ve encountered in a little kid,” Guimond says.

Sometimes either Guimond or Gary Russell, a retired OSM cellist and l’Ensemble co-founder, will hear Amaka playing and say, “We never taught you that. Where’s it coming from?”

“And she’ll say, ‘Well, I heard you playing it.’ And she’ll play it perfectly,” Guimond says.

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Amaka remains composed as she shrugs: “I have a good ear.”

Torrence is nine and similarly understates his talents. He has been playing cello for three years and, in a conversation about his love of music, does not mention that he has won prizes and has been invited to do solo performances at the Foyers de la Maison symphonique and BAnQ. Later in the morning, more than a dozen of the children will practise one of Torrence’s original compositions, accompanied by l’Ensemble’s fourth founder, former OSM pianist Sandra Hunt.

“When you compose, the fun thing is that you can just let go creatively and write whatever you want and play what you have to,” Torrence says. “You can let yourself go. Sometimes I just find ideas when I’m playing.”

Children play cello on a stage as parents watch.
Kids take part in cello class at the Unitarian Church of Montreal. Photo by Pierre Obendrauf /Montreal Gazette

“The entire purpose behind this is that music is so enriching, but it’s expensive,” Guimond says. “It’s essentially off-limits financially to a lot of families. For my family growing up, it was a big sacrifice. It wasn’t something that was easy to do. … We pay a very modest fee for this space. It has essentially been a gift that gave us the stability to launch.”

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In the lower levels of the church, students are teaching students.

Dior, who is 12 and has been playing for almost a year, is teaching nine-year-old Andy in an office. In the children’s chapel, Malek and Jayden are teamed up, as are four or five other pairs of kids. Next to the nursery, Emmanuel Marquis-Pelletier is taking a break before his trainees return.

Emmanuel, 17, is a student at the Conservatoire de musique de Montréal and has been playing cello for eight years. He accepted the invitation to teach at l’Ensemble “to help children fall in love with the cello, because I’m in love with it.”

“I played violin for two years, but the cello — the sound fascinated me. What they say about the cello is that it’s the closest sound to the human voice because the register can go super high up and super low.” He effortlessly plays a few bars, as younger children peep into the room to see what he’s up to. “With music, there is a bond that forms. They have a lot of energy compared with me, so it’s very fun. I’m always impressed by them.”

Emmanuel will remain at the conservatory after graduation, entering its CEGEP program. After that, “with music, sometimes you don’t know. I might have to leave Montreal. I’ll see where the future is.”

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All of the teachers volunteer their time; the money for administrative work, instruments and the space comes from grants and private donations.

Guimond pauses to answer a question from a young girl who is looking for one of her friends. Guimond met the girl’s mother, a Ukrainian refugee, in a park about a year ago. “I was like, ‘This isn’t how we do admissions, but if you’re interested, it’s a new community.’ … Her daughter has a perfect ear, excellent rhythm. It was clear that she is so musical. She’s been with us since they arrived in Canada.”

Guimond estimates that among the roughly 30 students, at least 10 countries are represented. In addition to cello, the children are teaching each other languages and the parents are making friends and supporting each other.

“The friends I still have from my youth are the ones I played cello with,” Guimond says. “It forms a very lasting bond.”

L’Ensemble de violoncelles de Montréal has rolling admissions. The group is launching four albums in 2024. More information is available at cellomontreal.ca.

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