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Submitted byAndres onThu, 02/29/2024 - 15:39

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Interview with Shawn Earle: CEO of Sistema Toronto

In honour of Black History Month, we've been taking to social media to look back at the exceptional Black musicians who have worked with Sistema Toronto to help guide and inspire our young musicians.⁠

To cap off this month, we sat down with Shawn Earle: an accomplished musician and educator, as well as CEO at Sistema Toronto. Shawn shared his musical journey, his influences, and how he hopes to decolonize music education in his leadership role at Sistema Toronto.

Read full transcript below.

What was your early music experience and what instruments did you play?

So my early music-making experience would have been in school. My school had a music teacher (music specialist) so I took part in classroom music classes. I also sang in choir and we did recorder, and then in my family and in school I started playing clarinet and that’s my main instrument.

What made you want to become a musician?

As a kid I always wanted to be a pilot, and then I discovered music and discovered clarinet and started playing, and it just seemed natural – I really just wanted to be a musician. I remember my clarinet teacher telling me about being able to achieve a doctorate in music and I was like ‘What? You can achieve this level of excellence in music?’ and I was hooked and knew that I wanted to achieve that level and that I wanted to be a musician.

Who were your role models and heroes growing up (musical or otherwise)?

I don’t think I had many musical, or even… people talk about a superstar or that sort of thing that was an icon or a hero for them, mine was very much looking at my family. My father, my mother, my sister, as well too, all of my music teachers were really a big influence to me, so my music teachers, classroom music teachers in elementary school, my band teacher – especially in junior high – was a huge support and someone I really looked up to, and my band teacher, again, when I was in highschool, growing up, I really admired them and looked up to them.

How did you think about your identity as a Black musician when you were younger? How did that change over time?

No one was really talking about it when I was growing up, you know? Identity in music didn’t seem to be as big of a focus as it is now, especially within classical music, so it was never something I considered. All through elementary, junior high, high school, I was always the best musician so it never – I never associated the two, I always just kinda did my thing. Into university, again, it was very focused on learning the repertoire that I was supposed to learn, getting as good as I possibly could at my instrument, and becoming an educator as well too. So all through school, even through my doctorate and education degree, I wasn't really focusing on identity in music. It wasn’t until I left university that it really became a point of focus and a point to consider – both positive and negative. So in my doctorate research I looked at Canadian identity – clarinet music through Canadian identity and multiculturalism. And then after I finished school I looked at [...] clarinet music influenced by non-western cultures, and that’s when it really became… I was considering my identity, other people’s identity, how that meshes with music, how we can kinda break the mold, and express new ideas, new thoughts, new cultures, and new identities through music. Yeah, it wasn’t until much later in life that my identity as a Black person really became a focus in my music, in my art-making, and in my role as an educator.

During Black History Month we make a special effort to teach our students about Black musicians and their lives. How did learning about Black musicians and their work change the way you thought about music? Or about yourself?

The big – and again, this was an epiphany later in life (‘later in life ‘ – I’m not that old!), but later in my career as of right now – there was no Black music really outside of jazz that was taking place, especially in the classical realm where I was working. And questioning why that was didn’t happen till later, and really understanding that it’s institutional. There’s a lot of assumptions that go along with that. And really once I started to dig in, and think about this, and examine it, and listen to the music, it’s like, wait – it’s not a ‘quality’ thing, it’s an ‘access’ thing, it’s an ‘institutionalized challenges’ thing that really held me back from learning about this. And it’s really fantastic now, especially at Sistema where we’re working with young people, and at an early age they’re playing music by all different cultures – in the classical realm and outside – and all different genres, and that they have that exposure that can be reflected through music and understand that they are represented. And there’s quality music out there! We’re talking specifically about Black musicians and Black composers and Black music: there’s quality – very high quality – music out there that’s accessible and that can be played and is, like, dying to be heard.

What are your priorities, methods, and goals when it comes to decolonizing music education?

This is a tough question. I think it’s really trying to create an even playing field and that comes with equity as well too – it’s not just equality ‘making all music equal’ but equity as well too. But really, an even playing field when it comes to exposure to music, to exposure to different genres, different styles, different cultures, and really emphasizing to students that there is no hierarchy, there is no superiority of one music over another, and one music isn’t going to get played over another based on culture or based on tradition. Especially here at Sistema, I really want to reinforce that that’s not a thing we want to do. We want music and identity and culture that comes with that to be experienced and to be appreciated for itself and not an either/or approach. Because often you see that either/or – it’s like either you have classical music or you have jazz music, you have hip-hop or you have rock music, but they can all exist together, they can really all exist together and they can be appreciated for their value – their artistic value, their cultural value – on their own and one doesn’t have to be better than the other. So that’s the goal, that’s the priority, for students to walk away – and even our audience members that come to our concerts and our staff and our teachers – really recognizing that decolonization, especially within music and the arts, comes from our mindset and the value we place on one idea, or one music, or one culture over the other. And here at Sistema we’re trying to really question that: question ideas and traditions that have been long, long, long, long happening and long, long created.

If you could tell a young Shawn Earle one thing that you know now, what would it be?

Broaden your horizons. Do as many things, get as much experience, in as many different areas as possible.  I was very, very focused: clarinet, clarinet, clarinet, clarinet. But really broaden your horizons, whether that’s in music or outside of music, just experiment, try as many different things as possible, and get experience in as many different areas as possible, because later on it’s going to 1) make you a more interesting and well-rounded person and 2) more attractive for work and a better leader and a better musician. 

What advice would you give to a young musician who aspired to someday lead an organization like Sistema Toronto?

I think the same advice that I would give myself: be as well-rounded as possible, study as many different things, read a ton. Read a ton just to be as well-rounded as possible. To lead an organization like Sistema, I would say get involved now. So as early as possible. Whether [it’s that] you’re part of the program, you’re volunteering, or you’re interviewing to become a teacher – because that’s how I started with Sistema, was I was a teacher, and then I was the woodwind coordinator, then all of a sudden I was an administrator, and now I’m the CEO, so you take those steps. And I think in Sistema, especially, it’s nurturing people through those steps. It’s not just “Well do you have the skill to do this? Well you can’t do it” You know? Or “Do you have experience?”  But it’s nurturing, just like we nurture students through our program into excelling in a variety of different areas, staff and Teaching Artists can do a similar sort of thing. Just get involved in the organization and be keen and work hard.

How are the music lessons at Sistema Toronto different than your own early lessons? How do you hope they are similar?

I’ll start with how I hope they're similar. So I hope they’re similar in that (and I know they’re similar) in that they’re nurturing teachers that really care about the young people, their students. In my lessons my teachers really cared about me, they were very nurturing, they challenged me, knew when to challenge me and push me, knew when to back off as well too. And knew when to present an opportunity to me as well too, so I think our teachers are very much that. 

My music lessons were very traditional, so I saw a teacher once a week, we would have an hour lesson, then I would go away with my instrument, practice at home for an hour, and then go back the next week and play with them for an hour one-on-one, and then go back and practice at home. There’s a lot of assumptions that come with that traditional method that I went through: that you have an instrument, you have a place that you can practice, that you’ve had a good lunch or dinner and you’re ready and you’re in a mindset that you can perform, that my family could afford to have a music teacher, that we had transportation to take me to a music teacher. Sistema is different in that it removes all those assumptions and takes away those barriers to access. So our program is directly in the schools, there’s no fee, instruments are already provided, the intensity of our program, (so Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday after school, for two hours) doesn’t require students to take their instruments home to practice. All the practicing happens at Sistema, which I think, as a young person, I would have really loved. I would have practiced a whole lot more because I would have been with my friends. That’s a big difference too: the group music-making that takes place at Sistema, versus when I was younger, practicing and playing by myself. But [if I had] been with my friends, it would have encouraged me to kind of be more active and play more because it’s more fun than doing things on your own. So there’s some big differences but I think the overall similarity is that passion and dedication from Teaching Artists both in my experience and for our students at Sistema.

What challenges have you faced in your role as the CEO of Sistema Toronto? What have you learned?

I think the biggest challenge is recognizing that I don’t have to do everything. I have a fantastic staff, a fantastic team of Teaching Artists, Centre Directors, support staff, and administrative staff that are all experts in their areas. Especially as a musician, you’re used to doing everything yourself: from the marketing, to finding a gig, to the practicing, to buying equipment, all that sort of thing, but learning that I don’t have to do it all – you don’t have to do it all. 

As well, trusting your instincts. As musicians we have great instincts and really relying on those instincts and experience and education to kind of guide me through challenging times, successes, and challenges within the organization.

What I've learned is that I'm always learning. That you never stop learning. Once you stop learning you’re dead, you know? You’re always learning and always being open, having that mindset that you’re always open to learn more and build your knowledge in support of, and really thinking of, that long goal. It’s not so much build[ing] my knowledge and always learning for myself, but learning for the families and the young people of this program. I’m constantly learning so that this program can be better to be able to support our young people and their families.