An award-winning conductor and accomplished violinist who has lived in the Crown Point hub for more than 30 years, Ilona Spleit believes in the power of music to transform lives.
By Shiona Mackenzie
Published September 02, 2014
"Joy is what you do for others," says Ilona Spleit. "Joy is that feeling you get when you make a difference in someone else's life."
Spleit Strings students (Image Credit: Shiona Mackenzie)
An award-winning conductor and accomplished violinist who has lived in the Crown Point hub for more than 30 years, Spleit believes in the power of music to transform lives. She has been teaching young people to play stringed instruments, including cello, bass and viola, for more than 35 years, 33 with the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, and has no intention of stopping.
Many of her graduates, such as Cecilia Chang, a fellow Crown Point resident who plays violin with the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra, enjoy illustrious music careers today.
Spleit started her own studio a few years ago offering affordable private and group lessons and lending her students instruments to help reduce the barriers to getting started. Her current classes comprise budding musicians ages four through 60-something and when they practice together at Ryerson United Church on Main Street East, their enthusiasm is apparent in the beautiful music they make.
"I love the concept of the community orchestra," Spleit says. "We really involve the families. There are even parents learning alongside their kids and they all have a lot of fun. My students participate in local festivals, like Art Crawl and 7 Sundays in Gage Park; they perform in local venues such as schools, churches, and hospitals; and they enter competitions. Our Hamilton East Chamber Ensemble was nominated to the provincial level of the Kiwanis Music Festival of Greater Toronto recently and won."
Her students are taught in a loving environment, and, evidently, they are taught very well.
Spleit's orchestra has all ages happily performing together and learning from one another. "We also have fun social activities like bowling parties, and the students interact and get along so well. Volunteerism is a huge part of what we do. The older kids enjoy helping the younger ones. As role models, they are expected to show up to class regularly, on time, dressed appropriately."
Spleit encourages very young children especially to take music lessons, in part, she says, because scientific research shows that learning to play a stringed instrument has a positive effect on brain development. "I've developed a program involving notes in colour and I teach all genres of music." She says that while many students initially want to play popular music, they often end up preferring complex classical pieces which present more of a challenge.
Over the years, Spleit also has witnessed how learning to play an instrument can help turn things around for young people who are experiencing personal problems. "As the German author Berthold Auerbach once said, 'Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.' In learning strings, you learn about life," Spleit observes.
"You learn problem-solving, you learn discipline; success comes from effort and you can enjoy the satisfaction of doing something well. You learn to take responsibility for yourself and to collaborate with others. "
Music is a powerful force in the life of east Hamiltonian Carissa Kimbell, who moved to Toronto after graduating from the Applied Music program at Mohawk College.
Carissa Kimbell, vocalist (Image Credit: Jay Lolli)
Her passion is singing and songwriting and, while holding down a day job at a bank, she is determined to pursue a career as a singer, performing at weddings, corporate events and some of the best musical hot spots in the GTA.
Kimbell's undeniable talent propelled her into the top 10 of the regional finals of CBC Music and CBC Radio One's Searchlight Competition early this year, with her original song, Shoot Me Down.
Surprisingly, Kimbell's journey to this achievement was a long and winding one, with short-lived attempts to play guitar and electric organ punctuated by happy moments singing at family gatherings. "I always loved singing, but in my teens, it was hard for me to sing in front of others," says Kimbell.
"I was a normally outgoing kid until I hit the stage, and then I was so nervous that I couldn't sing very well, despite practicing a lot. In high school, my two main interests were music and theatre, so I joined the drama club and performed in musicals and cabaret nights, all the while struggling with quite debilitating stage fright."
Although nervousness was thwarting her ability to express herself in song, Kimbell persisted in trying to overcome it and, now in her twenties, she is learning to manage her anxiety. "Until last year, my relationship with music wasn't as positive as I wanted it to be, but now I'm beginning to taste how good it is to be in the present, making music." She especially loves to sing Skylark, Bewitched, and No Moon At All.
Kimbell admits that developing a career as a vocalist and learning to be comfortable sharing her gift with others is not an easy path, but one worth following. Her appearance with the Hamilton-based Jazz Connection Big Band at the 26th annual Beaches International Jazz Festival in Toronto is proof that her efforts are yielding results - according to a review, Kimbell stole the show.
This should not come as a surprise, considering she has performed with legendary guitarist, Larry Carlton, among many other high-profile Toronto entertainers.
"Music is not all fun and games, but experience has shown me how important it is to go all out for something you love," Kimbell concludes. "I can truly appreciate that today."
Music can be transformative for musicians and audience alike, touching hearts and minds across generations. Who's to say what changes the current groundswell of the Hamilton arts scene may portend?
A version of this article was published in The Point community newspaper.
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