Reaching out to inner city kids with music

Reaching out to inner city kids with music

October 12, 2017

Karen Burke was a little hesitant when she was approached a year ago to consider being the inaugural fellow for the Helen Carswell Chair in Community Engaged Research in the Arts.

Already producing and teaching several courses, she was carrying a heavy workload with no time for additional responsibilities.

While contemplating an offer of help with some of her courses, Burke was sold on the idea when she learnt that the Regent Park School of Music (RPSM) collaborated with York University on the new research chair in music education.

“I got excited because I have a connection with RPSM,” said Burke. “I know their director (Richard Marsella) and the great work they are doing and my students have volunteered there.”

Last November, professor emeritus Allan Carswell announced a $2 million donation to music education. Part of the funding will support the RPSM collaboration with the Jane & Finch community, benefiting nearly 1,300 young people.

The gift is funding the Helen Carswell Chair in Community Engaged Research in the Arts, a permanent endowed chair position in York University’s School of the Arts, Media, Performance & Design (AMPD).

Burke will facilitate and direct the research partnership in collaboration with a multi-disciplinary advisory working group.

“This group will comprise faculty members and they will work to represent and advise the research proposals that are coming through and make sure that this information gets disseminated to graduate students in the different facilities,” she said. “They will also ensure that we have actually these different perspectives around the table when we are looking at things that do with community arts programming and encouraging development of our young people.”

The chair and committee will encourage research projects from across the university that inform curriculum and programming at RPSM while also making unique contributions to the peer-reviewed academic literature exploring the impact of music programs.

“Part of my mandate is also to ensure that the research that’s developed is going to help strengthen the community arts practices,” said Burke who, with her husband – Oswald -- of 34 years own Burke Music Inc. which a music consulting and publishing company . “I am quite interested in trying to foster a network of community music educators in the Jane & Finch area. That is my end goal.”

In the last few months, Burke has been busy collaborating with the advisory group members and working with the RPSM to build its presence in the Jane & Finch community.

“Over the next four years, RPSM will continue to expand in the Jane & Finch area, opening new avenues through which children can express themselves and develop their talents,” said AMPD interim chair Norma Sue Fisher-Stitt.

Marsella is excited to be working with Burke.

“She has a super human ability to electrify and bring a room to life,” he said. “Our collaboration grows each and every week. We are reaching 250 local kids aged three to 18 and we will remainwith them on their path, walking them right up the steps to York University or the post-secondary education of their choice.”

The product of parents whose ancestors came through the Underground Railroad, Burke’s family tree is full of preachers and musicians. She learnt to play the piano at age four and graduated from McMaster University and the Royal Conservatory of Music

The singer, music director, choral conductor and composer in the field of African-American vocal music is an authority on the history and performance practices of gospel music and has worked with major choral ensembles and organizations, including the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and Youth Choir, the Toronto Choral Society and the Ontario Choral Federation.

Nearly three decades ago, she started the Juno-award winning Toronto Mass Choir that emerged out of the Association of Gospel Music Ministries.

The five-piece band and its 45 members have played in nine countries and recorded 10 albums.

When Burke joined York University in 2005 after being a high school music teacher for 12 years, she created the History of Gospel and Gospel Choir courses which were the first curricular gospel courses offered in Canada and the annual Gospel Inter-Varsity Explosion which provides a showcase for post-secondary gospel choirs in individual and massed choir performances.

She also launched the York University Gospel Choir with 20 students. Now capped at 100 for the school semester, the group performed at the Ontario Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremony last week.

“That’s the biggest stage we have been on so far,” said Burke of the group that performs about five times annually. “With the new school year just started, it would have been difficult to get the members up to an optimal level. So I reached out and got 25 alumni to be part of the 60-member group assembled for the induction gala.”

Born and raised in Brantford, Burke was the only Black student in her elementary and high school classes.

“It was not until I got to McMaster that I had Black friends and that was very exciting for me,” she said.

Burke found comfort in Drake Memorial British Methodist Episcopal (BME) church named after her great grandfather – Samuel Drake -- who was the superintendent of the BME churches.

Her grandmother – Florence Jones – was the organ player for almost four decades.

“That little church was the crucible that helped me stay connected to my roots and heritage,” she pointed out. “If it wasn’t for that church, I wouldn’t have all this wonderful knowledge to share with these students.”

Next month, the Toronto Mass Choir and the Toronto Jazz Orchestra are combining to stage a two-night gospel & jazz family reunion at Daniels Spectrum, 585 Dundas St. E.

The special guest artists are Renee Rowe, Patricia Shirley, Chardon Myers, Terrence Penny and Shawn Byfield.

“We are offering up to 200 complimentary tickets for students in priority neighbourhoods across the Greater Toronto Area and free gospel music workshops ahead of each show,” said Burke. “The young people, between the ages of 12 and 17, will also be provided with free transportation to and from the shows.”

Organizations and individuals interested in the offer can contact Burke at

The shows take place on November 4 and 5, starting at 7 p.m. and the price of admission is $30 in advance and $35 at the door.










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