Closer to the Heart III a fundraiser for the Regent Park School of Music, at Club 279 (279 Yonge, above the Hard Rock Café), tonight (Thursday, February 26), 7:30 pm doors. $25, $20 advance at the Hard Rock Café retail store. 416-362-3636. Non-attendees can make a donation by calling 416-364-8900. Rating: NNNNN
When eight-year-old ramminie Perera comes out of her piano lesson at the Regent Park School of Music, I attempt to engage her in conversation. "Do you like to play the piano?" I ask. The girl moves closer to her mother and eyes me with suspicion. There's one of those uncomfortable silences while I smile my best "Look! I'm a nice grown-up! Nothing to be afraid of!" smile. Finally, she says, "Yeah," clearly not fooled for a second.
Only marginally less bashful is nine-year-old Tony Giang, who tells me his favourite song to play is London Bridge and, yes, he does want to be a musician when he grows up even if he did get into piano because "my mom made me."
Tony and Ramminie are two of the 170 students registered at the Regent Park School of Music, a modest three-storey building containing five studios located on Queen East.
Founded in response to budget cuts to music programs in Ontario schools, the RPSM offers lessons in piano, guitar, wind, brass and stringed instruments, percussion and choir to children living in Regent Park. An 80 to 97 per cent subsidy is provided according to need. A half-hour lesson averages $8 but can run as little as $2.
Students are given instruments to take home and practise on, many of which have been donated.
Two per cent of the budget is provided by the Toronto Arts Council, and the rest comes from individual and foundation donations.
In 2003, piano teacher Aleksandra Gajic tells me, the school went through a financial crisis and threatened to shut down, but "we kept teaching for free and eventually we reopened."
Still, the school needs a financial boost, which it will get from Thursday's third annual Closer To The Heart fundraiser at Club 279. Included on the bill are local lights Jason Collett (Broken Social Scene), Bob Egan (Blue Rodeo), Luke Doucet, Danny Michel, Matthew Barber, Jim Bryson, Suzie Ungerleider (Oh Susanna), Damhnait Doyle (Shaye), Jeff Pearce (Moist) and Mia Sheard. Artists will play their favourite Canadian cover songs with a house band. Jaymz Bee hosts.
Sheard, who recently became a mom, will be playing Bryan Adams's Run To You.
This will be the local singer/songwriter's third time playing the show.
"When I went to school, music was the thing that made it worthwhile. Music brought me to this place where I am now," she says of her involvement. "I'm now a musician because of that. Everyone should have the opportunity to have music in their life. It's such a crucial part of an education."
Gajic, building director for the Canadian Opera Company, works at the RPSM for a third of what she normally charges for private lessons. "But this is where I want to be," she says, "- where I can make a difference.
"We have a high percentage of really talented kids compared to the general population," she muses.
One of those talented kids is former student and jazz pianist Thompson Thompson Egbo Egbo, now 20 and currently studying at Humber College. He's also on the benefit slate.
"It was the only way I could take lessons," says Egbo Egbo of his two years at the RPSM and of the Dixon Hall Music School, where he was a student for several years before attending the Regent Park school.
"My family is from Nigeria. I came with my mom when I was four. She's a social worker. My dad came a few years later. He was a doctor, but he couldn't work here. Now he's finally working in the medical profession, but it took 12 years."
Egbo Egbo was five or six when somebody told his mother to put him into piano lessons because "I was too hyper or something like that. I've always enjoyed it, though, so it wasn't a big deal.
"For the most part, it did keep me out of the kind of trouble most kids in the neighbourhood were getting into."
Recently, Egbo Egbo performed for both Prince Charles and Prince Edward and at the Toronto Olympic Bid gala fundraiser. But his biggest thrill was playing for Quincy Jones.
"I performed for Quincy Jones and got to have dinner with him."
Last year's Closer To The Heart funder raised $6,000; this year organizers are aiming for $10,000.
"It costs about $1,000 a year for one student," Gajic explains, "so with $10,000 we can take 10 more."
That'll be good - right now the school has a two-year waiting list.