Getting to Know You: The StfX Music Department

This article, written by Philip Girvan, originally appeared in the Fall 2016 edition of The Beacon.

StFX jazz students performing at Immaculata Hall; photo credit Devon Chisholm

The headline at the top of the “About” section of the StFX website informs visitors that “StFX is known for the quality of our teaching, small class sizes creating an intimate and collaborative learning environment, and our valuable hands-on learning and research opportunities for undergraduates”. The StFX Music Department is an example of these priorities in practice.

Despite a relative short history (1978: Jazz Diploma established; 1983: Bachelor of Arts Honours Jazz degree, the first four-year jazz degree in Canada, established; 1990: Bachelor of Music Honours jazz degree established), the many awards, grants, scholarships, publications, record deals, invitations to perform at showcased concerts, and other recognitions received by StFX Music faculty, graduates, and students speak to the quality of the instruction, as well as the dedication and talent of those involved.

Alumni credit StFX professors and instructors with helping them to develop solid practice habits, to prepare for music careers, to send their compositions to publishing houses, and helping prepare them for graduate studies. Breagh MacKinnon, an accomplished performing and recording artist based in Halifax, is a graduate of the Jazz Studies, Bachelor of Music Studies (Honours) 2014. MacKinnon informed The Beacon that the “four years spent at StFX allowed me to develop and hone skills in performance, composing and arranging, that I now use on a day to day basis”. MacKinnon joins other Alumni in emphasizing the intimacy of the Jazz Studies program, stating that, “the small class sizes, and one on one attention from the professors gave me the ability to focus on the areas that I was interested in”. Jake Hanlon, who graduated with a Bachelor of Music, and is now teaching faculty at StFX, noted: “the biggest strength that we have, as I experienced it from both ends, is the one on one instruction”.

StFX Jazz Faculty member Kevin Brunkhorst and students performing at Holland College; photo submitted by Greg Syke

In addition to small classes and one on one instruction, graduates emphasize the department’s camaraderie and collegial atmosphere. Greg Sykes, a 2016 graduate, told The Beacon that “[w]hile the instructors are fantastic, the most I learned in the music program was working with other musicians who were better than me…spending long hours not just playing music but discussing theoretical aspects of music, analyzing music, [and] listening music together”. Hanlon notes that this sense of community and intimacy is a huge draw:

Go to StFX, you’re going to be surrounded by other tenor saxophonists, and alto saxophonists, and pianists and bassists and singers and drummers and guitarists, and they’re listening to the same music you are and you’re around them all day. And that sense of community is like pouring gasoline onto a fire and the students who are super passionate about it, they’re here in the morning and they’re at night, and they’re in the listening library checking out music and they’re coming here knocking on doors on they’re asking profs questions and they’re excited every semester when they have a new class. You can’t have that anywhere else.

Those who spoke to The Beacon emphasized that, in addition to being close, the community is extremely welcoming. Upon arriving at StFX, Sykes recalled meeting:

like-minded individuals both passionate about music and hav[ing] this drive to work hard, support each other, share information…when [he] first got here [he] would go to the third floor of Gilmora, which is all practice rooms [and meet] a small tight-knit group of musicians who were very keen on engaging with the new group of students. Once that started…you’re constantly talking about ideas; you’re constantly trying to push each other to be the best musician and the best student that you can be. That was the kind of atmosphere I jumped into at StFX.

Other alumni testimonials can be found on the Music Department’s StFX Music Alumni webpage. The Events page notes upcoming performances.