In Tune

Teacher George Nicholson reflects on how music can open new worlds

Over the past nine years, music and orchestra have been among the most sought-after programs at the International School of the Sacred Heart, in Hiroo, Tokyo, thanks to Canadian George Nicholson.

As the music teacher and orchestra conductor at the girls’ school, he has created an unparalleled music environment based on skills gained as a student at the Toronto School of the Arts and the University of Toronto and his subsequent experience teaching at the United Nations International School in New York, the American Community School in Beirut, and in Costa Rica.

What brought you to Tokyo?

It was an affair of the heart — I met the woman who is now my wife at a teaching conference in London. I came over to teach at Sacred Heart [where she taught] for a year, ended up really enjoying it and decided to resign from my teaching position at the United Nations school in New York to also become a teacher at Sacred Heart.

What is your music background?

I’ve been playing French horn, piano and guitar ever since I was a little kid.

Who is your favourite composer?

I love Leonard Bernstein [1918–90]. He was a composer and a conductor who never felt like he was good enough for the world of a serious musician. In some way, I feel a little bit the same way — I am always working to dig a little deeper and expand my horizons. I think the level of ability of a lot of the kids at Sacred Heart makes me want to do well for them, choose the best music and give them the best experience that I can.

How has the music program changed since you arrived?

The orchestra gradually grew from 35 or 40 to almost 80, but my involvement with it and enjoyment of it grew to become my favourite part of being a musician. Just recently, I’ve made the decision to reduce the number of people [in the orchestra] and try to increase the level. I don’t like the idea of having to cut anybody out, but I want it to be something that people feel proud of being a part of.

The level of ability of a lot of the kids at Sacred Heart makes me want to do well for them, choose the best music and give them
the best experience that I can.

Do students continue their involvement with music after graduating?

Yes. One student, for example, got into the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in the United States. Another is concertmaster of a Rachmaninoff concert performed by a conglomeration of the top six university orchestras in Tokyo.

Have you noticed any differences between Canada and Japan when it comes to learning music?

Music is respected and valued in Canada, but not really more so than sports or doing well in school. A lot of kids grow up being generalists. In Japan, what I found working at Sacred Heart is that there is a considerably higher level of respect for music making. There is a great emphasis on having one skill and really honing it, fine-tuning it, and teachers do like that.

What do you hope students get out of studying music with you?

I hope that they develop aesthetic sensitivity and respond to music in a deeper way, and in doing so deepen their experience of life. When you listen to music from another culture, you gain a deeper understanding of the life of those people. Folk music has this wonderful quality of reflecting the character and values of the people who created it, so it’s a modern window into what is important to these people.

I want them to be able to feel that with an instrument, they can take it into a community orchestra, university orchestra or choir and have it really be a part of the rest of their life. To me, the value is that it’s something you can leave school with and continue doing.

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