Guiding Light

Canadian songstress set to enlighten, inspire and instill confidence in Surrey youth with expansion of her after-school music program.

Sarah McLachlan with students at her Vancouver music school.

If you plan to visit the Stanley Park Christmas train this holiday season, don’t be surprised if you spot a familiar face amongst the crowd.

It’s a favourite of Canadian singer/songwriter Sarah McLachlan, who told Indulge last month the train provides the perfect opportunity to spread some holiday cheer.

“I go stand in line every year at the Christmas train and I bring a carol book and I try to get everybody singing,” McLachlan said. “I just love making music with people.”

Her passion for sharing music with others has driven the multiple Grammy- and Juno-award-winner to reach out to kids and teens in Vancouver, through the Sarah McLachlan School of Music.

The program, launched 14 years ago, caters to at-risk or under-served children and youth, providing free, after-school music classes taught by professionals both offsite and at their dedicated facility near Main Street and 7 Avenue. In September, McLachlan announced plans to bring the music program to Surrey early next year.

“I had so many opportunities when I was growing up, not only in the school system, but my parents spent money on private music lessons and private art lessons,” McLachlan,47, said when asked what prompted her to start the school. “That was what saved me growing up. If other kids didn’t have that same opportunity, they’re missing a huge piece, and I wanted to help fill that gap.”

While McLachlan doesn’t teach the students herself – “I don’t have the patience and I don’t have the skill set,” she admitted – there are often opportunities for her to connect with the kids and share creativity. She recalled a photo shoot at the school, when she and several students were posing with instruments, and one boy started playing a little tune on the piano. Asked what he was playing, he responded it was nothing; McLachlan encouraged him to play it again, and began jamming along.

“As we went through the day, we ended up writing a song together,” McLachlan said. “Nobody was afraid to offer their ideas, it was just so open. For me, it means the culture there is working.”

Immersing herself in the “pure art of creating” is something McLachlan said she is lucky enough to be able to do every day.

She’s currently working on a Christmas album, due for release next year, out of the recording studio in her West Vancouver home.

Earlier this year she wrapped up the second leg of her U.S. tour in support of her 2014 album, Shine On, following shows across Canada late last year, and a summer tour across the U.S. prior to that.

With her two daughters – India, 13½ and Taja, 8 – joining her on the road, McLachlan said touring is a much difference experience than it was 27 years ago.

“When I was younger, I’d go out for two years. I certainly can’t do that anymore,” she said, noting tour dates are selected based on her daughters’ school schedules. “It’s a real luxury to be able to plan like that and be able to have them with me. I’m very lucky – I’ve missed very little of anything with them, because of that.”

That’s not to say the balance between music and family comes easy to McLachlan, she concedes. Despite nearly three decades of honing her craft, she still faces challenges when it comes to creating music, perhaps now more than ever.

“It’s never been particularly easy for me to write, and it continues to be that way,” she said. “If anything, it’s worse now, cause I have bigger distractions, therefore it takes me longer.”

When she’s not recording or touring, McLachlan enjoys getting out with her daughters in the town she’s called home since her late teens. Hiking and surfing in the summer, and skating in the winter are among the favourite activities in her household, although she admits some difficulty getting her teenage daughter on board these days.

“She’s either got a friend over half the time or she’s at someone else’s house half the time,” McLachlan laughed.

Well-known for her philanthropic involvement – her hit ballad, Angel, was featured in a famously heart-wrenching ASPCA commercial nearly a decade ago – McLachlan said she strives to do what she can to help organizations in need, from providing auction items and fundraising packages to playing at charity events. Next month McLachlan will perform in Tom Janis’ The American Christmas Carol at New York’s Carnegie Hall, benefitting The Golden Hat Foundation, a charity founded by actress Kate Winslet.

But the music school remains her main passion, and in the 14 years since the program launched she has seen first-hand the impact it has on the lives of students.

“Seeing the little ones come in, first grade, the first time they perform, they’re terrified, they can’t even look at the audience,” McLachlan said. “And then I watch them grow and I watch them graduate and they’ve become valedictorians of their class, and they’re up there speaking eloquently about the song they’ve written.

“The confidence I’ve seen emerge is just incredible.”

The program is tentatively set to launch in three elementary schools in North Surrey next spring, although exact locations have yet to be confirmed. The program was given a financial boost from the City of Surrey in September, who announced a $30,000 commitment in support of the expansion. The school is hoping to raise another $100,000 in donations to help cover start-up costs for the first year; anyone wanting to contribute can do so online at www.sarahschoolofmusic.com

McLachlan said she’s thrilled at the prospect of bringing the school to Surrey, and looks forward to the impact the program will have on not only the students, but the community as a whole, as it helps to shape the next generation of young adults in a “confident, open-minded, community-driven” manner.

“I don’t think we can put a value on that, on how important that is to give young people the realization that they can do anything they put their minds to despite the challenges they face, despite the hardships, despite the setbacks,” she said. “To be able to push through and continue to, not only endure, but to shine.”

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