St. James' Gerald Harder directs members of the Music Academy choir, assisted by Administrator Kathy Walker

After much planning, preparation and prayer, the Saint James Music Academy has begun sharing the gift of music with children in its downtown neighbourhood.

"There's truly nothing like the sight of students, siblings, and their caregivers pouring into the parish hall to focus the mind and bring to bear the reality of this much-anticipated project," said Gerald Harder, music director at St. James, which is on the Downtown East Side of Vancouver. Most children are from families who can't afford music lessons.

The academy is open for instruction after school two days a week. It uses St. James' crypt, the Sunday School rooms, and the parish hall for classes. Students arrive to a nutritious snack, with food donated by the neighbouring Sunrise Market. Piano, violin, cello, and guitar lessons are currently offered.

On both days, all students finish with choir practice. About 25 students come on Mondays, and 25 on Wednesdays. While half the students each day are receiving lessons on their instruments in groups of five or six, the rest do crafts or their homework.

Teacher Maria Calvert works with members of the Monday piano class

Singing in the academy choir is a requirement, said Kathy Walker, the academy's administrator. Harder directs the choir. Several times a year the children may get to perform for the congregation.

The academy furnishes the instruments. A digital piano and several violins were donated. Other instruments have been rented "at very favourable rates" from Long & McQuade Music.

Harder feels that St. James' rich musical history makes it "a natural." There is a real need in the neighbourhood, one of Vancouver's financially more stressed. "There are needs beyond food and shelter," said Harder. "We recognize the need for music and the arts in our lives."

For Walker, the need was also personal. A mother of five who lives in the neighbourhood, she found it difficult to pay for her own children's' lessons. Lessons for local children at the Strathcona Community Centre have had to be scaled back due to budget considerations.

"The children have been very keen," she said. "The parents are even more keen, actually. And it's really important for the church to reach out to the community and connect with the neighbourhood," she said.

Teachers are professionals, said Walker. They include Benson Benovoy (guitar), Marie Calvert and Jill Samycia (piano), Sarah Jane Westwick (violin), Celia Olson and Cabriona Day (cello), and Ruth Greenaway-Robbins (voice).

Academy guitar teacher Benson Benovoy helps Haven with fingering while Kael watches

The academy was established with grants from the St. James congregation, the London Drugs Foundation, and several generous private donations. A concert by the Union Gospel Choir in October contributed to operating expenses. The academy costs about $50,000 to run during the public school year, and some fundraising will be required annually.