One of the last things Olivia Brayley Quackenbush ever thought she would do was play French horn in a Finnish Orchestra.
The only Canadian, Quackenbush didn’t speak Finnish and couldn’t understand what the instructor was saying when they weren’t playing.
But when the conductor lifted his hands and the musicians turned their attention to the music in front of them, the language barrier disappeared.
“It just hit me… I’m doing it, I’m doing what I trained to do and I’m doing it in an orchestra where I have no idea what they’re saying, but we’re all speaking the same language. The world is small.”
The idea of music as a universal language isn’t original to Quackenbush but it’s something she said is important. And as artist in residence at the University of New Brunswick, promoting this idea has been a big part of her work.
“This residency has been a really great thing for me because it allows me to do three aspects of art that I love—performing, education and focusing on education of younger students, and arts advocacy,” she said. “Those three things put together are the things I love to do more than anything.”
Quackenbush said art education has become increasingly important, especially over the last few years when cuts to arts and culture funding has become the norm. While Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 2008 announcement that the federal government would cut $45 million in funding for the arts made headlines and faced a great deal of opposition from the arts community, the worst part of the cuts has been the impact on artistic culture in smaller communities.
“There have been tax rebates, tax breaks for families of music students but I’m finding that it’s just not enough,” she said. “I came from Fredericton High School. I came from that program where there were like 2 full bands. I was in a brass quintet, there was so much going on musically and wonderful, dedicated music teachers. What we’ve seen over the years is now … they’re down to one small band. It’s insane.”
“If you start cutting the arts, if that is happening, it just becomes a dead society. The arts and culture really fuel a society and they fuel economy.”
To bring attention to this message, Quackenbush has been spending much of her time at UNB teaching—both private lessons and in larger settings. She didn’t plan on becoming a teacher, but said some of her most rewarding experiences came about as the result of teaching.
“I love that grassroots feel, teaching and seeing the joy on a child’s face and seeing them grasp a concept and truly enjoy what they’re doing,” she said.
Most important, Quackenbush said her teaching experiences helped her come to a new understanding of the world around her. Like many university students majoring in music, she wanted simply to play in an orchestra someday. Being a soloist, a chamber musician and a teacher never crossed her mind.
But even though things didn’t turn out as planned, Quackenbush feels good about where she’s at today.
“Life doesn’t happen in concert halls,” she said. “That’s not where life is. Life is down here, where we all live.”