by Xiaoyu Huang
I have known Bianca Chui for just over a year, and I have known Tobias a similar time. He boasts a slender build; thin, athletic neck and flattened, oblong torso that accompanies Bianca wherever she went. By day, she is an Second Year International Baccalaureate Diploma student at Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School, nestled in suburban south Vancouver far from the lights and sounds of the Downtown core where much of the city’s young leaders in music clamour. By night and on weekends, she works like whirlwind to lead a school-full of student-musicians and shed light on what has been a rapid dilapidation of the local music education scene which borders on the absurd. She has, nevertheless, found time (alongside Tobias) in developing into a formidable jazz musician, performing in stage shows, fundraisers and concerts with characteristic abandon and poise beyond her years.
I met Bianca almost as fortuitously as the way in which we both entered advocacy. We both ran for the position of Co-Chair of Churchill Secondary’s Music Council, at first an innocuous hodgepodge of students who organize concerts and ask for scant donations to cover operating costs. Now and then, we put together a barbecue, and under the smoke from burnt sausages and munching injudiciously on lukewarm buns, the Music Council gossips on Fine Arts Department chatter and bemoan how this concert date is too close or that ensemble sounds funny in rehearsal.
When seismic changes started happening in the public education system that started to wed music education with our surroundings, our roles started to change. Bianca was one of the masterminds of Silent Orchestra: A Final Protest Against Cuts to Elementary Band and Strings. It was in the early days of Year One exit exams when the Vancouver School Board (VSB), having inherited a $21-million deficit from the BC Liberals provincial administration, decided to cut a $400,000 elementary band and strings programme that delivers to thousands of children in public elementary schools across the city introductory instruction on stringed, wind, and percussion instruments. The team decided to put the protest right on the front lawn property of the School Board, and Bianca fervently contacted media outlet after media outlet, managing a vast social network system to promote the event within a week, working countless hours through sickness and with impending academic deadlines. On the day of the event, the CBC, the Georgia Strait, OMNI Television, and five other media outlets crowded what was once a cavernous School Board lawn. Children from our subsidiary elementary schools showed up with their instruments (but not sounding them), most privy to what was to become of their music programs in the school year to come. When Maestro Bramwell Tovey (Vancouver Symphony Orchestra), who had just led the New York Philharmonic the week previous, took to the microphone in a rousing speech to a crowd of two hundreds, Bianca’s work reached fruition.
The protest was not the first time that Bianca had taken initiative in this domain. One month earlier, she spoke to a gathering of hundreds headlined by Vancouver’s nine School Board Trustees, at Vancouver’s first Public Budget Consultation Meeting, about the merits of keeping the elementary music programs despite the economic challenges. Under provincial law, should they not balance the drastically reduced budget (music education was among the first to be removed in order to for that to happen), the nine Trustees could be fired. The four conservative Non-Partisan Association trustees were supportive of the austerity measures and by consequence the elementary music programme, and the five remaining, split between the far-left Green and the centre-left Vision Vancouver slate, faced scrutiny for their support of not approving the budget and therefore dissolving the elected School Board. Bianca’s position is clear: elementary music is a keystone of the K-12 music education curriculum. The seven District Music Specialists, who conducted all of the District’s elementary ensembles, could not be replaced with classroom teachers with piecemeal musical understanding. “Elementary music education is critical to success at the high-school level; the amount is not too much to reap its benefits.” Aside from raising awareness of the music education conundrum to its now-widespread public notoriety, Bianca also works tirelessly to fund for renovations to Churchill’s auditorium, which is aging beyond suitable use, under Churchill’s Community Auditorium Technology Upgrade Project (CATUP) pilot project. She – and Tobias – have shared countless concerts there with Churchill’s perennially successful Jazz Ensembles, which in their own right have reaped thousands of dollars in performance donations towards keeping this vital piece of performance venue and community gathering-place alive. Bianca has been instrumental in helping this school meet a third of the $45,000 amount necessary to renovate the suitable equipment, while the school makes do as it continues to gather resources, already fortunate to be where it is now.
Bianca would not tell you about these things. She is an effervescent orb of alacrity with a penchant for micro-management and almost bullish confidence, but she is most herself when she puts the politicking aside and plays. She has been in Churchill Secondary’s Senior Jazz Band for two years, playing in senior jazz festivals across the district and, during the spring this year, on a two-week romp of performances and clinics in central Cuba. Tobias has been a faithful friend. There is a casual mischief when Bianca has her trombone in hand that recalls little of her practiced poise in front of a line producer or her quiet assurance as she presented to civic officials. Rather – a wayward glissando, a spirited jibe, a funny chromatic line that the conductor never explicitly let her do – jazz is where Bianca indulges these instincts that so betray the massive contributions she has made to make even her own ensemble possible. One day, I met her coming gleefully to rehearsal with trombone in hand. “I picked Tobias up from the shop,” she says. The trombone is back again, and so is Bianca.