When James Suknundun, 17, found out he was one of six 2020 NUFSICISUM Youth Leadership Award winners he was completely shocked. “I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry,” he told us in an interview earlier this year. 

Though the win came as a shock to James, it certainly didn’t surprise anyone who’d been paying attention to this extraordinary youth leader and the many contributions he’s made to his school’s music department. In his Grade 11 year, when he was nominated for the NUFSICISUM Award, James was involved in several school ensembles, served as Vice President of the music council, tutored younger students in music theory, and was the assistant vocal director for Footloose, the school musical in which he also performed the lead role.

Although James has come to be known as the heart and soul of his school’s music department, he wasn’t always the dedicated music student he is now. He began learning bass guitar in Grade 6, and played Simba in The Lion King at his middle school the following year, but initially didn’t have much of an interest in continuing with music in high school. At least, not until he met his music teacher, Ms. Runhart.

When James began high school, Ms. Runhart encouraged him to join the music program, which he did on a less than dedicated level. But as Ms. Runhart continued to offer him more and more opportunities to get involved, James decided to take a chance. “I was not throwing away my shot,” said James, paraphrasing a lyric from Hamilton, one of his favourite musicals. From then on his commitment to the music program grew, and James transformed into the leader that he is now.

For James, leadership means taking initiative to help the people around you, and one of the people he’s helped the most is his teacher, Ms. Runhart. In the fall of his Grade 11 year, when Ms. Runhart needed to take a medical leave, James stepped in to lead the Concert Band, conducting not only rehearsals, but also one of their concerts, and assisted the supply teacher during classes. Although he’d been preparing for months, under the guidance of his teacher, it was still a big switch moving from the back of the band to being front and centre.

James said this experience made him appreciate how hard Ms. Runhart works, and helped him understand what goes into being a music teacher. Although music education is not the profession he plans to pursue (he’s still weighing his options, but told us he’d like to combine his interests in music, engineering, and technology), he is adamant that all students have access to high quality music programs. He also firmly believes that it’s important for decision makers to see the benefits of music education, and to understand that music can be a real career option.

“If it weren’t for music I wouldn’t be where I am now,” he said. James firmly believes that it’s important for students to explore music, and that exploration is the key to personal growth – something that James is very familiar with. His experiences in music have prepared him to take on new challenges with confidence, like learning to play the double bass. “I’m 5’6” and the double bass is humongous,” he said with a laugh. “It was totally out of my comfort zone.”

James plans to continue challenging himself musically. He’d like to continue learning the six-string guitar and creating his own music, and at the time of our interview he was already in the process of adapting music council activities to suit the new reality of COVID-19. Whether he’ll be able to conduct the Concert Band at his own graduation ceremony as originally planned remains to be seen, but there’s no doubt that James’s future holds many exciting musical opportunities, and that he will continue to use music as a means of uniting, challenging, and inspiring his fellow students.