YELLOW DOG MUSIC, founded in 1990 and originally situated in Midtown Leaside’s neighbourhood, is now a completely online studio! Yellow Dog invites students of all ages, from preschoolers to seniors to experience “downtown-style” inventive instruction from working performing/recording artists. Lessons are custom-designed to suit each student’s passions, abilities and natural learning pathways. Besides learning to play and read music, students get access to an exciting opportunity: the chance to document and share audio/video performances of their work, whether rock, pop, jazz, blues, hip hop, classical or show tunes.
IDEAL FOR STUDENTS WHO
– are not inclined to the traditional, conservatory-style lessons
– want the option of learning by ear
– desire a say in their repertoire
– learn differently and do best with attuned, supportive teachers
– have an artistic bent that needs nurturing to express creative musicality
– are teens or young adults eager to collaborate with cool, gigging musicians/composers
– are seniors looking to reignite musical interests or kickstart a new passion
– are busy adults seeking regular or occasional de-stressing jam sessions
– are preschoolers keen about music and looking for one-on-one creative instruction
2022-23 = 33 YEARS OF YELLOW DOG
When Katrina Anderson, a Winnipeg native, moved to Toronto in 1983 to attend York University for her BFA in music (majoring in improvisation), her professor, Casey Sokol, gave her imagination permission to command centre stage—exactly as she’d hoped he would. In fact, Sokol was the sole reason Katrina transferred to York from Brandon University’s classical performance program, a creativity-stifling mismatch for her. The switch came about after a Brandon prof introduced Katrina to John Cage’s modern music. When the prof saw her interest ignite, he was adamant: “You must study with Casey Sokol, who, so far, is the only University professor in Canada who is offering a program specifically for free improvisation.”
What Sokol taught her, in Cage’s genre, not only liberated her from the handcuffs of traditional conservatory-style instruction and learning, but also seeded her dream of founding a different kind of music school. In fact, Katrina says, Sokol’s influence and solid support “changed everything,” in her developing careers as a musician and as a visual artist. From Sokol she learned to shelve preconceived ideas, to sit down without a score, let creativity soar, and just play at the piano, which perfectly matched her imaginative free-form bias towards drawing, painting and living.
Fast forward to 1990. Katrina was a daycare teacher, married to jazz musician, Steve Koven, and was itching to fuse her love of children, education, art and music into one job, one school. Five tots from her workplace followed her into the cramped living room of their one-bedroom apartment to become Yellow Dog’s first students.
Meanwhile, Katrina yearned for a studio space where students could learn the way she had at York—less theory, less scales, less pressure to follow a standard method, no exams, no grading, more expression through improvisation and songwriting, more lifting songs by ear, more storytelling and more art, movement and humour. Best of all, students would enjoy the option of creating multi-track recordings to take home and share with family and friends.
There was no such school in Toronto at that time, no place for students, turned off by conservatory methods, to go if they wanted their creativity turned on. Katrina longed to fill that gap, to fashion a place set apart from all others.
The name, Yellow Dog, would also stand out. It popped into her head “out of the blue” one day when Katrina was stopped at a red light while driving home. The moniker, with its colour and relatable animal image, “sounded right” to her, especially springing up, as it did, so spontaneously.
“Imagination is the most important thing to me, the core of all that I do.”
Additionally, Katrina wanted to create a haven for working musicians, who famously struggle to survive. “It gives me such satisfaction knowing that I’ve made a place where fellow creative souls can make part of their living doing what they love.” Over the years, Yellow Dog has hired many creative souls, and these days usually has a crew of seven on staff. Some of the previous teachers have gone on to create their own studios, using Yellow Dog’s approach, but altered by their own imaginative twists.
Thanks to word of mouth, new students kept coming. In 1991, the living-room school moved into a home in the Moore Park area, and eventually into its current premises in 1998. In 2004, Katrina, by then divorced, became the sole proprietor and incorporated Yellow Dog, which was becoming quite a phenomenon. The school’s exclusive approach–strongly encouraging students to compose, lift by ear, improvise, jam and record original songs–was attracting lots of attention. Its unique garage band program added to the buzz and brought the press, leading to multiple media stories. The coverage, in turn, generated more buzz—and an ever-increasing flow of new students.
What do parents think about Yellow Dog’s individually-customized teaching slant? “Thank heavens I found you! I had music lessons as a kid, and I hated them.” That, says Katrina, is what she and her team of teachers routinely hear from parents after they witness their children having fun, learning—and loving—music lessons.
Yellow Dog excels at exciting eager–and even more lackadaisical or reluctant—music students, who are neurotypical. But, what about students with special needs, who learn differently, often very differently, and can come with significant behavioural challenges? In fact, many such comers, especially those diagnosed with ADHD or Asperger’s Syndrome, find their way to Yellow Dog. Teachers, accustomed to creatively accommodating them, eagerly do so. If, for example, a disorganized, easily distracted student has trouble focusing on a single instrument, instruments get switched up. If, by contrast, a student is allergic to change, teachers keep it simple, reduce choices. Or, suppose a student is having a bad day, perhaps arrives angry, student and teacher might together, eyes closed, beat hand drums on the floor. When students have trouble making eye contact—no problem, no pressure, teachers look aside.
Yellow Dog teachers are all about unleashing creativity and passion in individuals while respecting their learning quirks and needs.
Though the school launched giving lessons to little kids, it has morphed into a destination for keeners of all ages—from three years old to, let’s say, vintage! While tweens and teens now comprise most of the approximately 100 students, seniors are the newest comers, and Katrina is eager to tap into the 70+ pool. Why? Because learning music, or re-igniting a long-ago passion, plays a vital role in maintaining brain health, she says.
Yellow Dog is also noticing other new trends, especially in busy, stressed-out professionals—doctors, above all—craving jamming sessions with professional musicians. As well, it’s more usual now for parents of students, when they see their kids motivated and progressing–and in some cases sticking with their studies for many years–to sign up for their own sessions in the same time slot.
What future innovations does Katrina hope to kick start in her unorthodox music school? For one, expanding the reimagined virtual studio. Her goal: to serve anyone, anywhere on the globe, and to specifically reach out to traumatized kids and disadvantaged youth living in remote locations without access to lessons. She imagines Yellow Dog teachers guiding these young people online in writing songs—no instruments necessary–that tell their stories and express their complex, anguished feelings. Perhaps these students will have support from an organization where they live, or be connected to a community centre—a structure to facilitate the virtual collaborative work.
Yellow Dog started with a one-of-a-kind, think-outside-the-box bent. Throughout 31 years, Katrina has often been reminded that she had the right idea: “Sometimes students get back in touch. They tell me that Yellow Dog not only taught them music, but that we shaped how they think, who they are and how they live.” Music to her ears.