May 31, 2022

Class of 2022: Jason Valleau’s long and winding road back to the classroom

Change in direction furnishes Werklund grad with opportunity to build trusting relationships and respectfully teach Indigenous music in Alberta classrooms
Jason Valleau hopes to use music to foster meaningful and long-lasting relationships between communities. Photo courtesy of Jason Valleau
Jason Valleau hopes to use music to foster meaningful and long-lasting relationships between communities. Courtesy Jason Valleau

A funny thing happened to Jason Valleau on the way to his teaching degree. After completing a Bachelor of Music at the University of Calgary in 1996, he intended to immediately pursue his teaching certification, but a slight detour interrupted those plans.

“I was horribly distracted by the upright bass for 25 years. I fell badly into playing professionally wonderfully and badly,” says Valleau.

Over the course of those two-and-a-half decades, Valleau, now 48, toured North America, Europe, Argentina and Brazil, playing every type of music from rock, folk, funk and fusion to bossa nova, mariachi and jazz. As well, in partnership with his spouse and his family, he founded the Mountain View Music Fest and opened The Café Radio, a small bistro and live music venue.

Now graduating again from UCalgary, this time with his belated Bachelor of Education degree as part of the Class of 2022, Valleau views the breadth of life experiences he brings to the classroom as a potential boon to his students.

“I don't know if 20 years ago I would have been as effective in the classroom as I have the potential to be now," he says. "My travels, performance experiences and life lessons are how I will make meaningful connections with students. They will be a way for me to offer advice and organic insight on things that they might not learn from a textbook or online.”

During his time at the Werklund School of Education, Valleau garnered a Program for Undergraduate Research Experience (PURE) award that allowed him to explore opportunities for teaching Indigenous music in Alberta schools. Valleau quickly realized the value of his international experiences as he came to understand that this was a complex and sensitive undertaking.

Valleau shares how he met this challenge through a creative approach that helped him build trusting relationships with the communities in which he was working.

What was the aim of your PURE project?

The initial purpose was to create lesson plans respecting the Stoney Nakoda and Tsuut’ina Nation powwow drumming and singing to be taught in Indigenous and non-Indigenous high school music classes.

Why do you care? What drives your love of sharing and teaching music?

Music has it all. It is an exact, specific science of acoustics, frequency, amplitude, pitch and patterns written and communicated on a graph. It is a deep mathematical understanding of fractions and subdivision with a profound physical and intellectual understanding of time. It is a foreign and universal language that reflects history and evokes a pensive and emotional response. When combined with lyrics, music is poetry with literary devices and a vessel for meaningful storytelling. Music can have a psychological effect; it can contribute to balancing our mental wellness and can help keep us focused. Music can also be a study in business with endless career opportunities in an ever-expanding industry. But, above all, music is art.

What was your starting point?

I had an idea to take an experience from my past, a collaboration I did with a man named Desi Rider, and do a little more research through my time at Werklund. He's a musician from Stoney Nakoda and we got together at the National Music Centre to put on a show that fused some of his original traditional-sounding music with jazz chords.

For me, it was a springboard into: OK, how can a non-Indigenous educator approach this music in a way to share it with not only youth and younger people, but other musicians? This was really a challenge because that line between appropriation and appreciation is front and centre.

Describe your biggest obstacle.

Through the help of my PURE supervisor, Dr. Patricia Danyluk, I was able to experience online classes with students from a Tsuut’ina school. I thought I was going to go into this environment and talk about Desi’s music and powwow music, but didn't feel comfortable. 

How did you resolve this issue?

With any new culture that you experience you must wait for and earn  trust. I realized I needed to step away from that music towards pop music and public-domain music.

Whereas powwow traditional drumming and music is not commercially accessible, there's where the protection is and there's where the caution should be. But I think that if you are able to stream hip-hop music on Spotify for a measly $9.99 a month, and as much as you can consume, I believe this becomes public domain in some way.

The students suggested the craziest music. It was Spice Girls and Red Hot Chili Peppers. I thought this was great. I played that line in the ‘90s on the bass, so I can talk about that. I got them to put headphones on and we went through second by second and dissected the music. This was a wonderful experience that helped build that trust and that relationship.

At a second practicum in Garden River with the Little Red River Cree Nation, it was the same thing. I had five high school students and we started in the public-domain pop music lobby. My next step was: Here are the Northern Cree Singers and here they are on Spotify, and this is a song called Facebook Drama, and it's an amazing song.

So, I feel that I developed trust so that we could put the song on and they could hear me analyze that music and talk fondly about that music, as I do Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Spice Girls.

What do you hope the students took away from the experience?

I hope the students at my practicum are able to take away with them as much as I am taking away with me. I hope my students were able feel some form of support and encouragement from me. I hope they were able to see that there is more than one way of doing things, and that you have to find the way that suits you the best. I hope that they experienced new music and ideas that inspire them to make their own experiences in different ways.

What might you apply from your PURE research and practicum experience in your new position as music teacher at Calgary Academy?

Maybe through music I can help foster relationships between communities that are meaningful and long lasting. Maybe I can help create musical experiences with the students of Calgary Academy where we can move past the line between appreciation and appropriation and enter the realm of pure celebration.

Sister Gloria School Christmas Concert 2021

Sister Gloria School Christmas Concert 2021

Video courtesy of Jason Valleau

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