It defies stereotype that a library would host a teen songwriting contest, but that’s exactly what the McConnell Library in Sydney did this month. Six young artists were selected to perform in a songwriters circle that was held at the Library in June 16. The laid-back acoustic show blended in comfortably with the quiet activities of the library.
Included among the six contestants were Kieran Dungey, Danielle Bueno, Taylor Burton, Dennis Nicholson, Vanna White, and Kayla Evans. With a range of themes and styles from happy-go-luck pop to heavy metal-influenced compositions, each songwriter presented something that was compelling in its personal character. Some contestants had as many as eight years of experience on their guitars, some barely twelve months. Whatever level of technical proficiency each had was used to the fullest. Some compositions were more layered in their instrumentation, others made effective use of a limited set of chords and simple melody as a backdrop to rich vocals and highly nuanced lyrics.
Interspersed among the contestants were a number of Cape Breton’s regular performers serving as judges. Mike LeLeivre of Slowcoaster, Adam Burns, and solo acoustic star Steve Fifield were on hand to pick a winner and to perform alongside the youth. What was perhaps most remarkable about the circle was how well the younger songwriters held their own against their judges’ already formidable skills. Each of the judges acknowledged the difficulty in having to choose, and after a lengthy deliberation, they awarded the prize to Taylor Burton’s happy-go-lucky love song “Let’s Talk About Now”. Burton’s prize was the opportunity to spend a day at Sound Park Studio in Coxheath to record a demo.
While, as the judges said, someone had to win, I couldn’t help but think that the bigger prize was to have the contestants’ families present in a show of support. There were parents still wearing work uniforms, grandparents with younger children in tow, and a smattering of best friends who cheered on the occasionally nervous-looking performers. These young artists do benefit from having a community that’s rich in talent and comparatively strong support for the arts, but that can only go so far. Support at home for youth’s interests can make or break their resolve to explore and develop their talents.
Waiting for a comment from judge Mike LeLievre afterwards, he was engrossed in conversation with a young songwriter. The adult accompanying her was clearly ready to go, but rather than playing the role of a toddler tugging at a parent’s arm and whining to go home, he waited patiently as his enthusiastic young charge talked shop with her counterpart. LeLievre’s friendly banter was encouraging and positive, but never patronizing. I’ve encountered many adults who work with youth, and I’ve learned that it’s not difficult to distinguish between those who merely tolerate teenagers in the interest of collecting a paycheque, and those who have genuine respect for their younger counterparts.
Not wanting to interrupt the conversation, I took my cues from the young woman’s guardian and waited off to the side, not sure if I was being inconspicuous but hoping the conversation wouldn’t be cut too short. In exchanging words with LeLievre afterwards, he agreed with my assessment. “That conversation was the most important thing that happened today,” he stated.
The affable musician was firm in stating the need to provide time and attention to youth who wish to explore music as a creative outlet. “You gotta encourage that or it’s just not going to happen,” he said. “The only thing wrong with this is that there should be more of these things. Not like the Canadian Idol stuff which is spiteful, but more encouraging kinds of things where you’re embracing everybody…and helping people understand that they’re not so alone with this big obstacle that is music.” LeLievre was thoroughly impressed with each of the entrants and said that it was only a hint of the talent that exists amongst the area’s youth. “These teenagers, they’re going to embrace things and run with ideas—and the ideas that are presented to them positively, they’re going to do something with,” he enthused.
At the end of the event, I came away not just impressed by some more than decent songwriting, but with a better understanding of the kind of support that helps a person to embrace a hobby and turn it into a passion. In agreeing with LeLievre, I would love to see more of these contests for the younger set in this community.