SASS: Teaching young students in Durham the power of songwriting

Singer-songwriter records with a notebook and pen. Tools and inspiration to write a song. Photo credit: Madison Gulenchyn

Taylor Swift, Joni Mitchell and Ed Sheeran are famous singer-songwriters.

Youth involved in the Durham-based The School Alliance of Student Songwriters (SASS) aren’t household names, but are striking the right note in terms of musical and personal development, the group’s organizers say.

SASS is an entity founded by a group of parents and teachers including, Artemis Chartier, a flute player and Dale Russell, who spent 17 years as the lead guitarist with the Canadian rock band The Guess Who.

Rather than being one single school, as the name suggests, SASS is a program for young writers. It serves as a network of songwriting clubs at Durham District School Board (DDSB) schools for students in grades 6-12.

Chartier says the musical growth of students in the program is impressive.

“When teachers listen to what young people have to say, with very little prompting, and a lot of positive reinforcement, students’ wings unfurl,” she says.

SASS has been working as a free club since 2003, with the help of school teachers and music teachers from the community, private donations and support from the DDSB.

SASS runs at 19 different schools, but is expecting more participation from local schools who reached out to Chartier and Russell after hearing about the extracurricular club.

“The clubs can be as small as ten and as big as 30. Several hundred students, typically from 300-500 students a year,” Chartier says of the reach of SASS. “They meet every single week, some of the teachers meet twice a week with their students, some meet every single day.”

Chartier says it may be easy for SASS to be seen as a ‘star searching’ program, but it’s about helping young people, not exploiting them.

“SASS is not about making stars, it’s very much about self-awareness, self-expression, mental balance. But, we still wanted to give the young people quality training in the time-honoured craft and art of songwriting,” Chartier says.

This isn’t the first collaboration for Chartier and Russell – they run the Spirit of Song event on the third Thursday of every month at Oshawa’s Robert McLaughlin Gallery (RMG).

Their collaboration began when the two met in Nashville, more than 16 years ago. Chartier then, a teacher, met Russell at a Songwriters Association of Canada (SOCAN) dinner in the ‘Music City’ and was inspired to start a songwriting club at her school.

“I was back at work, and I really missed the songwriting community,” says Chartier, who then invited Russell to attend one of the club’s meetings while he was in town for a concert. “He came to my school, which was McLaughlin Collegiate, and because Dale Russell from The Guess Who was giving a guitar workshop, there were 70 kids who crammed themselves into a classroom, on a lunch hour.”

Chartier says the purpose of SASS is to embrace the creativity and passion that youth possess.

“We realized that youth are born with a voice, and we can’t teach them creativity, they are born with that, too. So, all we can do is celebrate it and we can listen more,” Chartier adds.

“We can hear the thoughts and the feelings that young people have because they’re just bursting with ideas and ideals.”