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Remarkable Teacher

Photo of Steven Page, Canadian music icon, leaning against a wall in a theatre.

Behind the Lyrics

Canadian music icon Steven Page discusses the teacher who helped him fine-tune his self-confidence and excel at something he loved.

By Richard Ouzounian
Photos: KC Armstrong

If you ask Canadians what comes to mind when they hear the name "Steven Page," they'll no doubt think back to the iconic and ironic Barenaked Ladies - the homegrown pop/rock group that the award-winning lead singer co-founded 30 years ago.

Although Page has enjoyed a successful solo career since - as a performing-recording artist and theatrical composer - the memory of his earlier years and that signature song "If I Had $1,000,000" is what likely lingers most.

It's in that crowd-pleasing classic that Page and his bandmates dream up a list of what they would buy if they suddenly became rich - everything from a Picasso painting to a monkey. The song's lyrics would lead most to assume that the potential of making millions was the driving factor behind the soft-spoken singer's earliest ambitions. After speaking with Page, however, it's clear that that end goal had nothing to do with his original dream: "I believed in the power of music and that I was capable of achieving something much greater than myself."

Appropriately enough, Page came to this somewhat-spiritual awakening in London's awe-inspiring Westminster Abbey, where he sang with the Scarborough Schools Youth Choir at age 15.

How does a teenager from Scarborough, Ont., end up singing in such a sacred space steeped in years and years of tradition? "You meet the right person at the right time," says Page, "And they can truly change your life - that's what Mr. Allen did for me."

In a career spanning over three decades - from graduating in 1961 with an Honours degree in vocal performance from the University of Western Ontario (now Western University) until he retired in 1995 - Garth Allen has been a major educational force in Ontario music. In addition to being a classroom teacher, his notable achievements include 27 years as the Scarborough Board of Education's supervisor of music, as well as founder and conductor of the Scarborough Chamber Choir (later known as the internationally acclaimed Scarborough Schools Youth Choir) from 1972-95.

Born in 1938 in Warkworth, Ont., a community in Northumberland County, Allen recalls a major emphasis on music throughout his childhood. His parents started him in piano lessons at five and by 15 years old, Allen added voice lessons to the mix.

Photo of singer-songwriter Steven Page sitting beside his former choir conductor, Garth Allen in a music studio.
Singer-songwriter Steven Page (right) visits his former choir conductor, Garth Allen, in Toronto.

"I thought I'd end up onstage," recalls Allen, "but on a trip to the U.K., I remember looking into a window on Oxford Street and saying ‘I don't want to be an actor. I want to be a teacher!' He had been teaching for a couple of years at that point, and when asked what prompted his final decision, he offered a chuckle: "I suppose I realized I wasn't cut out to be a vagabond.

"I quickly realized that it was my job to present students with doors they didn't know existed … ," says Allen. "If I had 30 kids in my class, I saw them as 30 individuals with 30 unique sensibilities."

Although Allen abandoned acting as a career, his love for the theatre remained as strong as his love of music - and when he was able to combine the two in 1968, it was magic. That's when he founded the Scarborough Music Theatre in Scarborough, Ont., where he produced large-scale musicals. In 1976, to emphasize acting, Allen founded Stage Centre Productions, a non-professional theatre doing classics and musicals.

Flash forward to a preteen Page meandering "a bit aimlessly" during his time at Churchill Heights Public School. "I loved music, it was around all my life [his father was a drummer]," the singer says, "but I took piano lessons, and never got good at them. I was in the school band, and never cut it playing the flute. So, I wasn't sure what I should do."

Fortunately, William Downey, one of Page's teachers, was cast in the Stage Centre Productions' musical Oliver! and soon discovered that Allen was looking for young singers to play the orphans. Downey knew that Page enjoyed music and had, in fact, directed him in several operettas at Churchill Heights, so he set out to see if he could help Allen out.

"William brought Steven to audition and I cast him in the show," recalls Allen. "I was impressed with the clarity of his boy soprano and asked him to audition for the [Scarborough Schools] Youth Choir for the following year."

This seemingly casual encounter had far-reaching results; it was a defining moment in Page's life - one that he recalls with emotion. "It was an opportunity for 100 voices to come together once a week and take music seriously. It was about the pursuit of excellence, and that grabbed me. I was never a sports guy; never a team guy - until this."

And, although the experience itself was transformative, there's no question why it lingered in Page's mind for years to come. "It was all about Mr. Allen. He had such a commanding presence," Page says. "He made us aware that he knew what we were all capable of.

"I will remember him as the man who introduced me to music: Gershwin, Bernstein, Verdi, Bach. When you're a student and you sing something like Verdi, you get it in your bones for life."

The enthusiasm Page exhibits today, more than 30 years later, is no different than what Allen witnessed back then.

"He had real passion when he sang. Steven innately knew to go to the emotion behind the lyrics. Singing seemed like a natural path for him."

Page followed that path all the way to Westminster Abbey, but it was Allen's dream of touring the choir around England that led them there for three weeks in 1985. "I grew up thinking that England was the pinnacle of culture and I wanted my students to experience it," recalls the retired teacher. "But I also believed strongly in the glory of Canadian musical talent and I wanted England to experience that as well."

"Mr. Allen made it all happen," says Page. "The issue, however, was fundraising. We had to sell tons of industrial shrink wrap to afford it. He trusted us to raise the money and sing the music. That kind of belief empowers young people. When someone else believes in you, then you can believe in yourself."

Allen thinks back on that time. "I treated them as pros, and they behaved as such. That's all there was to it."

Page offers a deeper insight into the man's pedagogical methods. "He would first tell us about the context of a piece, then teach it. It's amazing how quickly we learned what it should sound like."

When asked if he ever thought his former student would wind up in a famous band, Allen replies: "I never knew just where Steven's career would go, but I believed it would be in music. He took personal joy in everything he sang, and he had great listening skills. I would look out at the choir and I could see him processing what I was saying."

Page returns the compliment. "I learned passion and commitment from him; that all these things could converge: the beauty of music, the ability to make it with others, and the capacity to excel at something you loved."

He pauses, voice thick with emotion. "I carry that with me everywhere."

In this profile, notable Canadians honour the teachers who have made a difference in their lives and have embraced the College's Ethical Standards for the Teaching Profession, which are care, respect, trust and integrity.