It’s the Tuesday just before March Break, and Carmen Gassi, OCT, is rifling through sheet music at White Oaks SS in Oakville. It’s easy to see why the music teacher and department head is clutching an extra-large coffee — at a few minutes before 7 a.m., it’s pitch black and −14°C outside the music room, a converted wood shop with ceilings higher than a transport truck. Minutes later, students shuffle in. One rubs sleep from his eyes while others flop into chairs to send warm-up blasts through trumpets, French horns and trombones before they spend the next hour systematically working the kinks out of several bars of a contemporary band piece. They get no credits or grades for being here this early, and they don’t seem to mind that most of White Oaks’s 2,000 students won’t appear until the bell rings 8:05 a.m. Playing in Gassi’s senior concert band is worth an hour of missed sleep.

“Morning, ladies and gentlemen, it’s nice to see everyone,” says Gassi, eyes crinkling as he grins. It’s the first rehearsal after secondary teachers resumed extracurricular activities, and he’s already got business to discuss. While the rest of the country has been practising for MusicFest Canada — an annual invitation-only competition that attracts about 10,000 young musicians each May — Gassi and his band are left with 17 full rehearsals to prepare. “We’ve got a big decision to make,” says Gassi. “We need to decide which level we’re going to compete at for Nationals.”

There was a time when Gassi didn’t have the luxury of uttering a line straight out of Glee. When he arrived at White Oaks 15 years ago, the once renowned arts program had been eclipsed by athletics — the school barely filled eight music classes and only a couple dozen kids turned up for concert band. As soon as the Grade 9s bagged their mandatory arts credit, most dropped music faster than a heavy backpack. This pattern didn’t quite work for Gassi. Call him selfish, but he became a music teacher in part to fulfill a dream of conducting school bands that students actually wanted to play in.

Finding your rhythm

Sure enough, his quest began to revive the arts program. He inspired young musicians by taking them to music rooms across Canada, entering them in competitions and touring them around arts landmarks in Europe. He even introduced a cutting-edge computer lab where students could compose their own soundtracks.

Michael Langham

Carmen Gassi, OCT, is instrumental in fine tuning his senior concert band’s
performance for the annual invitation-only MusicFest Canada competition.

Clearly, he’s been on a roll. Last year, his department offered about 20 music sections and he supervised eight extracurricular ensembles, all while working nights as a professional musician and composer. His enthusiasm and dedication were recognized with a 2012 Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence — he was nominated by Celeste Corless, whose graduating daughter, Gemma, has raved about Mr. Gassi’s music classes since Grade 9. “Anyone who can get my teenager up at 6:30 and riding her bike to band practice deserves an award!”

Playing in his high school band inspired Gassi to study music, and his passion has fuelled him throughout his 25 years of teaching. Outside of school, he conducts a community jazz group and plays clarinet with two orchestras, arranging for the senior band to watch him perform at the Mississauga Living Arts Centre with Opera Kitchener. While students are up late checking Facebook, Gassi is composing music for the school’s quintets, choirs and bands. “I feel strongly that if I spent that much time learning about composition in my undergrad, and performance in my grad, I don’t want anything to go to waste,” he says.

Orchestrating interest

Gassi’s love of music is infectious even when the instruments are packed away. During his Grade 10 Renaissance unit, he was sidetracked and shared Mozart’s penchant for gambling and Beethoven’s string of lovers. One class became so obsessed with the Medici family that he allowed them to detour slightly from his lesson plan. Students immersed themselves in researching details of Florentine life, then impressed him with newscasts, puppet plays and short films (all incorporating music, of course). He says it was worth it to see students so heavily engaged in learning. “The shortest distance between two points isn’t always a straight path,” Gassi explains.

Back in the music room on that Tuesday morning, he uses technology to transport his Grade 10 music class from Oakville to medieval Europe. As students rhyme off the meanings for monophony and polyphony, he writes the definitions on the Smart Board. Then he asks them to imagine how a 30-second clip of a polyphonic Gregorian chant, played from his laptop, would resonate in a medieval cathedral.

Another class on the timetable is Music and Computers, which takes high-tech learning to the extreme. In a specially designed lab, Gassi sets students loose to create radio jingles and remix symphonies with versions of the same software and hardware used at high-end production facilities.

Off the charts

Toys and tangents aside, it was a SEVEC ( cultural exchange Gassi had organized that resuscitated music at White Oaks. Ten years ago, a high-school band dressed in matching uniforms arrived from Victoria in November and promptly blew the White Oaks musicians away. “The kids were amazed at how this band sounded,” remembers Gassi, who knew the visitors were playing a more challenging repertoire and at a higher level than his students. “I told them there’s no secret, they’re just working really hard. We’re not a school for the arts, so if you guys want to sound like that, I’m in, but it’s going to mean three practices a week. Are you ready for that?” When White Oaks flew to BC the following May, the young musicians were determined to impress their hosts — and so they did.

One of the ways Gassi promotes progress is by breaking down monumental tasks. Most conductors move through a new piece measure by measure, but Gassi goes a step further. He rehearses with the full senior concert band twice a week, then runs two sectional rehearsals — one for woodwinds, and one for brass and percussion. That morning, Gassi steered various sections through trouble spots while other instruments waited their turn. “They learn that it’s not just about being consumed with their own part,” he says, “it’s also about working together and listening to each other.”

Bonding is one of the happy side effects of teamwork. He’s quick to praise but doesn’t hesitate to holler “Whoa!” when the trumpets are sharp. Gassi guides with respect and patience because he relishes the process of helping students get better. He’ll even critique recordings of his own performances. “What makes Carmen outstanding is he is able to build a strong rapport with kids,” says principal John Stieva, OCT.

Gassi’s competitive streak proves just as important as his supportive side. “Not against other people,” he says, “but for a sense of accomplishment. There’s something powerful in saying, ‘Wow, that’s a nasty, difficult piece, but yesterday I played it at 80 beats per minute and today I got to 110.’”

Pitch perfect

He uses performance to show students the power of goal setting and preparation. No one minds working hard when there’s an audience waiting at Hamilton Place or a band trip to Chicago or Virginia Beach. Plus, every other year Gassi takes a band to Europe — they’ve visited monasteries in Austria, performed at Italian cathedrals and played on the same stage at Esterházy Palace where classical composer Haydn once conducted. “Travel gives students a global perspective on the arts,” he says, not to mention lifelong memories and the experience of living with roommates. “They feel lucky when they hear that Austrian kids don’t even get music in high school.”

Adjudicators have come to expect great things from White Oaks at competitions. Gone are the 200-level days; they’ve played 500-level pieces for the past six years, though Gassi is too modest to count how many silver and gold medals they’ve earned. “The success isn’t in how well they do, it’s that they want to be competing at that level,” he says. “The students get a real thrill from performing live under pressure, and I’m proud that now they demand it.”

Hence the dilemma that the band faces for Nationals. Performing a 500-level piece would normally be a no-brainer, except White Oaks is playing catch-up on practice time. Gassi floated the idea of working on a simpler 400-level piece given the limited time to rehearse. Not a chance. “It’s going to be a tough five weeks,” admits Gassi, “but we will give it a go.”

Despite high standards — or perhaps because of them — Gassi has earned a reputation of his own. “It’s fun to play for Carmen Gassi and his concert bands,” says Stieva. This is clearly evident in the no-one-gets-benched-in-band culture of the music room, which is one part safe haven, one part hangout. One young man strides in to ask his teacher to compose music for a play, while others drop by just to chat. Stieva believes Gassi inspires many students to study music at university or become music teachers themselves. “At the end of the day,” says Gassi, “I just want kids to see how much I enjoy what I do, and to see music as something to look forward to.”

The Art Of Delegating

Managing the arts department, teaching a roster of classes and running rehearsals before and after school keeps Carmen Gassi busy, so he’s established a student music council to help. Volunteers attend a Monday meeting to help with planning concerts, fundraising, organizing the music library or setting up social events such as the September barbecue to welcome Grade 9 music students. “Kids can do things in about 1/20th of the time I can,” says Gassi. “This way, they take ownership over the program and they get to develop leadership skills.”

A few of his favourite things

Want to keep in tune with the times? Carmen Gassi shares his top four music apps and a key online resource that are sure to strike a chord. Be sure to keep an eye (and ear out) for Gassi’s very own soon-to-be-released app that will no doubt help music teachers hit all of the right notes.

Naxos Music Library

Naxos Music Library


“Big shout-out to the Ministry of Education and Halton DSB for giving us free access to thousands of fantastic musical performances.”



(, free)

“This is convenient when I have to share large MP3 files or music scores, since email programs have a limit.” Perfect to use on all of your devices.

JotNot Scanner

JotNot Scanner

(, 99¢)

“I encourage students to use their phones to capture what’s on the Smart Board and convert it to a text file. It’s great for kids who don’t take notes quickly.”

Voice memos

Voice memos

(built-in iPhone app, free)

“For evaluations, I use my phone to record what the kids are playing and to add my reflections. That way, I can come back and replay everything.”



“I really like the ones by
Maestro (, $2.99)
Ludwig (, free)
Steinway (, free)”