Exemplary Teacher

David Sisler

Honouring tradition, with a few new twists (of the baton)

The conductor signals for silence and then slowly raises his arms. A hush falls over the small rehearsal room. More than a hundred pairs of eyes focus on the man in front of them. His arms dip and voices burst forth in unison: “All for me grog. All for me grog…”

“Stop! Wait!” he barks. “Is that how a pirate sounds?

“Growl like a pirate: Aye me hearties, all for me grog, arrrr!”

The conductor is David Sisler, one of the 2006 winners of the Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence. The singers are members of the Laura Secord Secondary School concert choir, which has performed with famous musicians and symphonies across North America and in Europe to rave reviews.

David Sisler grew up in St. Catharines and attended Laura Secord SS as a student, before heading for the University of Toronto – where he studied trombone, conducting and education – and then returning home to work alongside his former teacher David Marsden. Just three years into his career, Sisler took over as head of music at Secord, when his mentor Marsden died in 1990. Nearly 20 years later, Sisler continues to thrive on the challenge of engaging kids in music and performance.

Secord principal Bernie Buschmann admires Sisler’s ability to be rigorous and demanding with his students, yet keep it fun. “The kids perform all over the world at a very high level. They win competitions and put on musicals that would impress professionals. Dave is amazing. He’s innovative and he’s inspiring. Our students and community are lucky to have him here.”

The school’s music department runs a mere 12 sections of music this year, yet more than a third of the school’s 650 students are involved in extracurricular music activities. These include the concert (110 members), chamber (25 girls) and jazz (16 members) choirs and a group of boys known as the man choir; the junior and senior bands and the junk band; flute, jazz, string, percussion and trombone ensembles; and the pit orchestra.

Widening worlds

Sisler organizes field trips and competitions to give his students solid performance experiences. Every three to four years – so that each graduating class gets at least one visit – he escorts two busloads of students to Charleston, South Carolina where they spend three or four days with music students at Burke High School – a large school in an economically depressed neighbourhood. Every two years the St. Catharines school hosts Burke students. The exchanges allow students to share experiences, tour and perform.

“It’s wonderful to see kids from diverse backgrounds come together to prepare a concert,” Sisler comments. “They learn from listening and observing each other’s techniques and traditions. Great music and new friendships always result from this exchange.”

Every two years during March break, Sisler escorts students to Europe where they tour and perform. Two years ago they visited London and Paris. This year he will take 75 students to Italy. They will sing in churches in Milan, Venice, Florence and Rome as well as visiting historical and cultural sights, including the famous opera house La Scala.

Performances and interactive workshops with other choirs, and with professional musicians including opera singers, are also on Sisler’s agenda, as are annual provincial and national competitions. “We usually do very well.” He smiles humbly.

“Get kids involved with music they can relate to.”

“It’s expensive to travel and tour so often,” he explains. But the bands and choirs are sometimes paid – when performing with a symphony orchestra, for example. These fees help to defray some of the costs, and music students engage in many fundraising activities. They are busy selling flowers, fruit and cookie dough. Sisler tracks sales on his ever-present PalmPilot as monies earned are credited to students’ individual accounts. “It really motivates them,” he says, and most students successfully raise the money they need to travel.

His day begins with choir practice at 7:45 AM. Bands rehearse at lunch and after school. Sisler also teaches full time and in between he’s doing paperwork, collecting and tracking students’ money, arranging concerts and travel, and planning what’s next. “It’s busy but it’s always fun,” he says. “I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”

Laura Secord SS opened in 1966 and has always had a strong arts tradition, although academics and athletics are also important. Pictures of students performing in musicals line the hallways. The Grade 9 student Sisler is pictured there – playing the trombone during a performance of Once upon a Mattress in 1977.

More and merry

As the school’s fourth head of music, Sisler deeply respects its musical tradition, while striving to keep it relevant. “Get kids involved with music they can relate to,” he advocates.

The choir performs a wide variety of material, including funny songs from musicals such as Spamalot or a pirate drinking song like All for Me Grog that Johnny Depp and his Caribbean buccaneers might enjoy. Last year they sang Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall (We don’t need no education.) for Classic Albums Live at Brock University.

“It’s great fun and it keeps the kids engaged,” Sisler says. “And I’m the biggest kid of all.”

The choir has done a number of performances and fundraising events with acclaimed singer Robert Pilon, best known for his lead role in the Toronto production of Phantom of the Opera. This Christmas, as last, the choir will accompany the Niagara Symphony Orchestra in its two Christmas concerts.

But perhaps the most fun Sisler and his kids have every year comes in September.

Niagara’s annual Grape and Wine Festival attracts upwards of 200,000 people every year and the parade includes many high school bands from across the border.

“We can’t compete with the large American high school bands – the uniforms and marching,” he says. In fact, he doesn’t want to compete, he’d rather have fun. So Secord developed its newest musical tradition – the junk band.


David Sisler leads junk-band members who chant witty Secord-isms and play instruments they’ve made themselves in the St. Catharines 2007 Grape and Wine Festival parade.

The idea for the band came in Sisler’s first year of teaching. “I taught at a school that didn’t have any performing groups, so we drummed up business with this gimmick,” he recalls.

“When I got to Secord I wanted to participate in the Grape and Wine Festival parade, but we needed a homegrown grassroots approach – with some brat attitude thrown in.”

Students march in ragged unison wearing homemade costumes and headgear, playing instruments that they’ve made themselves and chanting witty Secord-isms. They bang water jugs, buckets and garbage cans with tennis balls duct-taped to sticks. They crash garbage-can lids together and scrape metal washboards. One lucky student plays a PVC pipe organ with a fly swatter, while another plays a keyboard made from old car horns. There’s also a bass guitar made of scrap metal scavenged from the local junkyard.

“The kids yell, scream and pound their instruments, and we probably have the best time of anyone there,” Sisler says. “The crowd eats it up.”

A really big show

Over 100 students participate every year, rain or shine, despite the fact that they have little time to get organized and practise: the parade is the last Saturday in September, just a few weeks after school starts. But they all have serious fun with their music, which is what it’s all about.

“We’ve also always done big shows,” says Sisler, referring to the theatrical productions. In 2006 it was Urinetown, the Tony-award-winning satirical comedy. This February it will be Bob Fosse’s Sweet Charity, set in mid-60s New York, featuring songs like Big Spender and If My Friends Could See Me Now.

“He’s a fantastic teacher – so funny and helpful but so demanding at the same time.”

Auditions take place in September and from then until the final curtain falls in early March, Sisler and his drama, art, music, technology and other colleagues work tirelessly alongside hundreds of students. It’s a massive challenge.

“We involve as many students as possible,” he says. “There’s set design and construction, sound and lighting, music, dancing, acting, costumes, hair and makeup, ticket sales and fundraising. There’s something for everyone and it’s first class and very professional.” For many students it’s the highlight of their time at Secord.

Ron Gonzales is in Grade 10 and is auditioning for a part in Sweet Charity. He’s nervous and excited. “It’s great to be part of something this big,” he explains. “I come to Secord for the music and I really enjoy it and Mr. Sisler. He’s a fantastic teacher – so funny and helpful but so demanding at the same time.

“He really helps us learn and be the best we can be.”

Expect the best

“He’s such a big kid himself,” says Pat McKenzie, who teaches vocal music and English and works closely with Sisler. “Yet he gets so much out of them. He pushes them and expects them to reach his high standards, and they do.”

Kirk Ringler isn’t taking music this year but he’s singing in the choirs and performing in Sweet Charity. He appreciates Sisler’s talent for making music fun and interesting. “Somehow he makes it easy to be good.”

Ringler says he admires two things about Sisler. First, he maintains Secord traditions because he was a student here and he gets it. Second, he is a working musician – playing trombone in the Niagara Symphony Orchestra and jamming with local jazz musicians.


“The kids yell, scream and pound their instruments, and we probably have the best time of anyone there,” Sisler says. “The crowd eats it up.”

Grade 12 student Mike Richards played the PVC pipes with fly swatter in this year’s junk-band performance in the wine festival parade. He appreciates a combination of things about Sisler. “He’s down to earth. He lets us argue our viewpoints, musical and otherwise. He’s really exacting.”

Dana Lawrence has taken music with Sisler every year she’s been at Secord. This year in Grade 11 she’ll be involved in Sweet Charity – fundraising, selling tickets, as part of the stage crew and in the orchestra if a flute is needed. She’ll play in both the senior band and the junk band and sing in the choir, and she’s really looking forward to the trip to Italy at March break. And no, Dana’s not planning to pursue music after high school.

“Music is just something I do for fun and Mr. Sisler makes it fun.”

To follow David Sisler’s musical fun and games at Laura Secord SS, visit the music department at www.teacherweb.com.

Prime Minister’s Awards for Teaching Excellence

The Prime Minister’s Awards for Teaching Excellence honour outstanding and innovative elementary and secondary school teachers in all disciplines who better equip their students with the skills they need to meet the challenges of a 21st-century society and economy.

For more information about the program, visit www.pma-ppm.gc.ca.

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