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The Music Within
Profile by Jane Ledwell

Shirley Anne Cameron

When things don’t work out chronologically as they should, what is meant to happen has to happen at some point. People I know who are happy and fulfilled are doing what they are meant to,” says singer, music teacher, and musical director Shirley Anne Cameron, philosophically.

“I went back to university when I was older,” she says, “I had started, but I went on with life and had my babies young. [But] I always knew I needed to study music, where my heart really was.”

When she returned to studies, “I got very determined,” she says. “I just figured out there is so much in life that I want to do, I have to do it.”

This explains why she fills her days beyond teaching at Athena School with challenges like her recent turn as musical director of the ACT production of Evita. What floored her during that production was the commitment she saw in performers: “Fundamentally, people are just drawn to creating something bigger than themselves,” she says. “People give so much because they love to see the results, and they love working with other people.”

She admits, “I’m a terrible risk-taker. I’m realistic about what it’s possible to do, but I don’t fear failing, because I know what music does. I know what comes out of the effort that people put into it.”

Before the closing notes of Evita had faded, Shirley Anne was ramping up rehearsals for Seussical the Musical, a production featuring more than 60 Athena students that opens at the Harbourfront Theatre later in May.

She reflects, “I sometimes say I need a new challenge, I need to get out of elementary school music, but what other job can you go to where you can just create, and where someone really genuinely says ‘good morning’ to you and gives you a hug?”

She says, “Children’s emotions are so present… My philosophy of music education is that it is important to keep standards high, but also to allow people to fall into the music,” Shirley Anne says.

“Watching people find music within them is very powerful. If it is taught well and with integrity, what really is evident is how it builds self-esteem and character - and not just musical ability, but performance.

“Music and performance are so tied to emotions. They help people get in touch with emotions—and a lot of people never figure out a way to get in touch with feelings.”

Shirley Anne has her own prescription for emotional tumult: “I sing a Gaelic lament,” she says, “and that just grounds me solid. That’s my blood. It’s an ancestral thing—the music of your culture is really inside you.”

Shirley Anne had call for grounding when her father died during choral rehearsals for Evita, but as much as music, it was literature that helped, particularly books she was reading towards a distance-education Masters in English.

“I was reading the stories of Alistair MacLeod through all that grief,” she recalls, “connecting with all that Maritime culture. It made me think about my own history and culture and my dad and all that he contributed in my life.”

She says, “Literature is as much a love as music. It’s a language thing: music is a language on an emotional level, and so is literature. It’s not just what is spoken: it’s the art of making words connect with emotion.”

Shirley Anne plans to complete her Masters within six months, but, she says, “I can never stop. That’s the way it is with learning…

“Making connections: that’s what teaching is, and that’s what life is. Everyone who is close to me in my life is a teacher. Not all of them recognize that they are teachers, but they are.”

Shirley Anne’s philosophy of education, and of the arts is, in essence, her philosophy of a fulfilled life. “Whatever you imagine you are going to create,” she says, “it is what it is—it is finally what it is meant to be—because of the people who are there and what they give to it.”

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