Becoming a music educator was never part of Darren Hamilton’s earlier career aspirations. But no matter how much one strays from one’s destiny, the universe always finds a way for the stars to align.
Even after graduating from York University in 2005 with a bachelor of fine arts with a specialty in music, Hamilton was starting to establish a career in the finance industry. But he soon realized he had a knack for teaching. In fact, he excelled at it.
“I’ve been teaching for 14 years now. And I wouldn’t have it any other way,” said Hamilton, MMus’16, this year’s recipient of the MusiCounts Teacher of the Year Award, presented by the Canadian Scholarship Trust Foundation.
Receiving the award was an extra special experience for Hamilton because it was announced live during Canada’s biggest music awards show, the Junos, with some of Canada’s most accomplished musical artists.
“I’ve watched the Junos on TV before, so to actually attend in person was like a dream,” said Hamilton, who attended the awards show held at the Budweiser Stage in Toronto on May 15. “It’s just a surreal moment to be able to attend for my first time as a nominee and then to actually be awarded the Juno for MusiCounts Teacher of the Year was a great experience.”
The national MusiCounts Teacher of the Year Award recognizes an inspirational Canadian music educator’s impact on students and music education.
Describing Hamilton as a “maverick music educator,” MusiCounts president Kristy Fletcher said the David Suzuki Secondary School music teacher is “modelling what inclusive, innovative, and celebratory music programming can look like.”
Hamilton uses his music to educate students about social justice. He co-authored #BlackMusicMatters: Hip Hop and Social Justice in Canada, a learning resource for educators in grades 7 to 12, who wish to explore Black culture, history and creation through the lens of hip hop music. The goal is for students to engage in Canadian hip hop, while learning about social justice themes.
The development of the learning resource is an offshoot of an article Hamilton wrote for the Canadian Music Educator journal titled, #BlackMusicMatters: Dismantling Anti-Black Racism in Music Education.
“My role as a teacher isn’t just about teaching students music in the classroom but being able to see some of these gaps that existed in music education, and how I, as a music teacher who has these research skills that I’ve developed through my graduate work at Western, can use those skills and put them into work to advocate for curricular changes,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton is being recognized for his work to promote diversity not just in his music class but in the music curriculum at the David Suzuki Secondary School in Brampton, Ont. It’s work that began three years ago and is now just starting to bear fruit in the classroom.
“One of the things that I noticed (when I started out), particularly in my instrumental music class was that there still wasn’t a representation of Black students taking the instrumental course, even though they had a Black music teacher. And so I started to get concerned about that,” recalled Hamilton.
With help from some of his music students, Hamilton launched a survey in 2019 specifically aimed at Black students asking them about their music preferences and what would make them take music class at school.
The results provided Hamilton insight on how to get more Black students interested in music classes, and data to make a case for the school principal to add diversity to the music curriculum.
“From the results from the survey, hip hop was the number one genre of music that the students expressed interest in, and R&B was the second-highest. So, I made the proposal to the principal to start this R&B and hip hop course. And we added data, representing the students’ voices, to show that this is what the students are saying that they’re interested in,” Hamilton said.
The school was supportive of the new program, and through MusicCounts’ Band-Aid program, secured a grant to purchase DJ consoles for the new hip hop and R&B course.
The program was launched in September 2021, with about 18 students taking the course.
“Considering we were online for the previous school year, and we didn’t really have a lot of time to promote the course between May and September, we were really happy with that number,” said Hamilton.
He noted the diversity of the students who enrolled in the new class.
“We had Black students enrolling in the course, but we also had students from all cultural backgrounds represented. And what that showed me was that hip hop music is a genre of music that many youth gravitate to, regardless of their cultural background,” Hamilton said.
The high number of female students – about half of the class – taking the course was also pleasantly surprising, he said, noting the trend suggests hip hop is becoming less of a male-dominated genre. Even the Junos seems to be recognizing this when Haviah Mighty won Rap Album of the Year for Stock Exchange – making her the first female in Junos’ history to win in this category.
“I think that speaks to the trend that we’re seeing where hip hop and rap music is no longer something that is dominated, or that is designed specifically for male artists,” Hamilton said. “Now we’re seeing female artists and artists from other genders gravitating and being engaged.”
When not teaching, Hamilton is heavily involved in gospel music, both in the community as director of the Waterloo Region Mass Choir, and in his PhD studies at the University of Toronto, where he is pursuing gospel music education.
His passion for gospel music began when he was a graduate student at Western’s Faculty of Music.
“When I was at Western, I had an opportunity to do an independent study on gospel music, particularly gospel choir pedagogy,” Hamilton recalled.
That independent study led him to “shadow” professor Karen Burke, founding director of the York University Gospel Choir, observing and documenting her gospel choir curricular. Burke has since become an inspiration and a mentor for Hamilton and would influence his career progression.
Hamilton said one particular course that made an impact on him at Western was professor Patrick Schmidt’s course in policy and curriculum education.
“That course transformed my life in that it taught me how to navigate making curricular changes in the education system,” he said. “So, a lot of the work that I have done since I’ve left Western when I graduated, really, I can tie it back to that one course that was just so impactful.”
In addition to teaching music in high school, Hamilton also teaches a gospel music course at the University of Toronto.
Hamilton is the first Black music educator to win MusiCounts’ Teacher of the Year Award, and it’s an honour that carries a huge significance.
“Winning this award is so important and impactful to me because it really helps to show racialized students that there are definitely possibilities in music education, and in the music industry, in general.
“In this arena, being a racialized music teacher or musician is something that I think is so important for our racialized students to be able to see themselves represented, in terms of myself as a music educator, being in the classroom space, teaching them music, and then also being able to see themselves represented in terms of what is actually being taught in the curriculum, where the curriculum is diverse and they have access to explore music from various cultural backgrounds.”