Arts incubator

With a rich history and a welcoming environment, the Maritime Conservatory of Performing Arts inspires emerging talents

By Janet Whitman and Dorothy Grant
Photography by Bruce Murray/VisionFire

Janet Bradbury, like many, loves the Maritime Conservatory of Performing Arts. “It’s special for so many reasons,” says the former student and long-time dance teacher at the Halifax arts institution. “If you’re there with little ones starting their lessons, they can be walking down the hall and hear someone singing opera from one room, piano from another or a brass ensemble, or see dancers practicing. Because it’s all under one roof, even if you’re only going in for one little thing, you’re exposed to the entire artistic experience.”

A big part of the magic is the conservatory’s historic home. 

Since 1996, its studios have been in the former 14-classroom Chebucto School on the corner of Chebucto Road and St. Matthias Street. The landmark 20th-century Classical Revival-style brick building was built between 1908 and 1910 for the growing community straddling West End and North End Halifax. Touted at the time as Halifax’s largest and finest school, it was built on the site where Barnum & Bailey had pitched circus tents. 

In the aftermath of the 1917 Halifax Explosion, when a wartime ship collision led to an explosion that devastated the city, the school was used as a triage and first aid centre, basement morgue, and later funeral home, with students sent to other schools for a time. 

The conservatory acquired ownership of the property in 1997 from the municipality. It was sold for a dollar with the stipulation that the buyers spend close to half a million dollars on renovations.

“I love that it’s an old building — it feels like there are a lot of stories in the walls,” says Alice Prichard.

She enrolled her two kids in classes on the recommendations of her new Halifax neighbours after her family moved to the peninsula from Calgary in the summer.

Her six-year-old daughter Maëlle Prichard-Fong, who’s taking violin, says the building is “really beautiful” and the window at the front is “really pretty.”  

Her nine-year-old son Xavier Prichard-Fong likes that there’s room not only for a grand piano for him to play, but also a separate piano for his teacher to accompany him during lessons.

Like Bradbury, Prichard appreciates the variety of talented people she and her kids are exposed to as they head to and from classes. “I love that there’s so much music and creativity going on whenever we’re there; we see dancers, musicians and musical theatre actors,” she says. “It is inspiring to be there.”

The conservatory’s roots stretch back to 1887, when Rev. Robert Laing launched the Halifax Conservatory of Music as part of the Halifax Ladies’ College on what’s now Barrington Street. In 1954, the Halifax Conservatory of Music combined with the 1934-era Maritime Academy of Music to form the Maritime Conservatory of Music. 

The conservatory moved at least seven times over the decades, sharing and renting space until 1996 when it ended up in the old Chebucto School.

In 1998, it became the Maritime Conservatory of Performing Arts, a move reflecting its diverse offerings: performance, instrumental and vocal music and music theory, Kindermusik, group and ensemble music and its school of dance, which includes ballet, jazz and teacher training. 

Margaret Whitehouse, who’s in her third year of music education at Acadia University, took private violin lessons at the conservatory with teacher Susannë Brown from the age of five until graduating from high school at 17.

“It is a very special place for me with fun memories and people I’ve met and people I’ve gotten to work with,” says Whitehouse. “It was nice to have that community to go to. There’s a large range there in terms of music, in terms of dance, but also with the age range too.”

Some of her fondest memories are playing in Christmas concerts with the adult orchestra and younger kids, she says. “Especially when I was older, it was nice to be that role model for the younger kids playing violin.”

Whitehouse says Brown and chamber orchestra teacher Celeste Jankowski inspired her to pursue a career in teaching music. “I still look up to them to this day,” she says.

Beyond learning to play the violin, she got a valuable education in the different genres and periods of classical music and orchestra etiquette. 

She joined Symphony Nova Scotia’s Nova Scotia Youth Orchestra four years ago. “That was probably the biggest step up for me,” she says. “I don’t think I’d be able to get there if it wasn’t for my experience with the conservatory.”  

The aging building caused a rift a few years ago, with nearly half the conservatory’s music teachers leaving amid talk the board was considering a move. 

Of particular concern in the community was the fate of the Lillian Piercey Concert Hall, which a “save-the-conservatory” petition at the time touted as having “some of the best acoustics in the city.”

A major capital campaign is in the works to raise restoration funds so the building “will last for another 100 years or more,” says Bradbury, the conservatory’s dean of dance. “The brick needs a lot of work and that’s very, very costly … But I think everybody, especially those of us who stayed, realize there’s so much potential.”

More than ever, the conservatory is a hub for the community, she says. “Obviously, things have changed a lot since 1887. I feel like when it started it was probably a music school for the elite of the city. Now it’s the whole community.”

Her three children attend the conservatory.

Her oldest son William, 13, plays violin and piano, sings and participates in musical theatre. Her daughter Cecilia, 11, dances and sings. Her littlest one Benjamin, 5, is in Kindermusik, and a new adaptive dance program which he does in his wheelchair. “He just started his first dance class last week that he can fully participate in,” she says.

“There’s lots of fun things for children, but they’re also seeing people working at high, professional levels,” says Bradbury. “It’s special for them. Yet it doesn’t feel intimidating. It doesn’t feel like, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t be in here when I’m six years old and just want to be running up and down the hallway.’ That’s OK.”

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