Gordon Stobbe Fiddling in Nunavut
By Adam Feibel
With more than 25 years of teaching young people how to play the
fiddle, Nova Scotian Gordon Stobbe has extended his teaching to the
Canadian North by working with First Nations and Inuit children in
His latest trip – a nearly three-week venture from April 16 to
May 4 – took him back again to where he first started, in Pond
Stobbe began his teaching by holding workshops and eventually started a
fiddle camp at Emma Lake, near Prince Albert National Park in
Saskatchewan. All the while, he published his own instructional
and repertoire books for the fiddle (he published his eighteenth book
“It’s odd ... when you start to publish things, all of a
sudden you become the expert,” he says.
This expertise was sought after by fiddling camps all over Western
Canada, and he was then invited to perform at the Lunenburg Folk
Harbour Festival in Nova Scotia – “one of the finest little
folk festivals you’d ever find” – but also to host a
workshop specifically geared toward kids. Stobbe and his partner on
guitar, Greg Simm, put together a two-hour presentation that assigned a
different role to each kid.
This caught the attention of Julie Lohnes, chairperson of the
Tusarnaarniq Sivumut Association – Music for the Future, and the
pair was asked to fly out and teach in Pond Inlet.
“She realized that we would maybe have the skills to take a bunch
of kids in a different kind of culture, and quickly get something
happening,” he explains. Lohnes raised money and bought
fiddles – something most of the kids had never even seen before.
But only five days after beginning the fiddle lessons, he and Simm took
the kids out by dogsled and skidoo to Eclipse Sound, the ocean
passageway where icebergs from Greenland float through and freeze
between Pond Inlet and Bylot Island. There, the group performed their
first concert atop an iceberg.
Stobbe has used this quick method of entry
for all his teaching –
to get in there and have success and to make something happen.
“You come into town one day, and five days later you do six
community concerts. Those concerts are not going to be stellar
concerts, but something’s going to happen that five days ago no
one would have dreamt was possible. And that’s my
pedagogy,” he says.
From there, word got around the tundra. Music teachers in Iqaluit,
Pangnirtung and Igloolik asked Stobbe and Simm to stop in and help
teach in their own communities.
Stobbe made annual trips for the first couple years before upping them
to twice a year, beginning three years ago. He says because his
visits are brief and infrequent, it’s important to take advantage
of the time; it’s about pushing hard, spending lots of time with
the instrument, having high expectations of the kids and having them
work hard to meet those expectations.
“I’m pretty confident about how to have pretty much
instant success,” he says. “But in this case it was a
question also of not knowing the culture, not knowing how people
worked, not knowing really anything about the Inuit attitude toward
In Nunavut, school attendance often becomes scarce; communities will
see almost 24 hours of sunlight per day of sunlight at the beginning
and end of each school year, and if the sun is up, kids don’t go
Additionally, many youth are involved in substance abuse, whether
through their own use or a family member’s. The problem has
attracted the attention of the federal government. Last year,
Nunavut’s Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq announced funding
support of $1.6 million over three years from the Government of Canada
for two projects that would help prevent young people in Nunavut
communities from taking illicit drugs and treat those already using
very little adequate treatment available, Nunavummiut are more
susceptible to ongoing addictions; the Nunavut Department of Health and
Social Services has recognized the high volume of substance abuse in
the territory, and one of its two anti-drug projects will educate its
youth about the negative health and social effects of drug use, while
also promoting healthy lifestyle choices through activities and
workshops such as hip hop dancing and also, for example, fiddling..
These issues have presented problems for some of the kids in
Stobbe’s classes, but other than that it’s much like any
other group of children.
He says in any group, about 10 out of 20 kids will instinctively have
somewhat of a feel for music and hand-eye coordination. The other half
has more trouble, and some may get easily frustrated and want to quit.
And out of the 10 who learn more easily, maybe four are really talented
and excited about the music. “It’s like maple syrup,”
he explains. “You start with 40 gallons of sap and you end
up with a gallon of syrup.”
In most of the communities Stobbe’s been to, the best of the kids
are far better players than the best of the adults. What this means is
that the kids could soon become the teachers as they age and excel.
Music has taken a very firm root in some of his students, but Stobbe
says they haven’t quite gotten to the point of acknowledging it
as a potential career.
“That’s the fondest dream I guess,” he says.
“I think we’re on the verge of that happening in a couple
communities.” He mentions two young women in Pangnirtung who have
grown into very fine fiddle players and could very well be at a stage
where they could begin teaching younger children.
journalist Adam Feibel's story was funded by the Media Club of
Ottawa through the Gojournalism project.
is an open source project to pioneer “community powered reporting.
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