Simply Music

Unique approach to learning creates a musical language for self expression…

In 1998, healing Merville residents Peggy Carswell and her husband, symptoms Kel Kelly, took a leave of absence from their jobs and went on a 10-week adventure to India. For most people, the story would end there.

For Carswell and Kelly, however, this trip would be a turning point in their lives and in the lives of thousands of others—both here on Vancouver Island and in India.

“I did not initially set out to become an expert on tea,” explains Carswell, “I just wanted to travel through India. Shortly after we got back, Kel and I were visiting with our neighbors, Wayne Bradley and Janet Fairbanks. They told us about World Community Development Education Society—a non-profit society they volunteer for. This organization works with coffee growers in Nicaragua and imports organic fair trade coffee to North America. They said it was difficult to find fair trade organic tea. Since we had just been to Assam, they wondered if we had any information about how to connect with small scale tea growers there.”

Carswell had been captivated by India. The idea of sourcing organic tea and helping small farmers in remote villages appealed to both her sense of adventure and her heart of compassion. She began extensive research on Indian culture, tea production, organic farming, small grower cooperatives and much more. Before long, she was armed with information and on a plane back to India. Her goal was to meet with small scale tea growers in Assam and to help World Community expand their fair trade business to include tea. Little did she know that, along with her husband, she would spend the next 10 years teaching interested growers how to grow tea organically, set up a cooperative, establish an export and distribution network to enable the Assamese to increase their profits and better support their families, and establish a resource centre in Assam to promote organic farming practices.

She explains that, prior to her 1998 visit, Assam had been under political siege for decades and few Westerners had ever traveled there. On her first visit, whenever she and Kel came upon a new village, they had to be interviewed at the local police station and were assigned armed security guards to protect them from insurgents. Today, the situation has improved, but travel through many parts of northeast India can still be risky.

Assam is both the name of a state in northeastern India and the name of the distinctive black tea that grows there. Assam has a humid, sub-tropical climate and produces about 15 per cent of the world’s tea. It ranks number two in the world of tea production, second only to Southern China. Assam is also one of only two places in the world where tea is a native plant. The tea grown here is often sold as English, Irish or Scottish “Breakfast Teas.” It is said that in the 19th century, tea exported from Assam revolutionized tea-drinking habits globally, since the tea plant yielded a distinct flavor.

Carswell explains that large non-Assamese business interests control the bulk of tea produced in India. Relying on a workforce originally brought in from other parts of India, it has historically offered little benefit to the people of Assam.

In the early 1990s, a number of Assamese families began planting and cultivating tea in an effort to improve their lives. Most of the tea they harvested was sold to “bought leaf factories”—often at prices that barely covered production costs. Without access to small scale processing equipment, technical and educational support, or a market for their teas (without the middle man), many of these families were (and still are) struggling to survive.

Early in her quest, Carswell had aligned herself with the All-Assam Small Tea Growers Association and had been assured that, when she met with its members, they would be able to understand English. Minutes into her first presentation, she realized that communication was a problem. She could tell by the puzzled—yet enthusiastic—looks on their faces that they had absolutely no idea what she was saying.

“Thankfully,” she adds with a smile. “I was partnered with a wonderful Indian woman, Monalisha Gogoi. We spent several weeks sitting cross-legged on her bed, with my laptop computer, translating all of the resource materials I had brought to Assam. Over time, we also became good friends.”

On that second trip back, and subsequent annual visits over the next 10 years, Carswell learned that the Assamese people had been led to believe that chemicals were “the future of farming.” Many had lost faith in the efficacy of farming practices traditionally passed down for generations. Bags of chemical fertilizers had replaced cow manure, harsh chemicals controlled insect pests and crop rotation had become a thing of the past. New hybrid seed varieties, which required constant irrigation and where ultimately much more susceptible to insect damage and disease, were introduced, and many important varieties of rice and vegetables were being lost.

“In my opinion, this was disastrous,” exclaims Carswell. “Not only do these chemical fertilizers have a significant environmental impact, the application of pesticides can result in serious health problems for workers and people living adjacent to the gardens. The instructions on the containers are written in English. Workers cannot read the directions and, as a result, they mix and over-apply products, thinking that if a small amount of chemicals works well, then a little more should work even better! Many people are suffering from respiratory, skin and other chronic health problems relating to chemical use and misuse.”

With the encouragement of a number of organic growers here on Vancouver Island, and using information on organic farming in the sub-tropics published by organizations based in India and Britain, Carswell was able to develop training materials suited to Assam’s climate. The skills and knowledge of many farmers from the Comox Valley have played a vital part in improving the Assamese farmers awareness of composting, insect pest management and crop rotation.

After four more years and a number of two- and three-month long trips to India, Carswell was growing weary of traveling throughout the state. A central teaching and resource centre needed to be established. Not only would this be less taxing, it would also create much-needed employment opportunities in Assam. She and Kelly had still not been able to import any organic tea produced by their small group of growers and they were pretty much still funding this effort on their own.

In the fall of 2003, Carswell and a team of enthusiastic Comox Valley volunteers registered Fertile Ground: East/West Sustainability Network. The association received charitable status in 2004. With the support of a hard-working board of directors and volunteers, came an opportunity to do some serious fundraising.

Start-up funding was secured from Vancouver-based Canada-India Village Aid Society (CIVA) to assess the needs of farmers and organizations working in rural Assam, develop additional resources materials and then provide training to farmers and other groups. Support from CIVA also made it possible to start the “Growing Healthy Families Program”—providing women of Assam with information, training and opportunities that encourage healthy, local food production; and helping them find ways to diversify and increase family incomes.

Two years later, Carswell and Kelly met with members of a Rotary Club in Assam and discovered they were interested in working together to establish a project to promote organic farming practices. The following year, the two groups were entrusted with an abandoned plot of land in Digboi that was owned by Indian Oil Company, on which a demonstration garden and a classroom would be built.

In the spring of 2007, Fertile Ground and the Rotary Club of Digboi opened the Adarsh Seuj Prakalpa Organic Demonstration Garden and Training Centre. It is located 540-kilometres east of the state capital, near the India/Burma border. The Centre now boasts a resource building, demonstration gardens, and a small retail outlet that sells organic produce and compost, as well as two small scale production units where vermi-compost and various botanical formulas are made.

The Centre has become a place where Assamese men and women come to learn, children come to play and all help tend the garden and share its harvest. It is a place of learning and a place of joy. It is regularly visited by farmers, small tea growers, educators, agricultural extension staff and students, and has attracted guests from Canada, Australia, Nigeria, Germany and the United States.

“Donations from Fertile Ground’s supporters and a number of local organizations have helped make all of this possible,” adds Carswell. “Strathcona Sunrise and Cumberland Centennial Rotary Clubs purchased building materials and equipment for the offices. Proceeds from the sale of World Community’s organic tea have helped pay the Centre’s staff and develop resource materials. Chislett Manson purchased a computer and a tent for farmers from distant locations who want to visit the project to take part in training sessions. And many volunteers, including students from Camosun College, UBC and UVic, have travelled to Assam to gain work experience in the garden and accompany staff when they visit nearby villages.”

In addition to training people from the Digboi region, staff from the Centre also take their lessons on the road. A portable electricity generator—a rarity is Assam—audio-visual equipment and resource materials translated into the Assamese language allow them to visit and teach in remote villages, too.

Today, the Centre has four full-time and several part-time employees. It is managed by a capable young Indian woman named Pompy Ghosh, who spent her first year as a volunteer at the project.

Abruptly, Carswell stops talking and her eyes fill with tears. She describes the brutal family violence, abandonment and poverty that have been a constant backdrop to this young woman’s life. “This job means so much to Pompy,” explains Carswell. “When we first appointed her to this position there was a great deal of animosity in the community because it is very uncommon in Indian culture to give a job like this to a woman. She now oversees all operations, gives lectures, does the books, develops PowerPoint presentations and is our translator. I am so proud of her.”

At this point in my visit with Carswell it dawns on me that we have long-ago stopped talking about organic tea. Later, I consider it a privilege to have an opportunity to phone Ghosh in India, to ask her how her work with Fertile Ground has affected her. “Madame Peggy has changed my life,” Ghosh says. “There are so many restrictions on what you can and cannot do in India. For me to have this job is unimaginable! With Madame Peggy, I feel that I can do anything. She is my manager, my friend… sometimes I feel like she is my mother. We have the best relationship. I cannot tell you all the good things I feel about her and the work she has done. There is not enough time to do that!”

Ghosh was so excited that I had called her that she asked other people at the Centre for their thoughts. Everyone enthusiastically voiced an opinion and she had responses back to me within 24 hours. Some of these comments, reprinted here verbatim in their broken English, were:

“I have learned compost making, green manuring, collection of biodegradable and non biodegradable things separately.  Also about the importants (sic) of various local weeds or herbs, saving local seed variety, and mainly importants and control of harmful insects.”

“The Centre is important because till today, in the northeast part of India, this is the only one centre where people can learn or know or get trained about organic agriculture.”

“The staff are learning a little bit of English. Moreover, now a days they have developed the courage or confidence to talk to a group of people… explaining about compost or insect controlling methods.”

“They feel very happy, and it is also not hundred per cent false to say that they feel little bit proud.”

Most humbling, however, is their answer to my final question: Is there anything else they would like the people in Canada to know?

“Yes! [We are grateful for] POLITENESS , NO CLASS DIVISION, TRUTHFULNESS, (by truthfulness we mean not making false promise, no cheating, etc.) Most specially we like one feature in the Canadians and that is ONENESS.  Ie. no difference between rich and poor, between high caste and low caste, between ugly and beautiful. This is just like a God gift for us. Because in India it doesn’t matter what one’s qualification or qualities are, only one thing matters and that is one’s  ECONOMIC SITUATION.”

These responses make it easy to see why Carswell and Kelly are so passionate about this project.

This winter, for the first time in 10 years, Carswell will try not to go to India. “My ultimate goal was that this project would eventually be taken over by the Assamese people,” Carswell says. “The Centre is being well-managed and I keep in touch with Pompy and others via email.

“Several of the growers we have been working with over the years are growing, processing and exporting their tea. Kel and I now have six varieties of organic fair trade tea available for sale here through our newly formed business, The Small Tea Co-operative. Proceeds from the sale directly support the tea growers. While our work is by no means complete, I think we can say that our efforts have been pretty successful. I will spend my volunteer time this winter working from Vancouver Island. I am hoping to find two or three new people who are interested in Fertile Ground and who would be willing to become board members. Together, we will do our best to support Pompy and her team from a distance.

“I love the people of Assam, but there are family and friends that I love here on Vancouver Island, too. Balancing my life in both worlds will always be a challenge.”

FMI call 250-337-8348 or visit

Help Support Fertile Ground at The Mad Hatters Tea Party

Fertile Ground has planned a fun-filled fund-raising event for 2:00 pm, Sunday, November 1st at the Florence Filberg Centre. The Mad Hatters Tea Party will feature a selection of decadent desserts, fruit and several different teas, including flavorful Indian “Chai” prepared with fresh ginger and spices. Local herbalist and owner of Innisfree Farms, Chanchal Cabera, has promised to make up a special Mad Hatters blend for all to sample and enjoy. There will be prizes for the most unusual hats, a silent auction and much more.

A highlight of the evening will be a slide presentation, showcasing Assamese culture and, of course, the Adarsh Seuj Prakalpa Resource Centre. Money raised will enable Fertile Ground to continue to maintain the Centre and provide information and training to interested farmers, self-help groups and tea growers in other parts of the Assam.

Tickets are $16 each and are available in advance at: Home and Garden Gate (Courtenay and Cumberland), Bop City Records (Courtenay), Blue Heron Books (Comox) and Abraxas Books (Denman Island).

Piano teacher Kelly Thomas takes a unique approach to helping students like Zak Watson learn.

Piano teacher Kelly Thomas takes a unique approach to helping students like Zak Watson learn.

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

Even without an instrument, information pills
piano instructor Kelly Thomas is musical. As she talks about how music has shaped and guided her life, online her silver bracelets quietly chime together. And as she excitedly discusses the power of music and the inspiration she finds in sharing her musical passions with her students, her wrist symphony rises to a crescendo.

Nestled into a First Street green space, Thomas’ home and studio look out onto a small creek and the wildlife that use the space as a corridor to the Puntledge River. Thomas moved to the Valley from Edmonton two years ago and started teaching piano and salsa dancing. She had 25 years of experience as an accompanist but had only taught art—never piano—before this. “The traditional piano methods that I had learned with didn’t even remotely convey the feeling I had about music and where the joy, for me, is,” Thomas explains.

This joy comes in giving her students music as a lifelong companion and empowering them to find their own individual voice through music. She accomplishes this by using a non-traditional, or playing-based, method of teaching called Simply Music.

Simply Music was developed by an Australian musician, Neil Moore, who was given the challenge to teach a blind, eight-year-old boy to play the piano. So, Moore began to compose pieces and ‘distill’ them into patterns that he could translate directly into his student’s hands, and thus onto the keyboard.

Thomas glances toward her upright Steinway as she describes the process. “He touched his student’s hands and gave them a sequence. He explained that this is a pattern and you repeat the pattern and it goes up here and then down here. This motivic repetition, variation and development is the compositional and improvisational foundation for western popular, jazz and classical music.”

It sounds complicated but it is as natural as learning how to speak. Not only did Moore’s student excel through this method of teaching, he was able to pass on these lessons to his four-year-old sister, who was also blind. Moore began to share these techniques with other teachers and Simply Music was born.

“The idea here is that the teaching is not hinged on reading,” says Thomas, furthering her explanation by holding out her hands and saying: “Music is put into your hands and put directly onto the instrument, which then becomes part of a song and, from there, a part of your musical language for self expression.”

Neil Moore recognized a recurring problem with traditional reading-based approaches to teaching piano. How many people had piano lessons as kids and then abandon their lessons as soon as they are old enough to decide for themselves? In his article The Piano: Its Present and Future, pianist Jeffrey Chappell cites Morty Manus’s ponderings on the drop out rates for piano lessons. “There are statistics which indicate that 90 per cent of students who drop out still wish that they could play the piano. The future of the piano as a pedagogical instrument should consist of supportive, client-oriented approaches which recognize the study of music as a means for fulfillment and self-expression.”

Thomas couldn’t agree more. She pushes her curly hair back and leans forward to emphasize her next point: “This curriculum is designed to facilitate music as being a companion for life so that students will stick with it, so that music will be a friend, a source of solace, and an integral part of their entire lives.”

The Simply Music program covers popular music, classical, blues, gospel and accompaniment. The accompaniment aspect of Simply Music is important because it is, by its very definition, playing with another instrument. Thomas points out that “piano has generally been one person with one piano in a practice room.” She pauses here to sing a few scales. “But by learning accompaniment fairly early, it means that people can get together with other instrumentalists or vocalists, much the way guitar players do.”

This deep connection with a musical community is what Thomas has found in her own life, whether playing in a band or accompanying others. Thomas met her lifelong friend, the piano, at the age of seven with reading based lessons starting in Calgary and eventually in Yellowknife. She played both popular and conservatory pieces but didn’t participate in any of the exams until university where she went straight into the Grade 9 exam and came out with first class honors.

“The turning point for me,” Thomas recalls, “and I remember it so clearly, was when I was around 12 and I was playing this piece, a Christmas pop song.” She hums the tune, head bopping, hands tapping. “And I really couldn’t play it the way it was written so I just slightly modified it. In retrospect I can tell that I added a swing feel to it. I didn’t know that’s what it was—I just knew that that was how I heard the song. When I played it at the lesson, the piano teacher’s reaction was: ‘Hmmm, you can play it that way if you want to.’ Compare that to my next teacher, who was amazing and she said, ‘OK, look, if you can’t play it, fake it.’ What that meant to me was that you have to know: what the genre is, what is going on in the piece, where it is going, and what the form is so that you can get through without stopping and without anyone thinking ‘this person doesn’t know what they are doing.’ The idea is to make sure that you know what is going on so that you can play convincingly.”

Arriving in Edmonton, after growing up in Yellowknife, Thomas initially enrolled in the University of Alberta’s music program, but later switched to another highly successful music program offered by Grant MacEwan Community College. There she developed her music skills in the jazz program and cultivated her interest in a broad range of music.

Thomas’ belief in lifelong learning led her toward the education sector, where she began her career in television and video production with AccessTV, Alberta’s educational television station, whilst pursuing her avocation as a community choir accompanist. For 25 years she was the accompanist for the Ekos choir. “That was my main enjoyment,” she says with a tinge of nostalgic sadness. “It is a wonderful group of people from all walks of life who come together because they love to share music.”

Six years ago Thomas returned to university to finish her degree. Her major was fine arts and her minor was music with a focus on ethnomusicology. Ethnomusicology is a branch of musicology defined as “the study of social and cultural aspects of music and dance in local and global contexts.” According to Thomas, the focus was immersion in the topic of study. “It’s not studying it in the third person, it is actually doing it. That is when I got involved in African dance and drumming and realized that many cultures pass on their music through means other than writing. This really resonated with me.”

To make ends meet while at school, Thomas hosted a classical music show on Alberta’s CKUA radio station. CKUA is a listener-funded radio station “with a tremendously broad range of programming in classical, jazz, folk, rock, world, alternative as well as educational segments”—a perfect fit for someone with Thomas’ background and predilections.

It was about this time that Thomas reconnected with another great love in her life: Cuban music. A Nigerian with a cockney accent and a PhD in genetics had started teaching Cuban salsa and it caught on like wildfire. “It is a hugely popular dance that is taking the whole world by storm,” Thomas says. “And, one of the best things about it is that you can go almost anywhere in the world and find a place to dance salsa.

“Playing music has been with me all my life and I feel so fortunate to have that. But,” Thomas confesses, “I never thought that I could dance. I was a total sports geek. Growing up in Yellowknife, all I seemed to do was train for competitive swimming. So, I never really got the opportunity to learn partner dancing. And let’s face it—musicians rarely get to dance, unless of course you’re Cuban.”

So, when a friend invited Thomas to come out to a Cuban salsa class she was amazed to discover how quickly she picked it up and, that suddenly Cuban music began to make a lot more sense. “I had heard Cuban music before and I was really interested in it but it was so complicated. The rhythms were fascinating but complex and I just didn’t get it. But, as soon as I learned to dance, it all became so much clearer because it is a music that is derived from dance. The music and the dance are inseparable. I started hearing things that I hadn’t heard before in the music so it was doubly great because I felt that I was expanding myself musically, plus I was starting to become more coordinated on the dance floor which was fabulous.”

When Thomas and her husband moved to Courtenay a few years ago they were happy to find that many in the community were interested in salsa and that, with their own experience in Cuban salsa, they had something to add. They began SalsaSundays and a drop in Friday night practice. “After learning salsa and enjoying it so much it would be terrible not to have it continue as part of our lives,” Thomas says. “We really just want to dance and socialize with people that love to salsa dance.”

Thomas’ shift from participant in music to teacher coincides with her move to the Comox Valley. Her commitment to contributing to the musical community is evident in her other endeavours: pianist with the Georgia Straight Big Band and flautist with the Comox Valley Concert Band.

And how has the Comox Valley responded to these new teachings? “So far, I am just so thrilled with how things are going,” Thomas says with a huge smile. “I have a lot of kids in my Simply Music lessons, but I also really enjoy working with adults because they bring so much life experience to what they want to express. They ask really interesting questions and want to know the history and the ethnomusicology behind the pieces. It is also a great activity for adults because it keeps the mind sharp. It opens up whole new avenues in your brain when you learn something new.”

One of Thomas’ students, Janet Rogers, has thoroughly enjoyed coming back to playing the piano as an adult student.  “Kelly’s passion for music, her patience with me as a ‘mature’ student and her innovative ways of teaching, have produced remarkable results,” Rogers says. “She ignites in me a joy to connect with music and then she provides the structure to let that musicality flow out to the piano.”

In their first couple of lessons, Thomas taught Rogers some basic movements on the piano and some terminology. By the third lesson, Rogers was learning the blues form and in the first year she learned a number of well known classical pieces, accompaniment, major, minor, seventh and thirteenth cords, some popular pieces, and a number of pieces that she wanted to learn that weren’t part of the core curriculum.

Students in the first year are getting accustomed to playing and recognizing how to learn pieces. “You are learning how to learn,” she explains. “In the first year you don’t look at any sheet music. You just play. By about a year and half you’re learning how to write and read rhythm. Into the second year you learn how to read music based on what you know how to play. When you learn to read the music, the world really opens up. It is like learning any language where you learn to speak and then to read. When you learn to read music, you already have a vocabulary. It makes it so much easier to follow a piece of music and also to improvise on it. You can go in any direction in terms of genre and improvising.”

Her younger students are equally enthusiastic, and the feedback Thomas hears from parents and teachers is that the kids are happy they can just sit down and play. “They all want to visit the piano regularly. When they see a piano they will go to it and play around, which is exceptional. Most of my students are beginners but later on if they want to focus on a specific genre they would have many tools already. They would be light years ahead of most other people. Even in terms of analysis, they are absorbing song form and motivic development and they don’t even know it. They are getting advanced concepts and it is just a part of learning a song.”

Ikuko Watson’s two children, Zak, 10 and Taeo, seven, love the variety of music—from upbeat blues to Mama Mia—that they get to play. Watson is especially impressed with the progress and enthusiasm her kids display. “The process looks very natural and they are clever players, not just readers of music.”

To find out more about group lessons, lunch hour lessons for adults, private lessons, and SalsaSundays classes please contact Kelly Thomas at 250.338.8079 or [email protected]

One Response to Simply Music

  1. As featured on ABC’s “Regis and Kelly”, ABC Los Angeles News, InFocus Magazine, and the Omaha Herald, Simply Music provides a breakthrough curriculum that has students playing contemporary, jazz, classical and accompaniments from their very first lessons […]