Living The Dream: Music teacher leads Beaconsfield High School to notoriety

Beaconsfield High School Senior Jazz Band at the Montreal Jazz Festival, July 5, 2018 (Lissa Albert)

Beaconsfield High School Senior Jazz Band gave a spectacular performance at the Montreal Jazz Festival July 5. It was high noon at the pinnacle of a heat wave but music teacher Phil Legault wasn’t feeling the heat. At least, not figuratively.

After the first number ended, Legault took the microphone.

“Hey everybody, how’re ya doing?” he called out, greeted by cheers. “I’m gonna apologize in advance,” he said, motioning to the sky. “I know it’s really hot.” He paused for effect. “But we plan on making it hotter. How does that sound? Here we go, baby!”

Legault, who has been with Beaconsfield High School’s (BHS) music program for 22 years, began his career there as an intern. At this, his second Jazz Festival appearance, his students were flawless, their energy never waning, and the crowd loved every note.

Standing front and centre was Melissa Zehr, whose daughter, Chloe Dagostino, soloed on trumpet.

“My whole family came in from Ontario,” she said, pointing out a group of nearby spectators. “But what’s more special than anything is that my late father-in-law was a bass player for 30 years in the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.” Peter Dagostino had also played the Jazz Fest. “It’s so special that Chloe’s continuing her grandfather’s legacy.”

Gary Vegh, whose son Paymon is a saxophonist, watched in a perpetual awe. Paymon is pursuing a double degree at Vanier College next year, studying music and science concurrently. Each time Paymon stood for a solo, Vegh’s cell phone captured the video.

“Phil has been a big part of Paymon’s success,” said Vegh after the concert was over and the band posed for professional photos onstage. “He’s given Paymon confidence and has helped him grow.”

It’s clear that Legault has inspired every one of the students. Each musician watched their teacher attentively as he led them through their repertoire. Playing in the oppressive heat of that day while acing each number was clearly due to the leadership the performers have experienced.

2018 had been a banner year for BHS’s music program. In March, the senior jazz band played at the JazzFest des jeunes du Québec, a St-Hubert festival which also acts as an audition for bands who want to play the Jazz Festival. Not only did they win that honour, the band won gold.

In April, they visited New York for the Heritage Festival. With bands from all over North America, the BHS music program came back with its biggest success ever.

“Our junior concert band won silver. The senior jazz and senior concert bands got gold,” Legault said. “We’re super proud of these kids.”

Along with colleague Valérie Lepage, Legault sees trips like New York as learning experiences for life.

“They traveled to a big, overwhelming city,” he said. “They learned how to manage money, find their way around a new place, how to behave in public with friends.”

Legault has watched the students excel at everything they have undertaken this year.

“But they work for it,” he said, growing serious. “Every week, they’re in their seats at 7:45 a.m., for an hour before school. Leading up to the Jazz Festival, they came in even if it meant they had miss working at their jobs. That’s how seriously they’ve taken it.”

Juggling tutorials, exams, and prom considerations, Legault and Lepage were able to get rehearsals three times weekly.

“Preparing was just an extension of the work ethic they’ve held all year long,” said Legault. “These kids have developed an appreciation for music. They’ve become experienced in many different ways. They learned that messing around in band class, they won’t nail the performance.”

For Legault, it goes beyond music. “I teach them not to lose sight of the parallels between music and life,” he said.

Zehr said her daughter has an awareness for those parallels.

“Chloe is going into her graduating year with many options in life; music is such a big part of her life, but she hasn’t ruled out the sciences either. The thing she’s learned from Phil is that she can reach for the highest levels and get there.”

Legault said one of the most important lessons he can teach his students is to rely on each other.

“In a band, you have to work together. If they learn to rely on each other in band, they’ll learn to rely on each other in life too. They’ve become team players.”

Legault knows how that can be; he has 30 years of performing on saxophone in and around Montreal. As a recording artist with independent Montreal label Aquarius Records, he has experienced every type of band from small to large, and plays events with his own group, The Phil Legault Ensemble.

“I love performing,” he said, “but I love teaching too. Those kids make me proud every time.”

He reflected on how his students have changed over time.

“At the end of the year, we do a circle thing,” he said. “I ask them to talk about their year, about music, or anything they want.”

His voice got soft as he recounted the evolution of these moments.

“In the first year, each student talks for about a minute. But in their last year, it’s a lot longer. They’ve grown. They reflect more. It takes more time for every student to express it. There’s crying, there’s warmth, there’s laughter. It’s bittersweet for me, because so many of them are leaving school. But it’s so rewarding.”

Legault had not prepared an excess of numbers for the band’s repertoire this year, contrary to his personal norm.

“When we found out we were going to be playing the Jazz Festival, we were super stoked,” he said. “But I had to add a few numbers.”

One song the band would play was Stevie Wonder’s Higher Ground. The students had wanted to play it all year, and the Jazz Festival was its debut. Their impeccable performance of the song justified their keen anticipation.

Another vision was to have a male vocalist; Lepage explained this as she took the microphone and introduced Andrew d’Apice as the singer to fulfill that goal. He took centre stage to perform Ray Charles’s Hallelujah, I Love Her So with his bandmates. The juxtaposition of this young man singing a jazz standard with such flair startled at first, but became utterly endearing to witness.

Lynlee Anderson, d’Apice’s mother, could not stop smiling. She said, “Andrew loves music so much, but he’s just going to keep it as a hobby. He’s loved being taught by Mr. Legault.”

At one point, Legault paused to publicly celebrate his students. He described their rehearsal schedule, their dedication, and in a moment replete with palpable pride, he faced his band and said, “thank you for being so awesome.”

To Legault, leading his students is not just business. He said he always tries to instill positivity in his students.

“It’s where I want to be, as well as where they want to be. I tell them, all the time, no matter what kind of day they’re having, when they come to band, it’s going to be a great day.”

He paused as he pondered the trajectory of his life.

“I have the luckiest job in the world. I’m doing what I love, I get to hang out with kids all day, teaching them music, performing.”

Then he sighed happily.

“I’m living the dream.”

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