The Sarah McLachlan School of Music

Sarah McLachlan School of Music | BCBusiness
Sarah McLachlan takes a hands-on approach at her school of music.

Congratulations to the Sarah McLachlan School of Music, 2013’s #15 Most Innovative Company in B.C.

The Sarah McLachlan School of Music is proof that innovation is not limited to technological inventions. “The notion of innovation in a broader context is so important,” says Innovators panellist David Allison. “This non-profit organization leverages the fame of a single individual to accomplish social good.”

For years, singer and songwriter Sarah McLachlan had a dream of opening a music school. “I felt so lucky and grateful for my success,” she says. “I wanted to do something meaningful for my community. I realized that music programs were some of the first things to be cut from regular school curricula, and the thought that there were youth who might not experience the joy of learning music seemed unacceptable to me.”

So in 1999 she started The Sarah McLachlan Foundation. By 2002 the foundation had become a music program in partnership with Arts Umbrella. Then in 2011, through an innovative three-way public-private partnership between the City of Vancouver, The Sarah McLachlan Foundation and the Wolverton Foundation (whose donation involved buying and renovating a building), the school finally had a permanent home in east Vancouver.

Because the school is funded by McLachlan, partners and fundraising donations, there are no tuition fees; it’s free for students accepted into the program. Disadvantaged, at-risk or otherwise vulnerable youth from grades 4 to 12 receive group and private instruction in guitar, piano, percussion, voice, choir, songwriting, music theory and new media.

Even more innovative is the school’s collaborative learning model. “We don’t necessarily focus first on promoting excellence in music,” says executive director Ann de la Hey, who has been with the organization for 11 years. “Our mission is to foster the human spirit through music and a love of the arts.” The school’s goal is that, through the power of music and song, at-risk youth can experience greater community and connectivity.

For years McLachlan financed almost all of the school’s overhead costs. Now that it employs 41, has 420 students (up from 280 last year) and an annual operating budget of over $1 million, continued growth requires increased revenues. “Sarah is the chair of the board,” says De la Hey. “She’s committed to innovative fundraising as well as finding creative opportunities for our youth. She’s an incredible role model.”

McLachlan’s goal is to make music education an essential part of every child’s learning. “It’s exciting to witness the power music has to draw someone out,” she says, “to see how students grow as people over the years, and to see the dreams and goals they go on to fulfill.”

For Allison, this unique non-profit gets top marks. “There’s a specificity of purpose that is very innovative and interesting, in a sector that can feel a little moribund. It’s a fresh and entrepreneurial take on approaching a social issue.”