By Sean Wetselaar and Dasha Zolota
It’s early evening on Jan. 25 and there’s a big crowd at the Virgin Mobile Mod Club near College and Ossington streets – around 500 people. Then Mohammed Yassin takes the stage.
Yassin’s Ryerson-grown band, Beaudifulhors, lives for live performances, but they don’t usually play venues this size. Yassin steps up in front of his four bandmates and takes the mic centre stage.
He does something that has probably been done thousands of times in that exact same spot – tells the audience to pump their fists as the band plays. To his surprise, they do. They all do. “People in the back, back of the room – where all the cool people hang out and don’t do shit – when they were pumping their fists, I was like
‘Oh, okay. We’ve got something here,'” Yassin says.
It’s not the first time an audience has gotten into Beaudifulhors’ unusual style of music – a blend of hip hop, rock, funk, jazz and blues, which Yassin has been told to refer to simply as “alternative” – the band’s members pride themselves on their performance skills. But it was the first time Yassin had played a crowd that size, and for him it was a turning point.
Today, Yassin says the possibility of a career in the fickle music industry is more real than it’s ever been, something the third-year sociology student would never have expected.
Yassin and Beaudifulhors are part of a new wave of Ryerson musicians – connected, driven and talented students who are working towards a music career in unconventional ways. Ryerson may not have the advantage of a formal music program, but that hasn’t stopped the rise of musicians that, by-and-large, have taught themselves everything. Ryerson isn’t the centre of music that the University of Toronto (U of T) or York University might be and its music scene is still in its infancy.
But it’s assuredly on its way. The growth in musical groups at Ryerson is due in no small part to the creation of a new campus group – Musicians@Ryerson (M@R), which was founded in fall 2012 to give the school’s musicians a chance to network and play events together. “They made a network, that’s what they did,” Yassin says.
“They connected all the artists and I’m finding more and more people that have more and more diverse talents.” Eli Vandersluis, a musician and the founder of M@R, created the student group with the intention of combining the community aspect of school life and the common interest in music. It originally started when the engineering student decided in his second year to start a Facebook group for him and his friends.
Since then, through mostly word of mouth, it grew to what is now over 600 members. M@R features two weekly events (an open mic at the Ram in the Rye and either a jam session or industry guest speaker) and acts as an intermediary to help musicians land gigs.
“Ryerson is a really culturally diverse university. But unfortunately, there was nothing really towards musicians or music in general,” Vandersluis says. “Sure, there’s a lot towards the arts, journalism, photography, all different types. But there wasn’t really anything for music, so I figured if nothing was going to happen, then I’m going to start this group myself.”
In an apartment towards the north end of Dufferin Street, second-year politics and governance student Zack Henderson lays down the bars to a song he’s been working on. Henderson has been working on his first EP since December as a solo artist with a new Toronto label – Dungus Records. Right now, he’s working out of its owner, Dave Silani’s, apartment. It’s the first time Henderson has had the benefit of studio-quality sound in his recordings and when he listens back to what they have, he says it feels like his music has come a long way.
Like Yassin, Henderson is largely self-taught, though as a solo artist he’s sometimes even more isolated. He says he had a “lonewolf” mentality in his early days, but today embraces the help of Silani (who’s playing drums on Henderson’s EP) and the like. “You need people to help you,” he says.
Henderson says the scene at Ryerson is different than schools like U of T and York, but that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “It’s a different kind of music scene,” he says. “This is more what you would listen to on your iPod, more original content… Those people [music students] are going to go into something completely different than what people are aiming for here.” But the structure of a formal music faculty has its advantages.
Amir Zadegan, a third-year music student at York, says his time there has given him a great foundation.
This has helped him write songs that are a far cry from York’s focus on classical and jazz. Zadegan sings a mix of R&B and pop that he calls the “singer-songwriter genre.” York’s music program, a fouryear university degree, lets students specialize in one instrument and gives them classical training
in it. The first two years of the program cover exhaustive music theory and gradually open up into more specialized courses like jazz guitar or jazz vocal. But Zadegan notes that the program “is really selective in terms of Jazz or classical.
And that isn’t necessarily tailored to everyone.” But today’s music industry cares little for the education of a prospective artist and as Yassin notes,
“Music theory is great, but it doesn’t get you gigs.” Today’s music students seem more interested in growing their online brands and increasing their presences on social media rather than chord progressions. However, Zadegan says learning traditional chord progressions has helped to teach him good songwriting.
“I’m gonna say that the best thing that I’ve been getting out of being in this program is just being around other musicians,” Zadegan says. “You really don’t need to take a course to get into the music industry… If I want to be a lawyer, I need to go to law school. But for music it’s really just your own experience. Somebody might go to school and be ready to perform and some people might never go to school and just perform around the city until they’ve been at the right place at the right time.” York’s community of musicians is well-established and the school hosts regular events on and around campus for the students to get a feel for performing. Zadegan says some of the upper-year classes – like R&B ensemble (in which students get together and create a musical group) – have helped take his singing to the next level.
But though York produces students who are experts in their chosen instrument, Yassin says the real strength of music programs lie in teaching students to produce and market their own music – like the independent music production program at Seneca College.
“That program is great,” he says. “I want to do that after I [am finished at Ryerson].” Dylan Hennessy graduated from the one-year intensive music program at Seneca about a year and a half ago. He says the program differs from other programs because it doesn’t dilly-dally teaching you to be a musician – “They sort of take you with the assumption that you are already a good musician.” The program is split into thirds.
The first segment focuses on traditional schooling like theory and songwriting and the next works on business, including instruction on earning grant money to support yourself as a Canadian musician.
The final segment is technical and teaches skills like recording your own music “so you can kind of be an all-in-one kind of package,” Hennessy says. “So that you can do all the jobs that are necessary on your own.” One of the challenges of the model would-be Ryerson musicians face is the balancing act between their chosen field of study and their extracurricular passions. If an up-and-coming artist’s biggest commodity is the amount of time they can commit to the highly competitive music industry, the lifestyle of a full-time student can complicate the issue.
This has been particularly true for Yassin who is involved with the Sociology Student Course Union’s executive along with a new student group – the Poetic Exchange – on top of his studies, Musicians@Ryerson and the band. “It does make it tough,” Yassin says. “This semester in particular is very stressful.” The one exception to this rule may be radio and television arts (RTA), which has a curriculum that some students integrate into their prospective music careers.
One such student is recent RTA graduate Chris Hau, whose most notable work is a viral video of himself singing, playing guitar and surfing at the same time, which was featured in December on Good Morning America.
Hau says he was able to create music videos for himself while he was in school, including one that was part of his final-year project.
“So [music] didn’t necessarily take a back seat,” he says. “It was a side seat.” Hau says that because he did RTA, he can produce his own videos and create professional quality content himself for a fraction of the price it would normally require.
He estimates that he could produce a music video that might cost one of his peers upwards of $5,000 for under $500. “I have no overhead to create my own content, which is amazing,” he says.
Ryerson attracts a different kind of musician than the traditional music behemoths, Hau says, with more focus on producers and students that are willing to try to make it on their own steam. But he predicts more and more successful musicians will graduate from RTA.
“I think we’ve learned how to do it all ourselves – it’s just time,” he says. “It’s like anything – quality rises to the top.” Hau says that Musicians@Ryerson is a step in the right direction, but that the scene the university community is still developing. “I think it’s really in development,” he says. “I don’t think it’s there yet.
I don’t think people feel like there’s music going on.” In the year since Hau graduated, M@R has grown exponentially.
Today it has over 600 members, making it one of the largest campus groups at Ryerson. Yassin says that much of Ryerson’s music scene is due to their work. But he agrees that Ryerson’s community has a long way to go. “I feel it’s bubbling,” he says. “We’re all starting to get it, I feel… there’s a lot of tal ent here, a lot of untapped talent.
It’s terrific.” In a slightly ramshackle, fadedred stone, industrial-style building near Front and Sherbourne streets, Yassin meets with Beaudifulhors.
The band meets here once a week at a venue called Rehearsal Factory, which rents out practice rooms for $15-25 per hour. It’s a Sunday, which Yassin likes to take off as a “nothing day,” but lately it’s been the only day everyone is free. Every member of Beaudifulhors is a student, with the exception of keyboardist Sean Trudeau Tavara whom recently graduated, and fitting rehearsals (usually three to four hours) into their schedules is a constant challenge.
But that doesn’t mean they take any less pleasure in these weekly meetings. They’ve just added a sixth member, Sal Maio on guitar, moving former guitarist and bassist Trudeau-Travara to keyboard and the band is excited about the new sound they’re producing. From the beginning, Beaudifulhors has been a “jam band,” Yassin says, and they get a lot of their new music from random synergy in rehearsal time. “I keep all our recordings,” Yassin says. “So I’ve listened to stuff we did in our first month when we were rehearsing for that first gig and we didn’t even know our name… listening to those days where you’re just jamming and then listening to the jams we had last month, the progression is just incredible.” The future is uncertain for Beaudifulhors – though Yassin and Trudeau-Tavara hope to see an EP release within the year – and Ryerson’s music scene is in a similar position. Yassin hopes one day to see something like a one-day music festival run exclusively from Ryerson acts, but the scene is miles from that point. But compared to the state of music at Ryerson in the recent past, it’s come a long way – musicians are connecting who may never have met and Ryerson groups are increasingly being given opportunities to perform.
The band has started headlining monthly showcases at Annette Studios (about a five minute walk from Runneymede station) and since then, they’ve begun getting more attention and playing bigger shows like the one at Mod Club.
Yassin says strangers even have started recognizing him occasionally in public. Nothing in the music industry is set in stone and Yassin is the first to admit his eggs aren’t all in one basket but, “With all this stuff coming towards us, it’s like