The year was 1947: John Hart was Premier of B.C., William Lyon Mackenzie King was Prime Minister of Canada, the average wage for a labourer was $0.71 per hour, and it was the first time Chilliwack hosted a music and dance festival.
Sponsored by the Lions Club and the B.C. Registered Music Teachers’ association, the inaugural festival was held in April and featured about 200 entrants, including a young Lorna MacLaren who played piano.
“Music’s always been a very important part of my life,” says MacLaren. “I began as a participant in the very first music festival, then later, I was a teacher and had choirs in the festival,” she says fondly.
Now in retirement, MacLaren no longer has students, children, or grandchildren in the Festival, but says she still enjoys being involved. This year she’s volunteering as a choral coordinator and adjudicator secretary, where she will be responsible for a variety of tasks including keeping participants in order and tracking all their marks.
“It’s a wonderful job. I thoroughly enjoy it,” she adds.
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Since its conception 71 years ago, the Chilliwack Lions Club Music and Dance Festival has grown immensely: what started out as a three-day festival with a couple hundred entries has become a month-long performing arts extravaganza with more than 3,800 participants from across the southern end of the province.
From the start, the festival’s goal has always been to increase appreciation for the arts. “The main aim of the festival is to further interest in music, to develop the appreciation in the general public, and to further musical education in those individuals or groups taking part,” said Howard Denike, a local music teacher, to the Chilliwack Progress in 1947.
Not much has changed between now and then, says Laurie Hirschman, who’s been involved with the Festival in one way or another since 1967, when she first began participating. Since 1981, she’s been attending with her own students and volunteering for the Festival.
“It’s about the joy of watching the kids succeed,” says Hirschman of her nearly life-long participation with the the Festival.” Not everyone can win … but small successes are big successes, and all we can do is ask, ‘Did you do your best today?’ because every day is a different best, and that’s good enough.”
And while the Festival is highly competitive, with senior winners in music progressing to provincial competition—and then possibly to nationals if they do well—Hirschman says everyone works to ensure the Festival is a positive experience that fosters independence and creativity.
“Even the adjudicators (speak) in gentle terms to encourage (participants) to try harder,” adds MacLaren. “They provide a lot of encouragement.”
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The encouragement doesn’t stop at the adjudicators, though. Because the Festival’s mission is to help kids succeed, they offer thousands of dollars in bursaries each year. Last year saw $18,000 delivered to participants: with nearly $7,000 of that total used help pay the entry fees and provide some travel money for those who continued to provincials.
Listed non-profit society, the Chilliwack Lions Club Music & Dance Festival relies on volunteers and donations to make each year’s event a success. And with more than 150 volunteers working more than 3,300 hours, the Festival is the fifth largest in the province, which is even more tremendous when considering Chilliwack’s size.
Chilliwack’s festival is on par with similar festivals in Vancouver Kiwanis when you look at per capita, says Hirschman. And while observers can, and do, attend each event, she says the audience sizes need to grow to help build the kids’ confidence levels. “It’s a really affordable event,” adds Hirschman. “And the kids are worth it.”
The Festival runs from Feb. 10 to Mar. 15, 2018, with the dance honours performance on Mar. 11, at the Chilliwack Cultural Centre, and the music honours performance on Apr. 7, at the Broadway Church. Tickets for each session are $5, or $15 for a family (of six), or $20 for a season pass. The honours performance fees are $10, or $25 for a family of four. To learn more, please visit ChilliwackLionsClubMusicAndDanceFestival.com.