A project that has taken shape at Grace Church, Markham during the pandemic is helping to create connections within the church community and beyond. Parkway Studio, a music studio set up in the church building, has become a space for youth to belong and a place where Markham musicians can rehearse locally.
The idea was sparked when Aaron Dumpala, Grace’s music director, identified a need in Markham that he felt the parish could meet. “I realized it’s a little strange that there’s such a big musical community in Markham and Stouffville, but still we have to gravitate to Toronto for rehearsal studios,” he says. “I thought, we’ve got a bit of space at the church, so why don’t we create a hub where musicians can meet?”
He also hoped to find a way for youth to use their creative talents in the church. “I did see a bit of a disconnect with the younger demographic,” he says. “As much as I love my community, I was seeing that huge intergenerational gap.”
In 2019, the parish applied for and received a Reach Grant from the diocese for studio equipment. “We didn’t have any space in the church for this other than a cupboard, so we were going to build a very, very small sound booth in the choir room cupboard,” says the Rev. Canon Nicola Skinner, incumbent.
Immediate plans were put on hold when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the church closed its doors to in-person gatherings. Meanwhile, a room became available to allow for a bigger space than they’d first thought possible, and the Rev. Andrew Colman, the church’s new assistant curate, put the team in touch with a studio designer who could create a blueprint for the studio.
When the building was allowed to re-open in September 2020, the parish was ready to get to work on the space, with the help of many members of the congregation. “It was done with so many people from the parish; it wasn’t just one person,” says Mr. Dumpala. “We ended up pulling it off and building a studio just in time for Christmas.”
Mr. Dumpala was able to use the new facility to record each of Grace’s choir members separately and create a virtual choir for Christmas. “I said, ‘Don’t worry about the technology, don’t worry about the rest; I’ll take care of it. Just come and sing.’ And they loved that,” he says. “A lot of the parishioners saw this as a studio project more for youth or a younger demographic, but it was nice to see that intergenerational benefit.”
While the pandemic may have delayed the studio’s launch, it also broadened the team’s vision for what the facility could do. “We realized we could use it for the choir, we could use it for youth group and after-school stuff, but we could also do podcasts, we could use it for videos,” says Canon Skinner. “So in actual fact, COVID was a bit of a catalyst for more ideas about how we could ramp up using technology within the church.”
With the studio up and running, Mr. Dumpala turned his attention to how he could use it to engage with the broader Markham community. “I really wanted to have a summer program. I know that kids have had the worst couple years of their formative years, stuck inside and not able to play music,” he says.
Parkway Summer Sessions invited young artists from the local community to participate in four weeks of instruction in vocals, guitar, percussion, composition, mixing and recording. Originally planned as an online program, Mr. Dumpala was able to offer it in-person when the Ontario government announced it would allow summer camps.
In all, 12 artists signed up. “A few of them were already from the church, and there were some new kids who heard about it and wanted to join in. It was a month long. It was a huge endeavour,” says Canon Skinner.
One of Mr. Dumpala’s goals was to give the participants creative control and empower them to make their own decisions. “I wanted to call them artists, not kids or youth. Regardless of age, they have talent. And even if they don’t have musical talent, that’s OK,” he says.
At the end of the summer, the new band Water Guns N’ Daisies played to a sold-out, physically distanced crowd in Grace’s parking lot, with copies of its 15-track album for sale. The band also contributed a performance to the Bishop’s Company Cabaret in October.
Since then, the music studio has become a home base for the church’s youth group, with a few new members joining in. The group launched a weekly podcast in October, where they get to choose a topic to talk about for 20 minutes. Mr. Dumpala sees this as a change from the traditional pizza-and-a-movie model of youth ministry. “It’s bringing them into the 21st century. We’re learning something, we’re having fun, and deeper than that, they’re finding a safe place,” he says.
He thinks it has also empowered the youth to participate more actively in the parish community, helping with technology during weekly services and volunteering at parish events. “They’re not just children of the community; they’re genuine participating members in this parish, regardless of age,” he says.
That more visible presence of youth is something the rest of the congregation has noticed. Canon Skinner says parishioners have been excited to see the success of Parkway Studio. “The congregation has seen the fruits of what Aaron has done already, and they’re really impressed. They know that there’s lots more to come when we open up,” she says.
The parish plans to start a podcast involving both youth and older members of the congregation, interviewing parishioners and learning about their lives. The studio will also be available to rent as rehearsal and recording space for local musicians, and the parish is hoping to partner with nearby schools.
Despite Grace’s success, Mr. Dumpala says he doesn’t think other parishes should necessarily try to open studios of their own. “Try not comparing yourself to the other parish,” he says. “It’s good to share ideas, but I don’t think we should just copy and paste what works here. Look at your specific community, the people you have available and whatever is needed.”
Canon Skinner echoes those thoughts. “You may not be able to do a studio, per say, but it’s really about the vision and allowing somebody with vision like Aaron to run with it,” she says. “It’s already grown, and I think it will continue to grow.”