By Thom Barker
A unique music program that started out as an experiment eight years ago has become a staple of Christ the Teacher Catholic Schools' (CTTCS) cultural life.
Channel 22 is Sacred Heart High School's rock band, a class for which students get credit, and is in demand for performances across the school division and beyond.
"The kids love it, just the idea of a rock band coming to their school," said Jaedon Pellatt, 16, the group's primary drummer. ""I guess it sounds kind of cliché, but it kind of creates, like, a moment, all those kids enjoying it so much and you're just sitting back and letting it happen, enjoying what you do."
In 2005, Trent Senger, now Sacred Heart principal, and Darrell Zaba, now CTTCS director of education, were inspired by a band from a high school in Brandon, Manitoba called CP Express that played in Yorkton.
"They saw that and thought, 'hey, this is something we can do'," explained Rita Hilbig, Channel 22 teacher and music instructor.
The two administrators approached Hilbig and band teacher Heather Brown to head up the program.
"We jumped in with both feet," Hilbig said calling the program "unique, different and exciting."
The school board ponied up the money to buy instruments and equipment and fund the teaching positions.
"The board has been incredibly supportive," said Scott Hoffort, the other teacher currently with the program.
With the help of Ken Kohlert at Fuzztone Music, Sacred Heart's "school of rock" was ready to roll for the 2005/2006 school year.
The program started out with 22 students auditioning in September of whom 15 were selected for the inaugural edition of the band. By the end of October they were ready to debut, but still hadn't come up with a name. Early in the semester, Hilbig had proposed Channel 22 after the Sirius satellite Top 40 station she had used for repertoire inspiration the previous summer while travelling.
"It just kind of stuck with me," she said.
With the band's premiere performance looming, the kids decided to go with their teacher's suggestion.
Channel 22 debuted with a four-song set October 26, 2005 at a school assembly and the rest, as they say, is rock 'n roll history.
Each year students from Grade 8 through 12 are eligible to try out in June for the following school year. Hilbig said it is a balancing act, which doesn't necessarily favour those with extensive musical training or even Channel 22 alumni, but more the needs of the band for any given year, including keeping a good mix of veterans and rookies.
Students, even veterans, are required to learn and perform three songs for the audition.
"When you're first starting out, it's kind of nerve-wracking, actually," Pellatt said. "You have to memorize all your stuff and you've got to make sure you've got it good because obviously you want to get in, but then once you make it the first time, it gets a little easier after that."
Emily Pews, 17, who plays piano and sings, said experience in the band is a definite advantage. "You learn how to pick up stuff really really fast and that really helps with the audition process."
Throughout the year, the band learns new material and performs at various events both within the school system and at outside events around the Yorkton area. The class culminates with a tour that has taken Channel 22 to Canora, Balgonie, Fort Qu'Appelle, Melville, Langenburg, Wadena, Rose Valley, Lanigan, Foam Lake, Wynyard, Watson, Saskatoon, Regina, Moose Jaw, Russell and Virden.
Channel 22's most famous alum is Samara Yung, the Saskatchewan Country Music Awards (SCMA) 2012 Female vocalist of the year.
Two other former band members, Andrew Cavanaugh and Brian Reed, play with Steve Gibson, another SCMA sensation, who was nominated for five awards last year.
But even those who don't go on to music careers reap benefits according to Hilbig.
"Many continue to sing or play when they go on to university," she said. "They are all still pretty young yet but I'm confident that for many, maybe even most, music will be a part of their world for a very long time. Plus the confidence this group gives is maybe even a greater asset than musical knowledge."
Veterans Lyndon Shea, 17, (guitar and vocals) and Plews agree there are benefits beyond the music.
"It's kind of cool just to go and just jam out after school and just unwind that way," said Shea.
"The teamwork involved in this, some of it is taken for granted, but the skills that you learn, being able to listen to each other, listen to each other's ideas, bring your ideas forward, it's really a unique experience," said Plews.
Hoffort said that while Hilbig may not have come up with the idea, she has been the "driving force" from the beginning. Her passion for the kids is obvious as is their affection for her.
"As well as a teacher, she's very much a friend," said Plews. "She's, like, someone you can go to and talk to and she knows her stuff. She has a tendency to be brutally honest. If something's really good, she'll say, 'yeah, keep doing that, it's awesome.' If something's bad, she makes her face. We call it the Rita face and you're like, 'oh, that doesn't sound good, better stop doing that'."
Hilbig knows about "the face." She said she tries not to react that way, but when she hears clams—as people in business call sour notes—it's completely involuntary.
She has an extensive musical background, herself. She played piano and sang in church and school and has been a music teacher in the Catholic school system for a decade. But she never played in this kind of band.
"That's what's so awesome about it for me," she said. "I get to be vicariously in a rock band. I was too much of a geek before."