A well-known and highly accomplished musician and bandmaster, John Lam had limited interest in playing the trombone when he was young. A conversation with a Canadian Staff Band (CSB) member, however, played a key role in cultivating his musical passion. Prior to a CSB concert, the band’s bass trombonist spent some time with Lam and nurtured his talent.
“Fifteen years later,” says Lam, “I had taken his place in the band.
“It was significant to me then, and still now, that with everything required of a staff bandsman on an ‘away weekend,’ he spent time with me,” he continues. “The fact that I ended up playing bass trombone in the CSB proves that time invested in a young person can make a lasting impression.”
Lam, currently bandmaster of the CSB and London Citadel Band, Ont., says relationships made the difference in his musical journey. In addition to the influence of the CSB, he credits the trombone section from Owen Sound Corps Band, Ont., in developing his love for music.
“When I was learning to play the trombone, I didn’t like it that much,” he shares. “But I liked the people who taught me; they were all amazing role models. I trusted and relied on them and talked to them about things I couldn’t with my parents.”
As time progressed, music became more important to Lam and he studied to become a music educator. He now teaches at Westminster Secondary School, an inner-city school in London, Ont., where he invests in the lives of students (see sidebar).
“Music is just a means to an end; the end being forming relationships, engaging young people and bringing them to Christ,” he says.
However, Lam asserts that music cannot be second-rate. “Young people have a strong sense of ‘quality,’ ” he says. “They will tell you that they will listen to almost anything on their iPods as long as it is quality; the same can be said for the sheet music we place in front of them.”
Lam believes that providing excellent music shows young people they are valued and leads to meaningful relationships.
“The Army has a rich heritage in music but we also play high-calibre jazz, rock and classical in my bands,” he says. “If music brings people together, then we should use every style available to facilitate a ‘corps village’ in which to raise our youth.
“Some of the kids in my school band come because music moves them and they love it. They are the ones that beg me to play classic pieces such as Air for Band by Frank Erickson. Others attend rehearsal because I may be the only adult that calls them by name that day and they want someone they can depend on. Young people will connect with anyone who spends time with them, whether it is in a worship group, brass band or basketball team.”
As a bandmaster, Lam works to facilitate an inclusive band culture.
“Before I joined London Citadel, the band was already involved in tours and outreach,” Lam notes. “The community loves to hear us play and so we share the message of Christ with them through music.
“When the Canadian Staff Band tours, we only have 36 to 48 hours in a corps or community. So in that time, we try to be personal and engage with those we see through concerts and workshops.”
Additionally, developing personal connections within a band—not just with the tutor or bandmaster—is highly important to Lam.
“The London Citadel Band facilitates mentorship,” he says. “My 17-year-old son is friends with 70- and 80-year-olds because of the band. He’s surrounded by positive Christian role models. For me, those quality relationships make the band members my extended family. If there is a crisis or cause for celebration, they’re the first at my door.”
For 10 years, Greg Dunleavy, a Grade 12 student, has benefited from John Lam’s commitment of time as a school teacher and witness of Christ’s love.
“We were on a band trip one year,” Lam relates, “and Greg told me about his difficult situation at home. But then he said, ‘The day you put the baritone horn in my hands changed my life.’ That encapsulates what I strive to do through teaching.”
Thanks to Lam’s spiritual example, Dunleavy is now a member of Resounding Brass, the London Citadel youth band. “I have a desire to come closer to God. I hunger for more of his Word,” says Dunleavy, who has also taken soldiership classes and attends youth group.
“Music is my passion. It has helped me through a lot of tough times and I can express myself through it. When Mr. Lam told me about The Salvation Army’s heritage in music, I wanted to be involved. I’ve found everyone at church is loving and friendly; it’s like a family.”
Lam, in particular, has been the caring family member Dunleavy desperately needed. “I can speak to Mr. Lam about anything,” Dunleavy continues. “He has been like a father to me. Since I was a child, he understood me when no one else did. I look up to him and respect him.”