Beat boxer tunes up special needs teens in Toronto

by Erica Tiangco.

Jeff Magee interviewed by Centennial College Journalism students

From the teacher’s desk at a Scarborough high school to the stage performing across North America, beat boxer and musician Jeff Magee revealed his two passions in life – music and teaching.
“I started playing piano when I was five years old,” said Magee, in an interview last week at Centennial College’s journalism school. He also always loved to sing.
“When university came around to being an option for me, I decided I wanted to do something that I loved which was music and something else that I love, which is people.” He combined them both, and became a music teacher, learning to play eight to nine different instruments, including violin, which he admits playing poorly.
Magee, 25, composes the music and directs TBA Tunes. Beats. Awesome., an a cappella group of student singers based out of the University of Toronto. Although his extensive musical background and energy is hard to miss when he beat boxes with TBA on stage, Magee is most proud when watching the students perform, especially because most come with no formal musical training.
“When they come here and they can sing one part themselves but be joined in by 17 different voices to just make this beautiful song that they love,…it’s a really unique experience and I love being kind of the parent to teach them all that,” he said.
For Magee, teaching doesn’t stop with Tunes. Beats. Awesome. During the week, Magee can be found teaching music to special needs students at Sir William Osler High School. The school is geared towards special needs students ranging from Grade 9 to age 21.
“It’s a pretty wonderful place for these students because coming out of elementary school they don’t have much for them,” Magee said.
While he had never anticipated educating special needs students, Magee notes that it was the perfect career choice for him.
“Now, I honestly think I couldn’t go back to a regular school. You just love the kids way too much. Your heart melts and they’re so appreciative,” he said, as his face lit up. “ It’s an amazing feeling.”
Magee attributes his interests in education to a bad teacher he had when in high school. While in Grades 11 and 12, Magee started tutoring other students in the music program, a move which he said allowed him to put his stamp on what he thought education should be and ultimately, sparked his inspiration for teaching.
At Sir William Osler, Magee remains hopeful that with a one on one, consistent, hands – on approach, his students can achieve success regardless of their intellectual disability.
“There are a lot of people who think that our school’s a babysitting service, a lot of teachers think that. So, they don’t serve the needs or push the children in any sort of way. They feel like ‘I can give them colouring everyday and what’s the use because they’re never going to do anything in society’ which, I think is a really sad portrayal,” Magee said
Not only is he challenged by each student’s need, but he finds the stigma associated with special needs to be the hardest obstacle to overcome, including those views held by parents.
“Parents at our school are pretty much unsupportive of a lot of education. We’re fighting more than just special needs in that school, parent involvement is difficult, but we try,” he said.
By having students colour to the music of Mozart, or play Guitar Hero because colours and patterns are understood by some of his learners, or recently taking the class on a field trip to see the new Justin Beiber movie, Magee says he finds other ways of letting students explore music, because the traditional end-of-year band recitals simply aren’t possible in his school.
“You don’t really know until you have that experience with special needs students that the littlest sensations are amazing for them,” he said.
Which is why although some students will not get the usual OSSD high school diploma, he does hope they obtain the other certificates offered by the school, including Ministry of Education recognized life skills and work skills.
“I’ve seen these kids be successful in co-op, even if it’s with the most simple task,” Magee said. “You have to try to teach them a skill that they can be employed at and go to a 9 to 5 job. They love being a part of society and just helping out. They’re great workers.”
Although Magee the beat boxer’s own career hasn’t yet been rewarded by fame or fortune, Magee the teacher humbly defines success in his own right.
“To be a famous educator means more to me than being a famous musician. I would love for one of my students to be famous. I think that would be, for me, better than being famous myself.”