Brainerd Blyden-Taylor has a dream that is shared by Martin Luther King Jr., by Barack Obama and, he hopes, by graduates of York’s Faculty of Education. Blyden-Taylor’s dream has taken him from Trinidad to Toronto, and from the North York and Toronto boards of education to the Nathaniel Dett Chorale as its founder, artistic director and conductor. His dream of peace, freedom and equality has intertwined with his passions of music, poetry and community.
It started when he first came to Canada in 1976 to be the minister of youth and music at a Toronto church, he joined the University of Toronto Hart House Chorus, where Professor Denise Narcisse-Mair further his nurtured dream and love of detail, beauty and justice, instilled by his father. Blyden-Taylor went on to found the Nathaniel Dett Chorale in 1998, Canada’s first professional chamber choir dedicated to the creation and performance of Afrocentric music of all styles, including classical, spiritual, gospel, jazz, folk and blues.
Left: Brainerd Blyden-Taylor
“One of the things I love about my craft is the ability to teach, to learn, to make connections and build community through the medium of music and in particular through the poetry connected to the music which we sing,” said Blyden-Taylor, who received an honorary doctorate of laws at York’s Spring Convocation ceremonies Monday, June 29.
To that end, he recited several poems, including “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” by William Butler Yeats, which Blyden-Taylor said speaks to vulnerability, “which I think is important in the work we need to do as human beings and as educators in particular.”
Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread upon my dreams.
Blyden-Taylor also read a poem by African-American poet Langston Hughes titled “The Dream Keeper”.
Bring me all of your dreams,
Bring me all your
That I may wrap them
In a blue cloud-cloth
Away from the too-rough fingers
Of the world.
Blyden-Taylor’s own dreams were kept safe through the thoughtfulness of many great mentors, including Narcisse-Mair who embraced him and “in many ways shielded me from the too rough fingers of the world.”
Right: Brainerd Blyden-Taylor (left), York Chancellor Roy McMurtry and York President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri
It is because of this that Blyden-Taylor says, “I now have the privilege to be an educator, a mentor and a dream keeper; a privilege that you as graduands are now called upon to embrace.” Even though he didn’t return to the University of Toronto in 1977 as a full-time student, Narcisse-Mair made him the assistant conductor of the Hart House Chorus. It was there that his training as a conductor truly began and his life followed an unexpected path toward dreamer and dream keeper.
There are three things that are important for someone to be not only a keeper of dreams, but a dreamer of dreams, said Blyden-Taylor. They are, as mentioned in James Jordan’s book The Musician’s Soul: A Journey Examining Spirituality for Performers, Teachers, Composers, Conductors and Music Educators, being open, being vulnerable and knowing your centre.
“How do we get to know our centre? We need to take the time to learn the things of spirit. [In]…the words of Mahatma Gandhi, ‘In the attitude of silence the soul finds the path in a clearer light, and what is elusive and deceptive resolves itself into crystal clearness,’” said Blyden-Taylor.
Finding and keeping that centre requires, in Gandhi’s words, staying away from the seven things that would destroy anyone – politics without principle, pleasure without conscience, wealth without work, knowledge without character, business without morality, science without humanity and worship without sacrifice. For Blyden-Taylor, his dreams manifest through music, poetry, education, mentoring and bringing diverse communities together in harmony and mutual understanding.
“These are some of the dreams I have lived with. These are some of the dreams that inspire me to do the work that I do. These are some of the dreams that I invite you as graduands to embrace,” said Blyden-Taylor. “I set them under your feet. I ask you to tread softly on them. They are my dreams. They are your dreams. Again, I ask you to be open, to be vulnerable and to know your centre.”