In 1991, a bright, enthusiastic Brampton high school student, inspired by his own music teacher, took it upon himself to begin planning a musical ensemble that allowed young musicians to grow and learn as a complement to the established provincial music education program. This was no mere pet project, but a dream to enhance the opportunities for secondary school music students to move beyond what the classroom would teach them, and allow them to challenge themselves both creatively and technically as they pursued their passion for music.
Today, Colin Clarke’s ambition continues to drive and inspire young musicians as he leads the Toronto Youth Wind Orchestra (TYWO), now in its twenty-third successful season, as its Artistic Director.
TYWO counts a number of milestones in its recent history. Among them, two exciting performances at Carnegie Hall, an established executive and board of directors to help lead the organization’s strategy; two sister wind bands aimed at developing the skills of younger performers, and an exceptional list of accomplished alumni who have gone on to successful careers both within music and in other fields.
One of the continuous mandates of TYWO is its role in assisting and promoting music education to parents, educators, and students across the GTA and in the larger Canadian and international music communities. While music programs have felt cuts to arts funding within school boards, their positive impact on students is clearly and demonstrably visible in students who have continued their involvement in music long after their high school days.
For example, TYWO Alumna Renee Willmon, a Wind Orchestra member following graduation in 2003, looked to the organization to continue her involvement with music once starting university in a science program. Today, Willmon is a joint Vanier Scholar between Western University (UWO) and École Pratique des Hautes Études in France. Following completion of her Anthropology bachelor and masters degrees from the University of Toronto, Willmon is pursuing doctoral studies and appears as a cold case investigator on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN)’s “To Catch A Killer” in between her cross-Atlantic research duties.
To further emphasize the power of how music education has influenced her career and future, Willmon sat down with us to remark upon her music journey, learning in the classroom, and the impact of TYWO on her personal development.
ML: What was your involvement in music growing up?
RW: I began music studies on the piano when I was in the first grade. I learned through the RCM framework, and picked up the flute in Jr. High so that I could participate in my school’s band program. I loved the social aspect of flute playing, and participated in citywide community wind ensembles, the Alberta Honour Band, and National Concert band throughout Jr. and Sr. high. When I moved away from Calgary for University, I continued my involvement in music through TYWO and the Hart House Orchestra at U of T.
ML: Did you take music of your own choice? Or was it at your parents’ insistence?
RW: While I started music by choice, there were several years, particularly as the level of difficulty increased that piano felt like it was solely at my parents’ insistence. They devised complex “reward” strategies to try to keep me interested, but ultimately it was the flute that really kept my interest and passion for music alive. The social aspect of playing in my school ensembles (and later TYWO) made it fun again, and was a polar opposite from solo practice sessions sitting at the piano for hours by myself.
ML: What skills do you feel you’ve gained through music education? Has any one thing stood out more than others?
RW: Music has taught me many things – but above all it has taught me that there truly is a “language” or a means to communicate meaningfully with anyone – despite the language, cultural or emotional barriers that can prevent relationships from forming between individuals. Good listening skills are essential to be a good musician, and the ability to listen carefully and adapt to your surroundings that is really developed through ensemble playing has especially helped me throughout my career.
Through music and careful listening I have learned cooperation, diligence, patience, perseverance, empathy, non-verbal communication, and the importance of expressing my emotions to connect with others.
ML: How did music impact your overall school experience? Was it easier to make friends? How did it affect your social development?
RW: Music really “made” my school experience what it was. My best friends and best memories are from time spent in the band room at my jr. and sr. high schools, and from the trips to festivals and retreats where I not only improved my music skills, but forged incredible friendships that last to this day. Similarly, TYWO made the transition to my undergraduate studies across the country from my hometown bearable, and the “ritual” of rehearsal was a familiar routine despite all the changes going on in my life.
ML: How have these impacted your learning in non-musical subject areas? Did you derive any key learning elements from music that were transferrable to other subjects?
RW: The listening skills that are practiced through music have increased my ability to learn in all other aspects of my life. The ability I developed to be aware of the harmony, to back off and play a supporting role when I didn’t have the melody, to constantly be aware of intonation and make small adjustments to fit into the greater ensemble is a specific application of the ability to adapt – to listen, and to consider the needs of others in addition to – and sometimes before – your own, that has helped me navigate through almost every aspect of my life.
ML: How do you apply these skills now in your current role as a scholar and also in your TV work?
RW: As an anthropologist and cold case investigator, I piece together stories from small fragments – whether from the skeletonized remains of past people, from outdoor crime scenes, or from records and recollections of unsolved investigations. I apply the skills I developed as a musician all the time – particularly my listening skills.
ML: Can you give us an example?
RW: As a piccolo player, it’s no surprise that I’ve always had to be acutely aware of pitch and intonation. The habit of careful listening is literally and figuratively applied in my work all the time, as I have to be aware of subtle inconsistencies in witness accounts of an event, or nuanced differences in the size and shape of human bones. Just as tuning requires the ears and adjustments of the entire ensemble, I’m also always aware of my teammates, and how we can play to each other’s strengths to achieve our objectives.
ML: What did you gain from your time with TYWO musically and beyond the music?
RW: In addition to what I’ve mentioned in previous responses, the friendships and relationships are truly the best part of TYWO – musicians that I’ve met over the years continue to be among my closest friends. Particular pieces of music take me back to specific concerts in specific halls, and I remember the jokes or funny looks Colin would offer from the podium. Above and beyond incredible opportunities like performing at Carnegie Hall, it’s the TYWO family that really stands out. Even though it’s been several years since I’ve played with the ensemble, I still feel very connected to the organization and its members.
ML: Looking back on it now, what would you say to a parent considering enrolling their child in music, or to a student choosing whether or not to continue past compulsory education in music?
RW: Find a way to make it fun. Music can be an important outlet for children to express their energy and emotions, especially in times when they can’t find the words or don’t have someone they can confide in – but it can’t feel like a chore. If it’s starting to feel that way, experiment with different ways of engaging with music before throwing in the towel, and I absolutely recommend ways to make music social – whether through a choir, a community ensemble like TYWO or informal jam sessions with friends.
ML: Thanks, Renee!
Michael Lockhart is a TYWO alumnus; a tenor sax player whose own passion for music was inspired by his music teacher who was himself a TYWO alumnus. Now a media specialist working in Digital Public Relations, Michael continues to indulge his avocation by reconnecting with friends in the ensemble of TYWO Alumni and Friends and credits his school music program for setting him on the path to a life, which embraces music.