After a decade, the OrKidstra community is much more than the music its students perform

Tina Fedeski is the executive and artistic director of OrKidstra. Photo: Peter Robb

When Tina Fedeski receives a meritorious service award from the governor general on June 23, she’ll be accepting on behalf of her colleagues and on behalf of an idea that has become a community.

That idea is OrKidstra, a program that introduces disadvantaged children in Ottawa to the joys of music and the power of friendship and citizenship, which is celebrating its 10th year.

Fedeski is a crusader, for want of another word. She believes, as do her OrKidstra co-founders husband Gary McMillen and Margaret Tobolowska, that music teaches much more than notes on a page.

Today there are about 500 children and youths from age five to 18 from 42 linguistic and cultural backgrounds taking part in OrKidstra programs in two locations in the city — at the Bronson Centre in Centretown and at Rideau High School serving the Vanier community. (Editor’s note: The Vanier hub will move to a new location to be named later after Rideau High School closes.)

But the beginnings of OrKidstra are elsewhere.

“Despite my (British) accent, I was born in Toronto,” Fedeski says. “But I was brought up in England where I was raised as a Canadian. Instilled in me was this tremendous sense of equality and accessibility.

“I was lucky enough to have the good fortune to learn the flute privately. I was a natural at it and I ended up in youth orchestra. But I knew, when I was 14, that not everybody had that opportunity. I was acutely aware of the class system in England,” she added.

That the experience of sitting in an orchestra and revelling in the sound was closed to some of her friends affected Fedeski.

“It was awe-inspiring,” she says, of playing in a large ensemble, adding that she thought that “everybody, if they are interested, should have this experience.”

Fedeski pursued a career in music and went to school at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London and later hooked up with a professional orchestra in Spain. Eventually she came back to Canada — “because I could” — to a six-month residency at the Banff Centre. Finally she landed in Ottawa where her sister was living.

She started freelancing and with her husband Gary McMillen, she founded the sheet music store The Leading Note.

“Right from beginning we knew we wanted to make significant contribution in some form to musical life, particularly for youth, in Ottawa, something beyond selling sheet music. We did a number of things. I got very involved in the Ottawa Youth Orchestra academy.”

And then fate intervened: Fedeski happened to hear a new recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on the radio. At the end of the recording the announcer said it was performed by the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra.

“‘What’s a youth orchestra doing playing this’,” she says she thought to herself.

Some investigation led to El Sistema, the highly successful music education program for disadvantaged children developed in Venezuela by José Antonio Abreu.

Coincidentally, Fedeski’s sister had moved to Caracas, Venezuela. After some more research and some encouragement from her husband and from a friend in music Margaret Tobolowska, who is a composer, educator and former NAC Orchestra cellist, Fedeski went to Venezuela where she met Abreu and returned home full of the possibilities of music education.

In January, 2007, the trio decided they would start a music education program for disadvantaged children in Ottawa.

They did not fully adopt the El Sistema approach which has the children in music instruction every day after school.

“We felt it would be too much. They need to learn how to skate and how to swim. They need some time to themselves.”

On Day One when the doors opened in the Bronson Centre 27 children were enrolled in two violin classes, a cello class, a small flute class and a small trumpet class. Many of those children are still with OrKidstra today, she says. And many young people, who have moved on to university, are returning as mentors. The name was drawn from a family music subscription series put on by an orchestra in the U.S. It is trademarked in Canada, Fedeski says.

Today there are classes for all sorts of instruments and well as a choral program. There are beginner classes and junior classes and intermediate classes and senior classes. OrKidstra performers play all over the city, at a variety of events including at the JUNO Awards and recently for the Aga Khan, and in a variety of musical forms from classical to heavy metal. There are about 30 teachers, many from the NAC Orchestra, offering their expertise. Angela Hewitt and Alexander Shelley are also involved with OrKidstra. It is a going concern, much like Tina Fedeski herself, with an annual budget of about $500,000.

“I believe we are at tipping point. People are beginning to understand that as much as literacy and numeracy are important, creativity is essential to be able to compete in the world. Those skills can be learned through music. Children need to develop their artistic and spiritual selves. … Neuroscience research shows that when people are playing music with other people the entire brain is firing.”

OrKidstra is aimed at offering disadvantaged children exposure to music, but there is no intent at keeping out children from more advantaged homes if they want to join.

“We do ask about family income in the application process. But we realize that kids come from different backgrounds in schools. We don’t want to have a situation where we are keeping children out. It’s a community program after all.

“However we also have to be very aware that we are not taking students away from private teachers in the area.”

OrKidstra does follow their students but they do not encourage them to take up a musical career.

“It’s a hard life. But some do. Some are also in music education.”

All the kids who graduate from OrKidstra are going to university or college studying everything from accounting to neuroscience, Fedeski says, adding proudly that all of them who were of age voted in the federal election.

“It’s citizenship through musicianship.”

So where would she like to be in another 10 years.

“It would be really lovely if we have a very established hub in Vanier and in one other low income area. And maybe a fourth. I would love for us to have a main centre, possibly our own building, so kids at the highest levels in the hubs can meet in a central place.”

The success of OrKidstra, would not have happened, Fedeski says, “without the incredible community support we have received and continue to need in order to sustain and offer the program to more and more children.

“Helping OrKidstra children build their potential doesn’t just empower the kids within the program, because by their example these children influence their friends, family and community with the core values of commitment, teamwork, excellence and inclusivity. The ripple effect is extraordinary.”

OrKidstra Facts

• OrKidstra is a non-profit charitable organization.

• About 94 per cent of OrKidstra students do not pay. The remainder pay what they can.

• There are about 20 Sistema-inspired programs across Canada (OrKidstra was the first).

• About 80 per cent of OrKidstra’s budget goes to programming; another 15 per cent covers administration and five per cent goes towards fundraising and communications.

• Most classes are held at OrKidstra’s Centretown Hub (Bronson Centre). A second after-school OrKidstra Hub opened in the fall of 2016 in Vanier which includes 90 students. There is in-school programming called KiddlyWinks funded by the Ottawa-Carleton Public School Board.

• OrKidstra serves three neighbourhoods: Centretown, Lowertown and Vanier.

• OrKidstra receives grants from the City of Ottawa, the Trillium Foundation and the Ottawa Community Foundation and United Way. About 40 per cent of revenues come from individual donations. There are also donations from corporations and other charities.

• Major concerts are held in December and June, but OrKidstra also plays at many public events during the year.

Upcoming concerts: Vanier Hub End-of-Year Concert, Wednesday, June 7 at 6 p.m. at Rideau High School, 815 St Laurent Blvd. Free. Donations welcome.

Centretown Hub End-of-Year Concert, Thursday, June 15 at 6:30 p.m. at Glebe Collegiate Institute, 212 Glebe Ave.. Free. Donations welcome.

For more information: 613-859-3559. Address: Studio 204, 211 Bronson Ave. Ottawa K1R 6H5

Share Post
Written by

Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.