Back to school: Donnie Deacon sticks the landing at the OYO Academy

Donnie Deacon leads the OYO ensemble. He has been named the academy's music director.

Donnie Deacon knows all about that old saw ‘When one door closes, another opens’. He’s lived it.

Deacon started his professional life in music as a talented violinist firmly ensconced in the NAC Orchestra as principal second chair. Today he is the music director of the Ottawa Youth Orchestra Academy. He officially started on Aug. 1, formally replacing John Gomez in the post.

The OYOA has a key place the skein of music education and development in the city.

“It has been important institution with a connection to the wider music community in Ottawa,” Deacon said in an interview. 

But why pick up a conductor’s baton and not a violin bow?

“This started when I stopped playing the violin because of focal dystonia,” he said.

Focal dystonia is a mysterious condition that robs a person afflicted with it of the ability to control an important part of their body. In Deacon’s case it was his bow arm. 

“It was quite distressing. You don’t what is going on at first and you start to feel things slipping away.”

About six years ago, Deacon was recovering from a bad stomach flu and he noticed that, during a concerto he was playing with an orchestra, “my arm was shaking. That had never happened to me. I thought maybe I was a bit more nervous.”

But it continued to worsen. The breaking point came when he was in the orchestra pit playing in a performance by the Kirov Ballet. 

“It was a very long piece and halfway through the matinee I turned to my assistant and said ‘I don’t know what the hell is wrong with me, but I can’t move (my arm)’.”

From there it was two years before he was diagnosed. He said he went to a lot of doctors who said it was “all in his head” or that he just didn’t want to go to work.

“It was terrifying, definitely a low point in my life. The worst thing about it was that it affected my bow arm. That was the best thing about me as a player. I spent so many hours perfecting that bloody thing. For that to be taken away, it was pretty horrific.”

He took a couple of years off and tried to make a comeback but by 2016 he was done.

Then the door opened. He was appointed to a position as a visiting artist with the NAC. That sent him into schools where he started teaching and, more importantly, conducting the bands and orchestras.

“I have always enjoyed working with kids even when I was studying myself, I had students.”

He had branched outside of NACO before the dystonia finished his playing career. He was working with the Strings of St. John, a string orchestra based out of the Church of St. John The Evangelist on Elgin Street. He went from there to the Ottawa Chamber Orchestra, where he is still conducting.

Along the way, Deacon caught the eye of Gomez, who had been thinking about slowing down. And a year ago, Gomez asked Deacon if he’d be interested in taking over conducting responsibilities at the OYOA, with a eye on being mentored as a possible music director.

“It was a great honour,” Deacon said. “Gomez is a legend in field of music education.I don’t know anybody else in city who could what he has done.”

Gomez was hoping Deacon would take the OYOA in a new direction.

Deacon is still evolving his thinking on that new direction, but one thing he want to pursue is the development of a more integrated relationship with his former employer, NACO. That has started with some joint concerts, the first ever, last season. He would also like to see every student in the academy part of a chamber music group.

“That is incredibly important part of their education. It gets the participants to listen. It helps with intonation. It’s a great learning tool. That’s a project for next few years.” And he wants to get the OYOA more closely connected to music faculties in the city.

The OYOA has up to 600 students and about 20 teachers. It’s no small enterprise. But Deacon doesn’t seem afraid of a challenge. After all he’s a conductor with not a lot of academic training in the skill.

When I went to the Curtis Institute I was part of a class on conducting as a performer. I got to watch the instruction. And when you are sitting in the principal second chair for 16 years with NACO you see every different kind of conductor, every different kind of technique and personality.

“That is the best thing, I would say, for young conductors: Study is important, but also get yourself into an orchestra, sit there and really watch.

“It’s not so much about technique as it is about how you speak to the orchestra; how you can get them to react to you in the best possible way. That is half the battle.

“I think I prefer working with the kids more than adults, not that I don’t enjoy working with older musicians.  When you are standing in front of a professional orchestra, you don’t have to necessarily explain so much. With the kids you have to very careful what you tell them because they can interpret it the wrong way and you may fall into bad habits.

“It is very important to be on top of your game with a youth orchestra. Attention to detail is important. They notice everything and you have to be ready with an answer for anything that is in a score.”

Is he a better musician because of the conducting?

“I would say I am a happier musician because of the conducting. I feel a lot more satisfied. As the conductor, the performance is your interpretation. As second violin you are part of the interpretation, a cog in a bigger picture.

“Conducting is not for everybody I know many people who don’t like it, but maybe it’s just stage in my life. I’m a lot happier now than have been in a long time.” 

Deacon is from a suburb of the Scottish city of Paisley near Glasgow. His parents aren’t particularly musical, but Donnie sure is. He picked up his first violin for 10 pounds. It was a half size Japanese make called a Skylark. But soon after he started played he started attracting attention, eventually winning competitions and gaining a teacher, Bob Cairns, “who is still probably my best friend today.”

In the midst of all this Deacon auditioned for and was accepted into The Yehudi Menuhin School of music in London where he was a student of the man himself.

“I used to go to his house for lessons. You’d go to the door and someone would greet you. There was this tiny elevator. His wife Diana was a former ballerina but she had problems walking at that time. 

Every lesson was the same. In the room, he had  a piano covered with a beautiful cloth and there were pictures of him with world leaders and other dignitaries on the walls. It was always an experience going to his home.  

“He was a very dignified person. He had a vision of how we were supposed to be brought up. There was no white sugar or white bread, no soda, no candy. We all kept that stuff in a locker. The plan was that we were going to live healthy.”

Deacon then went to the Curtis Institute of Music, where he met and played with Jessica Linnebach, who, in turn, recommended Deacon to Pinchas Zukerman, who, in turn, offered Deacon his job in NACO. 

Deacon moved to Ottawa in September, 2001. He was 21 at the time, just about to turn 22.

“I had my flight booked to come to Ottawa to start work and 9/11 happened. So I drove to Ottawa with whatever I could cram into the car.”

Timing indeed is everything.

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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.