Ottawa Youth Orchestra’s John Gomez reflects on a career spent building a music community

John Gomez in action. He has passed his baton to Donnie Deacon but remains the music director of the organization.

For the first time in 35 years, John Gomez will not be picking up the baton this fall to conduct the Ottawa Youth Orchestra.

Gomez has passed that task to the well-known local violinist and violist Donnie Deacon who fully assumes his duties with an intense round of auditions — “one every seven minutes,” Gomez says — in September.

Gomez, meanwhile, claims he is weaning himself slowly from the Ottawa Youth Orchestra Academy. He’ll still be the music director for the time being.

“After 35 years, it’s very hard to say to somebody else, here take this,” said Gomez, who is now 73.

“I grew up with my dad saying it’s better to leave a month early than a week late. I really believe it’s time to give somebody else a chance. It is a lot of work. With kids you have to be able to teach every instrument.”

The OYOA’s institutional memory pronounces himself well pleased with Deacon though. He says he thought that this was the right time for the change.

“I’m so delighted with (Donnie Deacon) and the fact that he’s available.”

Change like this gives one a chance to reflect on a lifetime. So: where does the OYOA come from, John?

“I was a founding member of the NAC Orchestra.” He quickly made friends in the new ensemble, especially with David Currie who was a double bass player then.

“He and I were both idealists,” Gomez said.

“In the early days, we had these run-outs for NACO. We’d go to places like Deep River. and on the way back after the concert we would be chatting about what was needed to be done for music education in Ottawa.”

The two men were teaching privately in addition to their playing careers.

“And I had looked around to see what was there in Ottawa for my students.”

Meanwhile, other things were percolating. A major development was the evolution of music instruction at uOttawa, Gomez said. With the founding of NACO in 1969, there were trained professionals available who could form a pool of instructors for the growing university department.

Gomez and Currie both signed up at uOttawa bring with them the goal of producing string players by the bucketload. Ottawa at the time was not a hot bed of violinists, Gomez said.

Perceiving the need, Gomez and Currie and other NACO colleagues founded the National Capital String Academy in 1982. They both also went on to active roles in the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra. Gomez left NACO in 1984.

“We made a proposal to the faculty, that in five years they would have string players coming out their ears. They took a flyer on us.”

At the String Academy, “we had a little junior orchestra and an intermediate orchestra and David took the senior students into the university orchestra.” But they believed more was needed so Gomez approached the legendary Brian Law who was leading an earlier version of the OYO at the time and “asked him to close down his operation. I was concertmaster at the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra and we had a good relationship. He respected me and trusted my judgment pedagogically.”

The request came as Law was thinking of leaving for New Zealand, where he resides today.

Long story short, a new edition of the OYO eventually emerged. It was the union of the old orchestra and the String Academy, hence the official name of Ottawa Youth Orchestra Academy. And it’s a going, and growing, concern to this day.

“We are a resource for teachers in the area to have ensemble training for their students. That’s what I was looking for when I started teaching and I just couldn’t find it. It has to be clear: We don’t offer private lessons,” Gomez says.

Along with the senior orchestra, the OYO academy also features — among other things — a junior orchestra, beginner programs and a kindergarten initiative. There are about 25 teachers working with about 385 students each year. They meet every Saturday.

Some former OYOA students now play in NACO including violist Paul Casey, trumpeter Steven van Gulik and violinist Leah Roseman.

Gomez doesn’t think it can grow much beyond 400 students. He says rather than grow the size of the student body, the academy will “grow the standard.” They could also expand their beginner programs.

One of the things that many youth orchestras grapple with is the disappearance of certain instruments. Young people were not picking up the french horn, the bassoon, the harps or the oboe.

To counter that “we started a beginner program, in which we buy good instruments and provide the instruments for free along with a half hour lesson each week for a year to those students who enrolled. They also could join the rest of the group on Saturday for a reasonable price.

This past year the OYO graduated two french horn players who started in that program. Gomez also says the OYO has more bassoons now than any other youth orchestra in the country.

Gomez has been involved in music since he was a kid in Vancouver. As a youth he went to a prestigious summer music camp in the New York City area where he bumped into a 15 year old Pinchas Zukerman, the former music director of NACO.

“He was 15 when I arrived, just a rough-around-the-edges israeli kid playing on a crummy violin. He had been loaned a Stradivarius and had damaged it. But he still sounded great.”

It was in places such as that camp and later at school where he really learned that mentoring matters in music.

“You want to give back to the world somehow. I came from a family of musicians. In fact I’m a third generation musician. My grandfather was the founding principal clarinet of London Symphony Orchestra.

“My dad was a teacher and youth orchestra conductor. When something wasn’t available to me I would always say to myself ‘Somebody’s got to do this’.”

Gomez says you can’t underestimate the importance of the founding of NACO in 1969. Before that Ottawa was a place that most artists left. Gomez believes the founding of NACO led to a new community spirit around music-making.

“Absolutely. I keep saying that. I have told Alexander Shelley (NACO’s music director) that ‘You have to realize that virtually everything that has happened in Ottawa in classical music since 1969 has come out of the orchestra.”

Today it’s a much more mature cultural scene, he says.

Many worry that the future of classical music is not great, but Gomez believes it’s not the music that is dead; it’s the knowledge of its existence that is dead.

“I hate most the word ‘expose’ in the sense that you have to expose kids to classical music. You have to do much more than that. You have to learn it.

“A city size of Ottawa should be able to have 10 cellos every year in OYOA and be turning kids down. But we are not at that level. It’s still a hard sell. I don’t see parents lined up at public schools saying, ‘Wait a minute we want a musical education for our kids’.”

Still there are victories. He cheers the evolution of Orkidstra, the El Sistema music instruction program for underprivileged children.

“We complement each other. Tina (Fedeski, the artistic director of Orkidstra) was teaching for us when she started it. I said ‘Go for it’. Today those underprivileged kids are getting more music education that some privileged kids.”

Today at the OYOA, as it was yesterday and the many days before that, it is all about the kids. That attitude explains why Gomez was given the Betty Webster Award from Orchestras Canada this past spring.

“We offer the best ensemble training for the least amount of money anywhere. We exist to serve families and private teachers. What comes first is the student.”

Gomez can now go at his own pace knowing that the standard he has set “just keeps rising. The kids coming in see the other kids playing and think that is the standard that must be met. And it just keeps ratcheting up.”

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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.