A History of the Nova Scotia Youth Wind Ensemble

The Nova Scotia Youth Wind Ensemble

by Kevin Finch

This article appeared in the Fall/2016 edition of Canadian Winds, the journal of the Canadian Band Association.

With a population of just under one million people, Nova Scotia has a rich heritage of strong woodwind, brass, and percussion players, much to the credit of the provincial honour bands: Nova Scotia Youth Wind Ensemble (NSYWE) and the Nova Scotia Junior Wind Ensemble (NSJWE).  These two programs continue to keep young players motivated, challenged, and progressing as musicians.

Over the past fourteen years, an estimated 500 to 700 students have participated in the NSYWE program, and the reputation and level of musicianship has grown exponentially.  Approximately 70 to 100 young musicians audition for NSYWE each year.

Photograph of Nova Scotia Youth Wind Ensemble, around 1990.
NSYWE, circa 1990.

Founded in 1989 by the conductor, music educator, and St. Francis Xavier University professor, James Hargreaves (1934-2003), the NSYWE is comprised of approximately fifty members drawn from provincial high schools and universities.  Under the auspices of the Nova Scotia Band Association (NSBA), this ensemble represents the finest young woodwind, brass, and percussion performers the province has to offer.  The NSBA recognizes and honours Hargreaves’ contribution to the NSYWE by providing an annual $500 bursary for one Nova Scotia student to pursue post-secondary music studies.

Two other significant Nova Scotian musicians, educators, and conductors were instrumental in the formation of NSYWE: Ron MacKay (1928-2008) and Ron Murphy.  “The group was never better than when under Jim Hargreaves’s baton,” says Murphy. “His repertoire was always well chosen, and leaned toward many of the wind ensemble compositions of John Barnes Chance, Vincent Persichetti, Robert Russell, Bennett, Morton Gould, Percy Grainger, Darius Milhaud, Paul Hindemith, William Schuman, and Ralph Vaughn Williams.

“Initially, the group met for three weekends of intense rehearsal that culminated with a concert on Sunday afternoon.  St. Francis Xavier, Cobequid Educational Centre, and Charles P. Allen High School regularly hosted the weekends for many years.”  Murphy adds that high-school and university music students gained membership to the group through a live audition process.  One of the highlights for the ensemble was performance collaborations with other groups, most notably the Stadacona Band of Maritime Forces Atlantic, as they were called at the time.

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing, though.  Like many fledgling organizations, Nova Scotia’s honour band programs have had growing pains. There were the usual funding challenges a few years after its inception, and NSYWE took a hiatus for one season.  Hope Gendron (NSYWE chairperson, NSBA secretary, and local junior-high music teacher) and a small group of committed music educators rekindled interest in NSYWE, and brought it back to life.  Now, the ensemble is financially strong enough to buy its own music, and pay its conductor and assistant conductor.

“Honour bands rely on deep commitment from a few behind-the-scenes people, who make the organization run,” says NSYWE conductor, Mark Hopkins, a music professor at Wolfville’s Acadia University and the current NSBA president.  “Without Hope, there probably would not be an NSYWE today.”

Nova Scotia differs from every other provincial honour band in Canada in that NSYWE students meet for three weekends of rehearsals and workshops in the fall and again in the spring, with a concert at the end of each session.  In this way, the NSYWE behaves more like a youth orchestra program than the more traditional, two-to-five-day long, once-a-year provincial honour band.  The mandate of the NSYWE is to provide a high quality educational experience for talented young musicians in a manner and of a quality otherwise not available to them.

NSYWE members build their music skills by rehearsing and performing together, and through coaching sessions and clinics. Through it affiliation with the NSBA, its members participate in the Canadian Band Association’s National Youth Band.  The NSYWE traditionally also provides other opportunities for its members: for example, in May 2014, NSYWE members played in the Denis Wick Canadian Wind Orchestra at MusicFest in Ottawa.  “I guess you could say that Nova Scotia punches above its weight,” says Gendron.

In Nova Scotia public schools, instrumental music education begins in Grade 6, around age 11, where students choose the instrument they want to learn.  In most cases, junior-high music teachers visit the elementary schools that feed into their junior-high schools, and help the students try out various woodwind, brass, and percussion instruments.  In some cases, students may also be pursuing private music lessons outside the school system.  Those who want more challenge than their school or private teachers can turn to cadet and community bands, and ensembles like NSJWE and NSYWE.

Each ensemble has its own organizing committee and web presence, and collaborates on some projects, all under the aegis of the NSBA. The Nova Scotia Junior Wind Ensemble encourages junior-high-school-aged musicians to achieve a higher level, both socially and musically, helps them develop a greater awareness and appreciation for band music, and inspires a positive learning environment which they can take back to their classrooms. The concentration, commitment, and rehearsal techniques learned in the Junior Wind Ensemble prepares younger musicians for the demands of the more advanced Youth Wind Ensemble, making NSJWE a good stepping stone for NSYWE.  Although progressing from NSJWE to NSYWE can be helpful, it is not required.

While May signals the approach of spring for many people, it is something totally different for Nova Scotia’s young musicians and their teachers: it’s audition time.  To be considered for NSYWE, students submit auditions via digital audio files, which are vetted by an evaluation team of Youth Wind Ensemble music educators.  Most NSYWE players are age 14-21, but age is not a firm benchmark; the real qualifiers for potential NSYWE members are musical ability and maturity.

Students who come close but do not quite meet NSYWE’s standard are designated as alternates or probationary members. Other applicants are declined but encouraged to keep practicing and to apply in the following year.  “Auditions are a tense time for everyone,” says Gendron.  “The musicians put a lot of work into getting their audition pieces just right, and sometimes we need to recruit musicians – like oboe and bassoon players – to make sure that all the positions be covered.

“Our overall goal is to have members from every high school in Nova Scotia,” says Gendron.  “In the past, financial challenges prevented NSYWE from playing concerts across the province but we hope to do more of that in the future.  We have traveled to Sydney – about five hours’ northeast of Halifax, on Cape Breton Island.  It was a great weekend for all of us, especially the students.  Our hosts organized a musical gathering called a ceildh (pronounced KAY-lee), which gave our members a really strong appreciation for Cape Breton hospitality and musical traditions.”

In some cases, being in NSYWE is a family tradition.  “This past year was bittersweet,” says Gendron.  “We saw two brothers from the Annapolis Valley play with us for the last time, the last of five siblings who played with NSYWE over a fourteen-year period.”  Even their Mom got involved, volunteering with the committee in a variety of supporting roles.  NSYWE also often retains its members.  Of the 53 players in 2015-16, there were 24 returning members.

After auditions conclude, accepted applicants and the alternates/probationary members are invited to a weekend boot camp in August or September.  Boot camp is three days of rehearsals and an opportunity for the conductor to assess the musicians’ abilities in a group dynamic, and for the students to get to know one another musically and socially.  Boot camp prepares the students for the broader learning and emotional experiences that ensemble playing provides, and sets the stage for the group to start functioning as a team.  It’s a time when great music-making begins to come together.

Alternates who do well at boot camp can be invited to join the ensemble, or advised to work on specific playing skills to prepare for the next year’s audition.  At the conclusion of boot camp, the students who are accepted into NSYWE – and their parents/guardians – sign a formal contract that commits them to attend two weekends of rehearsal and performance in the fall, and three weekends of rehearsal and performance in the winter.

“The contract is important; it teaches the students about commitment and responsibility, the commitment they make to the ensemble,” says Gendron.  “Today’s students face a lot of competition for their time.  They’re involved in intramural and competitive sports, some of which may require travel outside the city.  They’re also in school clubs, studying for exams, and applying for college and university. We understand that these commitments are also important, but they need to know that we expect them to be there for rehearsals and performances as the coach of any sports team relies on all the players to show up and be ready for the big games.

The commitment and discipline our members learn at NSYWE helps them throughout their lives, regardless of where their career aspirations take them.  Several of our players have gone on to study and work in career fields that require that kind of  commitment and dedication, such as engineering and medicine.”

A rehearsal weekend follows a standard agenda: rehearsals, time with clinicians, and some team-building activities. The clinicians are local professional musicians and music educators, drawn from Symphony Nova Scotia, the Navy’s Stadacona Band, and music faculties at institutions such as Acadia and Dalhousie universities, and the Nova Scotia Community College (NSCC). Guest speakers. such as Acadia’s percussionist Mark Adams, are often hired to provide demonstrations or tips on how to practice effectively.  Clinicians are frequently asked to sit in with the ensemble during rehearsal to help their sections blend and balance better in the ensemble.

“As clinicians, sometimes we work on particularly tricky parts of the piece they will perform, but a lot of time, it’s insider tips on how to be a better player in general,” says Lucille Humble, recently retired from teaching music for the Halifax Regional School Board (HRSB).  Humble is an active player on the local band circuit, and has served on the NSYWE committee for the past fourteen years.  She continues to teach privately and as a substitute teacher for HRSB, and often serves as a clinician during the NSYWE weekends.

“I remember playing with NSYWE more than twentry-five years ago, when James Hargreaves was the conductor, and the group was called the Nova Scotia Honour Band,” says Pam Paddock, a music educator, an assistant NSYWE conductor, and the Co-ordinator of the Dartmouth All-City Music Program.  “I remember how exciting it was to rehearse with students from across the province who shared my passion for music.  These weekends were the highlight of my school year then, too.   I’m sure that our current members feel the same way every weekend that we meet.

“As a result, I look forward to NSYWE weekends,” adds Paddock.  “It’s exciting to work with such talented young musicians on fun and challenging music.   We’re all there for the students; it’s great to be able to ‘geek out’ with them about band music, and share rehearsal tricks and stories from our other ensemble experiences.  One of the biggest perks is working with Mark Hopkins, as he has extensive knowledge of composers and repertoire that I’ve never heard of, and the conducting tips and rehearsal techniques I pick up from him help me to grow as a music educator.”

“Changing our rehearsal and performance schedule the way we did has helped us to develop and improve dramatically over the years,” says Hopkins.  “The complexity of the music we play has increased.  Where we once played music that was fairly easy for our ensemble, we now focus on pieces that will challenge them and make them good candidates for post-secondary musical studies and for community bands, wherever their interests and abilities take them.”

“Johann de Meij’s visit was truly a special event for us,” says Hopkins.  “NSYWE partnered with Acadia University and the Stadacona Band to bring him to Festival Theatre in March, 2011, to his full arrangement of Symphony No. 1, The Lord of the Rings.  It was a dramatic, challenging, and rewarding time for the students and the pros in the Stad Band.  It was also the first time for many to see a composer at work, hear about what inspired him, learn the nuances that only the composer could provide, and then perform that very piece before an audience.  The theatre was full; many music teachers brought busloads of students.  We don’t get that sort of opportunity very often in rural Nova Scotia.”

Another Nova Scotian musical institution has been a strong supporter and ally of NSYWE: the Stadacona Band of the Royal Canadian Navy.  For several years, band members have worked side by side with the students in rehearsal and in performance, collaborating on important works.  Members draw inspiration from the Stad Band, and many students have auditioned for a position in one of the Canadian Forces Bands.  Some members have even joined the Canadian Armed Forces as a career.

“Growing up, I was surrounded by music.  Dad played Mozart and Benny Goodman recordings for hours on end, and the Stadacona Band performed at my junior high school,” says Beth Fellows, who now plays clarinet with the band.  “At that point in my life, I was too shy to think about auditioning for band; I lacked confidence and thought I might be ridiculed.  I approached Joe Cormier, then a teacher at Georges P. Vanier Junior High School, and he suggested that I audition for NSJWE. I was accepted and I progressed to NSYWE, and kept on going from there.”

“Playing in the ensembles gave me self-confidence that academics and athletics did not. Having a chance to work with like-minded youth from across the province, under amazing conductors, taught me that all of my dreams were achievable. That stayed with me all through my post-secondary studies and helped me succeed in a national audition process for the Stadacona Band.  Whenever I face a challenge in my life, I reflect on how Joe Cormier and everyone in NSJWE/NSYWE believed in me back in my teens.”

Noah Hartlen, an NSYWE trumpeter from Pictou echoes those sentiments. “Before I joined the Nova Scotia Youth Wind Ensemble, I was on a completely different path in life. The ensemble has allowed me to take what once was a hobby and turn it into a centre point around which I structure my everyday life,” he says. “NSYWE has also given me the tools to pursue music as a career.  Ever since I joined two years ago, my musical education has expanded dramatically to a national level.”

“This past May, I was part of the Nova Scotia delegation for the Denis Wick Canadian Wind Orchestra at MusicFest Canada in Ottawa.  This was an opportunity that otherwise would have been only a fantasy for me as a musician, but NSYWE made it a reality.”  He says NSYWE has taught him a lot about leadership, self-discipline, listening and playing skills, teamwork, and confidence, all lessons that will last him a lifetime.

Based on a strong desire to make music accessible to all students, NSYWE keeps its fees as low as possible. That income stream is augmented through grants from the municipal and provincial governments, and corporate bursaries.  These funding pools vary from year to year, reflecting government policies and fiscal constraints, and the relative financial health of the business community.

Nominal student fees provide for six full weekends of rehearsal, the cost of a conductor and assistant conductor, and out-of-pocket expenses, such as snacks and water for its 50 teenage members.  The fee also pays the clinicians’ honoraria, and for rehearsal and performance space.  There is also music to buy, and sometimes equipment needs to be rented.

“Our relationship with Acadia University is critical to the success of NSYWE, and we are very appreciative of their support,” says Gendron. “Our deepest thanks go to Acadia for providing rehearsal and concert space in the Festival Theatre, free of charge.  When we’re in Halifax, it can cost us thousands of dollars to secure a concert venue, and that would drive up the fees for our members.”

Financial assistance is available for NSYWE members who qualify; each is reviewed on a case-by-case basis. “No student will be turned away from NSYWE because of financial challenges,” says Gendron. “We will find a way to make it work for any student who wants to be a part of the Nova Scotia Youth Wind Ensemble, whether that means helping them out financially, or arranging rides and billets for out-of-town students.”

Gendron notes that music is a passion that can last throughout one’s lifetime, unlike athletic participation. The lifelong reward of playing in an ensemble is a point that Gendron stresses to NSYWE members, based on her own experience. Starting out at the age of nine in a southwest Pennsylvania coal town, through high school and earning a Bachelor of Science, to becoming a music teacher in Nova Scotia and earning a Master of Education degree from Acadia in Curriculum Studies, it has been a long and fulfilling journey for her.  “The love and passion of playing never leaves you. After many years, you still strive to be a better player and enjoy the thrilling atmosphere that playing in a team/ensemble provides,” she says.

Dalhousie University in Halifax agrees that there are secondary benefits of playing and working together in a music ensemble. They have created the “Music in Medicine” program where medical students can participate in the Tupper Band and the Dalhousie Health Professional Chorale.  Dalhousie says this is important because music is a powerful medical tool from which students, health professionals, and patients can benefit.

“I want to say a big ‘Thank-You’ to all of the NSYWE Committee members, past and present,” says Gendron.  “They have been instrumental – no pun intended – to the success of the ensemble.  For 2015-16, the committee was Mark Hopkins, Pam Paddock, Hope Gendron, Donna Alward, Lucille Humble, Susan Randles, Lauren Park, Martin Chandler, Ingrid de Pauw, Mike Morrissey, and Steve Hartlen. Other dedicated committee members who have helped me along the way are; Denise Grant, Rod MacGillivray, Trevor Huskins, Scott MacDonald, and Terry Hill.

“I would also like to thank several prominent conductors and soloists who have given their time and talent to benefit our students:  Bobby Herriot, Karem Simon, Gillian MacKay, Richard Bennett, George Morrison, Johan de Meij, Tristan de Borba, and Mark Adams.”

For almost three decades, the Nova Scotia Youth Wind Ensemble has nurtured young players’ passion for music in a safe, challenging environment.  Here’s to its continuing future success.

Program Highlights from Recent NSYWE Seasons

2011-12: Shostakovich‘s Dance No.1, arranged by Johan de Meij; Windfonietta by Fritz Neubock; Morten Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium; Traffic (the second movement of Ned Rorem’s third symphony); John Williams’s Catch Me If You Can, arranged by Jay Bocook; and Darius Milhaud’s Suite Francaise, played together with the Royal Canadian Navy’s Stadacona Band.

2012-13: The Planets by Gustav Holst, collaborating with the North Nova Concert Choir and the Nova Brass Ensemble.

2013-14: The Chester Brass Band joined the NSYWE for a fall performance of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in Acadia University’s Festival Theatre.  The spring 2014 concert featured the Nova Scotia Junior Wind Ensemble, the Nova Scotia Youth Wind Ensemble, and the Royal Canadian Navy’s Stadacona Band, and the NSYWE presenting a program entitled “Life is Music.”

2014-15: John Mackey’s Aurora Awakes with the Stadacona Band, A Grainger Suite, J. Scott Irvine’s Hannaford Overture, and excerpts from Fisher Tull’s Sketches on a Tudor Psalm, Roger Cichy’s Bugs, and Derek Bourgeois’s Serenade, Op. 22.

2015-16: The fall programme included Rimsky Korsakov’s Procession of the Nobles, Paul Suchan’s The Colours and Contrasts of Grief, Yasuhide Ito’s Gloriosa (Gururizyoza): Symphonic Poem for Band, and Marcel Wengler’s Marsch oder “die Versuchung;” in spring the NSYWE presented Percy Grainger’s Lincolnshire Posy, in tandem with the Stadacona Band; the Fanfare from Leoš Janáček’s Sinfonietta, Maurice Ravel’s Pavane pour un Infante Défunte, and Björk Guõmundsdóttir’s Overture to Dancer in the Dark.