Arts & Culture

Orkidstra offers a solution to the diversity problem plaguing the classical music world

In 2007, 27 kids gathered at the Bronson Centre for a new free music class. Inspired by El Sistema, Venezuela’s free public classical-music education program, co-creators Tina Fedeski and Gary McMillen, owners of The Leading Note music shop, and Margaret Tobolowska, a former NAC Orchestra cellist, wanted to make the joy of music accessible to every Ottawa child.

Ten years later, the idea has bloomed into OrKidstra, a program that brings the joy of music to more than 500 underserved Ottawa kids. Four programs cater to children aged five to 18, from classes for the little ones to advanced choir and instrumental groups for young adults. Last year, students gave more than 40 performances around the city. The program recently expanded to Vanier’s Rideau High School, and Fedeski just received the Governor General’s Meritorious Service Medal.

Parents and educators know the benefits of music for child development. But increasingly, public schools are cutting back on formal music education. And for many families, private lessons are a luxury they can’t afford.

That’s where OrKidstra comes in. Children don’t need previous musical training to join, and as long as a spot is available, it’s open to anyone who needs it. Because even a family that appears middle-class might be struggling, there’s no eligibility threshold: while most kids participate for free, some parents pay what they can.

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Photo by Jessica Deeks

At a time when the classical-music world is questioning its lack of diversity, whether it’s on stage, in the audience, or in the back office, OrKidstra offers a solution. Students come from more than 40 different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. The importance of initiatives like this in sparking an interest can’t be underestimated.

“We’re focused on growing good citizens, more than good musicians,” says OrKidstra’s Claire Marshall, echoing the group’s motto: “Empower kids, build community.” In fact, most of these kids won’t go on to music careers. But the lessons about perseverance, problem solving, responsibility, discipline, and teamwork will last the rest of their lives.