Mr. Toews

I was a quiet and skittish teen—naïve, painfully self-conscious and awkward in every way. However, I auditioned successfully for a position with the Saskatoon Youth Orchestra when I was 13. I thrived there and lived for the early Saturday morning rehearsals, even though getting to rehearsals on time from the small town where I lived meant getting up at 5am to make the commute. It was the best day of the week, and I would return home filled to the brim with inspiration that fed me until the next rehearsal.

Although violin was my vehicle of expression, I was utterly enthralled with the orchestra as whole. Youth orchestra was like a little piece of heaven to my young ears. It seemed that there were limitless possibilities, colours and power within the orchestra that I had never experienced before. It was an entirely new world that was inching its way, ever so slowly, to match the music that was constantly resonating in my head and heart.

Mr. Toews was the conductor, and something of a living legend in my mind. I had heard stories about him all my life as he had mentored my mother in her university days as a music major. He conducted the youth orchestra with a mixture of sternness and humor, always looking for ways to engage us in the rehearsal process and creating opportunities to learn and interact with the music using not only our technique and intellect, but also our imaginations. Storytelling and analogies that were at times shocking to my young ears were on tap to ensure an engaging and spontaneous rehearsal. His blue eyes would always sparkle mischievously when he would say something especially impish, and I would fully apply myself to playing “like…you know what!”

My extraordinary four years with the youth orchestra instilled in me tremendous gifts that I didn’t fully comprehend and appreciate until years later when I was conducting and creating youth orchestra experiences for dozens of bright eyed and keen young musicians as a conductor and staff member of the Vancouver Youth Symphony. Observing the four orchestras at work, I was quick to identify the misfits, those that found solace each week in their musical tribe, as well as those that were truly on fire with the passion of creating music. Not a rehearsal went by that I was not reminded of my own experiences playing under Mr. Toews and the many lessons I learned under his baton. The tremendous musical, social and travel experiences as a member of the orchestra had lasting effects on my life path and helped me to truly discover who I was and the direction my life was to take. He empowered me with a lifeline of confidence and belief in my own ability. He always demonstrated a profound respect for each of us as people and artists; no answer was incorrect, no idea was silly or insignificant, and each mistake was an opportunity for growth and deeper understanding.

Years later I heard my own voice echoing to my intrepid young orchestra those same concepts and analogies instilled in me so long ago. The tempo relationships, subdivision, bow distribution, authentic musical expression and countless other lessons that were taught to me so diligently over those years I was now able to pass on to my bright eyed musicians. I sincerely aspired to create the same learning and musical environment that would inspire my impressionable musicians with lasting lessons and values to take with them beyond the rehearsal; I offered up the same gifts of experience that were bestowed upon me many years ago.

The profound influence Mr. Toews has had on the lives of hundreds of musicians is incalculable, and I feel profoundly grateful to have been one of those shepherded so carefully in his flock. For all the timeless lessons, inspiration, humour, guidance, generosity of spirit and knowledge, I give tremendous thanks to my mentor Wayne Toews.

(I fully admit to stealing and using his most memorable lines in my own rehearsals, and sometimes… I still hear his voice in my head telling me to play a passage “like…you know what!”)

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One thought on “Mr. Toews

  1. Thank you for your kindness Janna. Anything I have been able to contribute is in homage to my teachers, especially Murray Adaskin and Morihiro Okabe, to my colleagues and especially to my students, like you, whose efforts made the work so rewarding. Your contributions to your students and colleagues make us all proud and grateful.

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