Two Okotoks band directors have received top honours from the Alberta Band Association.
Martin Kennedy and Tom Taylor each received the Honourary Lifetime Member Award from the Alberta Band Association (ABA) last month.
“I tell everybody it’s the ‘We can’t believe you survived 40 years of teaching’ award,” said Kennedy with a laugh, adding it’s an honour to have been nominated for and named a lifetime member.
The former Holy Trinity Academy music director began teaching in Fort McMurray in 1981, and when he first began it was all about having the loudest and fastest jazz band by whatever means necessary – just the way he had been taught in his high school and university ensembles in Oregon.
His philosophy in the earliest years was that if he didn’t make somebody cry at least once a week, then he wasn’t pushing the students hard enough.
That attitude shifted over the years, taking a noticeable pivot midway through his career around the year 2000, he said.
“It was about the time my dad passed away, and I had taught the grad class kids for six years, and then it started becoming more about just liking the kids, being around the kids,” said Kennedy, who retired in June. “That’s what’s been hardest about this whole COVID thing – I thought I would be over there, just hanging out and seeing them.”
Caring about and focusing on his students came naturally to Kennedy and was evident by his colleagues.
Taylor spent his last two years of teaching directing the jazz ensembles at Holy Trinity Academy, where Kennedy had shifted to conducting concert band only. They had played together in community bands for years and directed rival high school ensembles both in northern Alberta and the Foothills, but this was the first time they had worked together.
“Those years allowed me to see him in action and honest to goodness, I know nobody – nobody – who cares and knows more about his kids than Mr. Kennedy,” said Taylor. “He knows so much about every kid’s family, he remembers kid's names, he remembers their parents, everything.
“He gives off that air of caring and kids are naturally attracted to that.”
Taylor first met Kennedy at a Jazzworks festival in Edmonton in the early 1980s, when he was teaching in Valleyview at Hillside Jr/Sr High School. He had started there in 1978 and taught for 10 years before making the move to Okotoks, where he started off at Okotoks Junior High School for seven years.
From there, Taylor had stints at elementary schools around Foothills School Division including Senator Riley Middle School and Highwood High School in High River. He spent his last two full-time teaching years at Westmount School when it first opened before directing jazz part-time at HTA.
Like Kennedy, his entire approach to teaching music changed over the years.
The pivotal moment came when a keynote speaker at an ABA Music Conference Alberta spoke about how his teaching had changed when he started making decisions based on what was best for the students rather than what was best for him.
“That touched home, because when I first started teaching it was all about being the best, and I was always driven to have the best possible performances, the best bands,” said Taylor. “The moment I stopped worrying about that and just started concerning myself with what was best for the kids and their education and their needs, everything changed and my bands actually got better.”
Gone were the days of throwing entire music stands, scores and all, when things weren’t going well in rehearsal – moments Taylor said he’s not very proud of.
He said the last half of his career was much more relaxed, and more enjoyable for both him and the students. It allowed him to appreciate the music and the students more.
Though he has now been fully retired for four years, Taylor is still active in the band directing world as one of the founders of the Teach Band 101 website along with Kathie Van Lare and Jeff Graham. The site has surpassed 17,000 users in less than two years.
Kennedy said he’s not surprised to see his friend and colleague, who he described as inventive, continue to make waves in band direction.
“His most amazing talent is coming up with new ideas,” said Kennedy of Taylor. “I bet his students would tell you he never had a routine. He’s always coming up with a festival idea, or a fundraising plan, or a new approach to teaching improv.”
Taylor’s hard work ethic and devotion has made him a legend on the Alberta band scene, he said.
“He is royalty,” said Kennedy. “He’s known by everyone in the province because of reputation and commitment.”