After 39 years, thousands of students and countless music scores, an Okotoks band director has taken his final bow on the high school stage.
Martin Kennedy began his teaching career in Fort McMurray the day after Thanksgiving in 1981, after completing his bachelor of music education at the University of Oregon. It was his first teaching job, and he split his time between Peter Pond Junior High School and Fort McMurray Composite High School.
Back then, he never considered himself a “teacher,” per se. He was a band guy, and the goal was to have the loudest band with the trumpet player who could hit the highest notes.
“Teaching was beneath us – it was a means to an end,” said Kennedy. “You had to teach them something in order to get them to the point where you could have musicians.”
He worked with a philosophy that if everyone hadn’t cried by the end of the year then they weren’t being pushed hard enough, and if someone made him mad enough he’d throw anything that was handy.
“I was kind of a jerk,” said Kennedy. “I don’t know when that changed. I think it changed when I came to HTA.”
His days at Holy Trinity Academy began in the fall of 1995, and he walked in on a program in shambles. Most senior high students had dropped out of music after a difficult year prior, and he turned to those who were left for answers. They told him who had left, who may consider coming back, and who had caused issues with his predecessor.
When he got in front of bands that first year, his goal was to make sure students knew those days were gone.
“I was pretty tough that year,” said Kennedy. “That was probably my most ferocious year – planned. Planned, not just over the top crazy, like when I started teaching.
“But I did sort of choreograph my approach to the first year of HTA.”
That included tracking down past band students and asking them to return to music, which meant adding it as a once-weekly class after school, since the timetable had already been assigned.
“It’s something I’ll never forget,” said Kim Rourke, who was in Grade 10 at the time. “He cornered us in the storage room of the cafeteria and begged us to take this class, and we were in there looking at him like he was crazy, because the year before had been horrible and there was no way we were going back.”
But something about the conversation resonated with her, and she took Kennedy up on the offer to have an after-school option and get back into playing the clarinet. He’d dangled a carrot before her that piqued her interest: jazz band.
Before long, she was learning the tenor saxophone and coming to early morning jazz rehearsals. At the time, the school had only one senior high jazz ensemble and it was comprised of Grades 9 through 12, with some Grade 7 students picking up the slack in the trombone section.
After a trip to the Jazzworks festival in Edmonton in February that year, she was hooked.
“Playing on that stage, being in the Yardbird Suite, at that point we weren’t learning to be musicians, we felt like we were musicians,” said Rourke. “I know he was probably one of the teachers who kept me engaged in school, really, because he gave us a purpose."
“We represented the school, we were proudly from HTA and part of the jazz band, because he made it into something you could be proud of.”
One of the greatest impacts he had on her was the time he took to work out solos. Rourke was shy in high school but as a tenor sax player she was a key soloist, and Kennedy would write out melodies and work through them with her to build her confidence for performances.
That work paid off when she received an award for her solo at a music festival in Idaho her graduating year, 1998.
“That’s not something I ever would have done without being pushed,” said Rourke.
Pushing students was always part of the job, said Kennedy. He worked especially hard at bringing the large Grade 7 class of 1995 to the gold level, because in his eyes they were the make-it-or-break-it group at HTA, which was a Grade 7 to 12 school at the time.
“Either I was going to make that group good or I was going to be finding another job,” he said.
His first years at HTA were trying, with some conflicts as people – parents and students alike – adjusted to the new culture he was bringing to the band program.
There was some apprehension in the air when he first came on board given the program’s history. Over time, support of the music program has grown on the part of band parents, musicians, the school and the school board, he said.
It was growing faith in the band program that allowed Kennedy to take students on more adventurous trips to festivals over the years. By the time Brenda Haughian, who graduated in 2001, was in Grade 12 her class went on a memorable excursion to Disneyland.
“That wins high school for me,” said Haughian, who went on to become a music teacher herself and is now heading up bands in Halifax.
She had Kennedy from Grade 7 through Grade 12, and said he inspired her to pursue music education as a career.
Though she said it would be a challenge to fill his shoes, she hopes to foster the same connections with students.
“I would like to be that genuine and that personable with all my kids, because I’m a bit of an introvert,” said Haughian.
One memory that has stuck with her throughout life after high school is a piece her group senior band played called Symphony No. 1 (In Memoriam Dresden, 1945) by Daniel Bukvich. A modern piece, it depicts the emotion and atmosphere of the city of Dresden during the fire bombings of the Allied forces on Feb. 13 and 14, 1945.
In the middle of the score, the notes disappear from the page and the staff is filled with the picture of a burning city, and musicians recreate screams and whistling wind through their instruments.
“Even now, I think about that piece and that middle section where it’s all just emotive, dramatization of this horrible event,” said Haughian. “It was such a moving, powerful piece of music, and he just taught it so well because it meant something to all of us.”
That same piece resonated with one of Kennedy’s first students, as well. Gerry Hebert, who graduated from Fort McMurray Composite High School in 1985, said playing Symphony No. 1 under Kennedy’s direction gave him an understanding of the power of music.
“It had the emotion and the energy and the arc of fear and power and danger of fire-bombing, and the sadness of it all,” said Hebert. “It had many layers of emotion that came out of a piece of music.
“I can remember very specifically playing that piece in high school with Martin and him talking about the power of music and creating that goosebumps feeling. Once you’ve experienced that as a performer, it’s a pretty addictive feeling.”
The feeling was so addictive for Hebert, he went on to become a professional musician and educator after high school.
Kennedy helped him get there. After an early morning jazz rehearsal, Hebert talked to his mentor about the possibility of auditioning for universities and was encouraged but also warned it would take a lot of work on his part.
“He was encouraging, but pragmatic,” said Hebert. “Martin was a very personable director but he was also very challenging. He was always like, ‘Yeah, but you’ve got to do this.’ He was always putting a condition on giving you any praise.”
While he said Kennedy was never about fanning egos, he said the band teacher was never damaging to his students’ psyches.
“There was tough love here and there, but it was never degrading,” said Hebert.
Wade Goertzen, who graduated from Fort McMurray Composite in 1995, said he felt challenged by Kennedy but was willing to live up to the high expectations because
the end result was worth the hard work.
“The results speak for themselves – his bands produce good music and he produces good musicians,” said Goertzen. “He wasn’t a tyrant or anything. You knew he cared about music and about you as a student, and he was super supportive in every way.”
His years spent in Kennedy’s program led him to a degree in music education as well, and he has often taught with his high school teacher, or been a substitute in his mentor’s classroom.
He’s also had the pleasure of playing under Kenney’s direction since moving to Okotoks, as part of the Foothills Music Society’s jazz ensemble.
“He’s just so good at tailoring his directing methods to the group,” said Goertzen. “With the adult band he’s totally different than with the kids, and you have to be.”
Brianne Gruber, currently the band teacher at St. John Paul II Collegiate, was a 2007 graduate of HTA and has also had the pleasure of working alongside her mentor and playing under his direction. She will be taking Kennedy’s reins at Holy Trinity in September.
“I think the only way I feel confident in being able to do it is because I’ve had him as a mentor and I graduated from the program,” said Gruber. “It’s not something I take lightly. There’s a tradition that I need to uphold and he’s always going to be firmly a part of that program.”
She said she expects Kennedy to be knocking at the door and popping into rehearsals from time to time – and that’s okay. It will make the transition easier for everyone, she said.
Gruber recalls how Kennedy always found new ways to express himself, often through corny band jokes and puns, but one sticks out in her mind.
While in Vancouver for a jazz festival, the band hadn’t performed well and were still on stage when Kennedy walked to the front of the group and said, “That kind of sounded like hanging dirty socks.”
“He was right though, it wasn’t a good performance – he could have said something way worse,” said Gruber.
But it was about more than the music for him – it was about the students. When Gruber was in Grade 10 she sprained her wrist while cross-country skiing in gym class, and was waiting in the office for her mom to take her to the doctor.
“He came running down the hallway into the office and sat with me, and he was panicking – not only because we had a jazz concert that night and he had to find someone else to play for me, but because I was hurt and he was so concerned,” said Gruber. “I always remember him sitting with me and making sure I was okay.”
For Kennedy, as his career has evolved, it’s become more about the kids behind the music – teaching – than about being a band guy.
He said seeing students every day is what he’ll miss most about returning to the band room in the fall. As he leaves his post, he said there’s only one wish on his list.
“If I could have anything as a retirement gift, it would be just to hear from everybody, to see where they are and how they’re doing, everyone I’ve ever taught,” said Kennedy. “I would just love to know where they ended up.”