Tina Fedeski & Margaret Tobolowska, musicians-teachers-philanthropists-virtuoso human beings

“When you’re playing together, you’re learning from each other, you’re being patient, you’re listening, you’re being respectful… You can create something bigger and more beautiful than your individual self.”

[Music—an art of sound in time that expresses ideas and emotions in significant forms through the elements of rhythm, melody and harmony.]

There’s much to love about music. It can transform, delight, inspire and, if it speaks to you, even give you a voice.

But for Tina Fedeski and Margaret Tobolowska, co-founders of Ottawa, Ontario’s The Leading Note Foundation and its exceptional OrKidstra program, one of the most essential and powerful elements of music is its ability to create harmony. By bringing people together as musicians, it unites them in a way that creates a stronger group, and indeed a stronger community.

That community-building aspect is one of the reasons that El Sistema, the Venezuelan program on which OrKidstra is based, centres around music. The socio-political innovation was introduced in 1975 by José Antonio Abreu because he wanted to use music as a way to empower and unite the impoverished children of Venezuela. What began with 11 children playing in a basement garage has exploded into a deeply ingrained program, with more than 300,000 children across Venezuela coming together to study music six days a week. In the past 37 years, El Sistema has inspired many similar programs around the world; OrKidstra, which was founded in 2007, was the first El Sistema-based program established outside of South America.

There is much to say about Abreu’s initiative. In fact, it deserves an entire symphony written about it. But for now, I’ll direct you to el-sistema-film.com for more information on the revolutionary program, and ask you to focus your attention instead on a remarkable duet: Tina and Margaret, two gifted and inspiring women who have changed the tune of Ottawa’s community through OrKidstra—Tina as Executive Director, Margaret as Artistic Director.

The pair was first recommended to me by Kickass Canadian Emily Wilson, who studied the flute under Tina. Several months later, Louise Smith told me I absolutely had to profile the women. Louise is a passionate cellist with the Ottawa Chamber Orchestra (OCO) and the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra (OSO), whose home is regularly filled with live music (and laughter—often the result of dry British humour), and who passed on her artistic talents and generous spirit to her three sons. (Henry, her eldest and a Kickass Canadian, is one of my dearest friends and the reason I have the pleasure of knowing the Smith family.)

Louise is also one of OrKidstra’s cello teachers. Tina and Margaret brought her on board because, as Tina explains, “We were so impressed with her as a person. We have this saying that 80% of what a teacher imparts is who they are, rather than the actual pedagogy. That’s very much in line with the El Sistema philosophy; it’s important to choose teachers who are good people, who care, who have the right approach. We really felt that Louise was that type of person, as well as a fine player, and therefore an excellent fit for OrKidstra.”


Maybe it’s time to properly introduce OrKidstra. The initiative is run by The Leading Note Foundation, which has a mandate “to give children from under-served communities the opportunity to learn and make music together, and the chance to benefit from the individual skills and community values that are inherent in music-making.”

OrKidstra takes place on weekdays after school, both onsite at The Bronson Centre and via satellite from York Street Public School, and is free to most participants (about 15% of the kids come from families who can afford to pay for lessons, so they’re asked to offer their support). Every year, approximately 200 youth aged five to 16 years take part in one of three OrKidstra programs: KiddlyWinks, a movement, song and percussion/recorder/xylophone program for five- to eight-year-olds; KidSingers, a choral program; and KidPlayers, the orchestral program itself. Some of the country’s finest musicians lead the various classes, with support from University of Ottawa music program students as well as mentors from the Ottawa Youth Orchestra (OYO).

“The mentorship program is really, really fundamental to the El Sistema philosophy and our own personal philosophy,” says Tina. “Abreu, the founder of El Sistema, says ‘The child who knows three notes can teach things to the child who only knows two.’ I always feel that we need to be teaching our children how to give back… When young players see somebody almost their own age playing at a very high level, they realize that they can do it, too.”

When OrKidstra started up five years ago, all its participants were beginners, which is why Tina and Margaret invited OYO players to serve as mentors. But now, after several years in the program, some of the senior OrKidstra participants will soon be in a position to become mentors themselves. “Five of our kids are actually auditioning for the OYO this fall,” says Tina. “So now, five years in, our older kids can come back and mentor the younger kids; we’re completing the inner circle.”

OrKidstra year-end concert, Ottawa, Ont., 2012

Building to a crescendo

There’s no question that OrKidstra is gaining momentum on all fronts. Thanks to Tina’s dedicated proposal writing, the organization regularly receives grants from the Ontario Arts Council (OAC), the Ontario Trillium Foundation (OTF), the Community Foundation of Ottawa, the City of Ottawa and Telus. They’ve also had $115,000 worth of instruments donated to date and are starting to get “some serious corporate funding.”

OrKidstra musicians give many concerts throughout the year, including annual performances at Friends for Peace Day, and have attracted the attention of some pretty big music industry players. In 2011, Josh Groban chose OrKidstra as one of the first groups to receive a donation from his Find Your Light Foundation.

Margaret (far left) with Josh Groban (back centre) and 20 OrKidstra members who enjoyed free passes to the Josh Groban concert, Scotiabank Place, Ottawa, Ont., 2011

Tina and Margaret have both been called out for their outstanding contributions to the community. As Executive Director of The Leading Note Foundation, Tina received a 2011 Peace Award from Friends for Peace, and was named an Everyday Hero by Global National. She and Margaret shared a Leading Women, Building Communities award from the Ontario Women’s Directorate in 2012.

Tina (left) receiving her Peace Award from Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson, Ottawa, Ont., 2011

It’s clear that, in launching OrKidstra, this unusual duo has done much more than bring music to hundreds of Ottawa youth who might not have otherwise had the opportunity. They’ve set an inspiring example of community, peace and harmony, and empowered participants to find their own voices.

Still, the opening notes in both Tina and Margaret’s stories always lead back to the music.

Silently the senses abandon their defences…

“When I was a kid, I wouldn’t talk about any of the things that were bothering me,” says Tina, who was born in Toronto, Ontario, and raised in Bedfordshire, England. “But you put the flute in my hands in an orchestra, and I felt like I was exposing myself. I felt so vulnerable in my expressions, but I couldn’t help but express myself. I don’t know what I would have done without that outlet.”

She found her outlet when she joined the Bedfordshire Youth Orchestra. As a child, she’d dabbled with the flute, recorder and piano. But after joining the formal orchestral program at age 12, she knew her passion lay in the flute. “It was really a life transforming experience for me, and that led to me wanting to take up music professionally because I’d sort of found my voice,” she says.

Margaret tells a similar story about the cello. She was also born in Toronto, and played the piano when she was a young girl. “I was never great at the piano,” she says, “but I absolutely loved the music that came out of it.” Like Tina, her deep connection to music was forged at about 12 years of age, when she attended Bloorlea Middle School and got involved in the “excellent music program” they offered at the time. “They showed us all the instruments. I’d never really heard the cello on its own before, but I heard a girl (at the school) playing it from far away and I was just so drawn to it… I found my voice through music.”

Utterly entranced, both Margaret and Tina made lifelong commitments to their instruments. Tina attended the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London, then graduated in 1985 and played principal flute in the Spain Tenerife Symphony Orchestra until 1990. She returned to Canada for a six-month scholarship sabbatical at The Banff Centre in Banff, Alberta, but while visiting her sister in Ottawa, she fell in love with the city and decided to stay. (A few years later, she also fell in love with musician and engineer Gary McMillen, who went on to become her husband and co-founder of The Leading Note Foundation.) Tina made her home in the nation’s capital, working as a freelance teacher and a flautist for the likes of the National Arts Centre Orchestra (NACO).

Margaret, meanwhile, completed a Bachelor of Music Performance at the University of Toronto in 1992, and spent two years on scholarship at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia before joining the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (VSO) in 1994. Five years later, she accepted a position as cellist with the NACO, where she remained for 12 years.

Composing great new works

It was many years after Tina became acquainted with her flute, and Margaret with her cello, that another fateful pairing took place. In 2001, the women crossed paths as part of a trio at an Ottawa chamber music concert. Their friendship deepened in 2005, when Margaret wrote and produced an inspirational children’s CD called A Cello for Chelsea, which Tina carried at The Leading Note, the Elgin Street music store she and Gary opened in 1999. (Margaret has since released a second CD for children, called Zara the Maggini. Both recordings are available at The Leading Note and through CD Baby.)

But their friendship hit a high note in early 2007, when both women came across the El Sistema documentary Tocar Y Luchar (To Play and To Fight).

Tina and Gary, who watched the film together, had decided long ago that they’d wanted to do “something significant” for youth music in Ottawa. “We realized how music affected our lives, and we were also very acutely aware that it’s a very expensive pastime,” says Tina. “It’s really only available to people who can afford private lessons. We have never thought that that was quite right.” Seeing the documentary simply added fuel to the fire.

With the notes of a community-minded music program still ringing loudly in the couple’s ears, Margaret arrived at their store and delightedly announced that she’d also seen Tocar Y Luchar. “When I watched the DVD of El Sistema and its Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, and I saw what it has done to transform the children of Venezuela, my first thought was, ‘Oh my god—we’re neglecting our kids!’” says Margaret. “The results are compelling and you see how the children develop through music, and you just think it would be the answer, not for all kids, but for so many children. So when I saw the DVD, I thought, ‘Something has to happen.’ And I think Tina had the exact same feeling and we just had to make something happen.”

She did, and they did. Together with Gary, the women started OrKidstra from the ground up. These days, Gary is less involved with the program’s day-to-day operations, focusing instead on its behind-the-scenes mechanics (website, bookkeeping), as well as running The Leading Note and playing for the Ottawa Chamber Orchestra (OCO). But it’s clearly being carried by two pairs of very capable hands.

Tina combines her duties as the program’s Executive Director with freelance teaching and serving as coach for the wind section of the Ottawa Junior Youth Orchestra (OJYO). As OrKidstra’s Artistic Director, Margaret conducts its orchestra. She also teaches cello, through OrKidstra as well as at the National Capital Suzuki School of Music and Carleton University, because, she says, “I absolutely love teaching.”

Zomashax Sound Labs

As if she weren’t juggling enough acts, Margaret recently launched her production company, Zomashax Sound Labs, whose name is “every little bit of my family put together,” she says. “Zo” is for her 12-year-old daughter, Zofia, “ma” for herself, “sh” for her husband, Mehdi Shabnam, and “ax” for her 11-year-old son Max. She founded the company in 2011 after leaving her plum role with the NACO—which included performing with Pinchas Zukerman and his chamber music ensemble.

“Having a supportive family has just been incredible,” says Margaret. “When I said (to my husband), ‘I need to leave my job. I need to be free to be able to create my own things,’ he said, ‘Okay.’ You need that support to be able to do these things; you need the kids to be supportive.”

Her family’s encouragement—coupled with Margaret’s abilities as one of Canada’s greatest cellists—has led to wonderful things. She just released her first Zomashax CD, Enchanten, which she describes as “music that can be appreciated by the whole adult world, not just kids. It’s a kind of new age cello instrumental album.” And, although the album is only a few weeks old, she already has plans for future CDs and compositions for films.

But that doesn’t mean she’ll ever give up on the dream she and Tina share for OrKidstra.

Tina (left) and Margaret speaking at the Symposium on Social Harmony Through Music Education, Ottawa, Ont., 2012

Conducting themselves with class

“My dream is to continue doing what we’re doing and offering it to more kids, but not at the expense of the quality—of the relationships that are happening and of the people who become involved in it,” says Margaret. “This is a grassroots initiative and it has to have the heart in it. As soon as you remove the heart from the program, it becomes a different program.”

Tina echoes those sentiments in perfect harmony. “We’ve got to build very slowly to maintain the program’s quality,” she says. “But ultimately, we want to be in a position to be able to offer the program to many, many more children. We are hoping to inspire the school board to put the KiddlyWinks program into the school day, and for our program to be the main afterschool program for kids who really want to take it further… Ideally, we’d like every child in Ottawa to have this opportunity, but that’s going to be a very long journey.”

It’s a journey well worth taking; the final destination is much greater than a series of lovely musical performances—although that certainly has great appeal. OrKidstra’s ultimate goal has never been to create virtuoso musicians; it’s always been to develop virtuoso people.

“(El Sistema founder) Abreu understands that we are much more effective when we are working together as groups,” says Tina. “When you’re playing together, you’re learning from each other, you’re being patient, you’re listening, you’re being respectful… You can create something bigger and more beautiful than your individual self… You realize that with all these skills and determination and hard work and commitment, you can get results. And it is made all the more clear when you’re playing music with other children, because you can see not only that you improve, but that the whole orchestra improves. Transferring that beyond the world of music, it becomes clear that each person plays a vital part in the success of a community.”

Nick Piper conducts OrKidstra members and the Simón Bolívar String Quartet at the closing performance of the Symposium on Social Harmony Through Music Education, Ottawa, Ont., 2012

As Margaret describes it, seeing such a transformation occur in the OrKidstra participants is one of her life’s greatest joys. “I’ve had wonderful musical experiences,” she says. “I’ve played great music with great musicians. But seeing that kind of inspiration (among the youth), and that realization that they’re part of a community—that really gets me… I can’t equate that to any experience I’ve had in the adult musical world.”

The women are quick to point out that OrKidstra also provides a valuable emotional and creative outlet for the children, as well as an opportunity to find their inner voices. But they can’t emphasize enough the value the program brings in giving hope to our youth.

“We have so many examples of things in the world that are not good,” says Margaret. “We’re inundated with all the things that are going wrong. But when you put all these kids together and show them what they’re capable of, you can actually show them some of the beautiful things about community. That we can care for one another, we can come together and work together and create beautiful things.”

*            *            *

For the latest on OrKidstra, please visit their website and follow them on Facebook. To contact Tina or Margaret, you can email [email protected] or [email protected]. For more on Margaret’s creative pursuits, please visit enchanten.com.


  1. Susan Abbott says:

    That was a fabulous article and everything rings so true. Fabulous people and a wonderful program.

  2. kickasscanadians says:

    Thank you Susan! I completely agree – OrKidstra is incredibly inspiring.

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