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Helpers: Musical friends get a little help from Carolyn Otto

Carolyn Otto is filling her retirement with volunteering, continuing her decades long love affair with music

Like many young retirees, Carolyn Otto is almost as busy, perhaps even more so, than when she was teaching music full time at Sudbury Secondary School.

After our interview over coffee at Twiggs, she was rushing off to play with the Hilltoppers Big Band at the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 76 in Minnow Lake. 

She is a talented saxophonist, but is versatile enough to play the drums in the band, which entertains at the Legion hall every Thursday afternoon.

Otto is also a reliable, capable and valued volunteer with numerous organizations.

She serves on the boards of the Ontario Music Educators’ Association (OMEA), Sudbury Jazz Festival, and the Sudbury Music Festival (former Kiwanis), as well as being a member of the Joan Mantle Music Trust steering committee.

The latter raises money to purchase musical instruments and equipment to support music education in Rainbow District School Board schools.

"The longest thing I have been doing since I came to Sudbury is working with the Northern Ontario Music Festival," Otto said. "I was just a young teacher (at Chelmsford Valley District Composite School) then. Some of the old guard from both school boards had started a high school stage band festival.

"I was a newbie looking for some enrichment and professional development, and entered my (school) bands … I have been involved since then, and the regional co-ordinator for at least 15 years."

The Northern Ontario Music Festival, now in its 47th year, will take place at Sudbury Secondary this spring. As many as 30 bands, choirs and guitar ensembles from schools in northeastern Ontario will perform over three days.

Otto met music educator Ralph McIntosh when she was teaching in the summer school music program. He encouraged her to come to join the performing arts program at Sudbury Secondary. She taught there for 27 years.

"I taught music, mostly instrumental but also vocal and guitar, and English, and I was the pit orchestra director for at least 20 school musicals and variety shows."

Last April, she was the guest conductor at a performance of school's concert band.

"Carolyn directed numerous award-winning bands during her teaching career at Sudbury Secondary School, and had a positive influence on countless students, several of whom became music teachers themselves," McIntosh said.

McIntosh, who is chair of  the Sudbury Music Festival Board and the Joan Mantle Music Trust committee, adds, "Carolyn has been vital to both organizations. Her ability to adopt new technologies quickly and her willingness to take on a task when called upon make her a valued team member." 

Otto was born in North Bay and grew up in the TIlden Lake area. She studied music at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, and completed her bachelor of education at Queen's in Kingston. She upgraded her degree as an honours specialist in music at the University of Toronto.

Introduced to the clarinet when she was in Grade 7, Otto graduated to the tenor saxophone in Grade 9. 

"The rest is history," she says.

You may have seen Otto perform on the Lions Club Christmas Telethon with the house band and with the Blues Brothers. She plays with the Nickel City Wind Ensemble, and this past summer played in the pit orchestra for the YES Theatre production of "The Wizard of Oz."

She played percussion with the Sudbury Symphony Orchestra for five years and enjoyed playing under the baton of Victor Sawa, who had been one of her professors.

Otto says her biggest commitment is her work with the province-wide music educators' board, the OMEA.

"The OMEA board is a group of educators of young children to post-secondary in music. We offer workshops and have a huge conference with from 700 to 900 delegates, and we bring in experts from all over North America," she said.

At times Otto, who joined the board in 2000, was the only representative from Northern Ontario.

"The struggle right now is to make sure music is in the curriculum and to make sure it timetabled and staffed by someone who is a music teacher. 

"Sadly, music is not offered in every school the way it is intended to be offered, and very often, especially at the elementary level, it is entrusted to someone who is not qualified as a specialist."

Educators are also working hard to bring music education back to the level it was before COVID-19 restrictions made activities such as band practice impossible, she said.

"At some schools, it has been a real struggle to bounce back and get kids to take (music) courses again."

Otto is proof there is truth in the adage "if you want something done, ask a busy person."

Judi Straughan, her friend and another former teaching colleague, says, "Whatever needs to be done in her many organizations, Carolyn is up for the challenge.

"Carolyn is an excellent conductor and musician but beyond that she is a hard-working team player who gets along with everyone.  

"Whether she is in a leadership role or working quietly behind the scenes, she makes an impact. Carolyn is the secret ingredient who ensures success." 

Vicki Gilhula is a freelance writer. Helpers is made possible by our Community Leaders Program.


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Vicki Gilhula

About the Author: Vicki Gilhula

Vicki Gilhula is a freelance writer.
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