In Conversation with Danielle Gaudry

Great education is the key to great music-making, and Professor Danielle Gaudry is ensuring her students receive the best education possible.

Danielle joined the Schulich School of Music’s department of performance earlier this year and is now the Artistic Director and Conductor of the McGill Wind Orchestra. In anticipation of her upcoming concert on November 17 in Pollack Hall, we caught up with her to ask about her approach to teaching, how she pulls the best out of her students, and what it’s like to be back in Montreal after many years away.

Your appointment to the Schulich faculty is a bit of a homecoming for you. What are you most excited about in your return to Montreal?

Well, I'm looking forward to many things. But first and foremost, I'm excited to be back within this space that is continuously striving for excellence, working with incredible students who come from everywhere, and working with the world-renowned faculty here. This tradition of excellence has always been part of the McGill community, and specifically of the Schulich School of Music. I'm really looking forward to being part of that, working within that – with all my different hats on – and working with all the great people here.

And I am so excited to be back in Montreal because it's just such an exciting place to be culturally. It's so diverse, and you can find anything that you are looking for here. There’s also such a vibrant arts culture where you can go to concerts, see shows, and experience all kinds of arts. That's something that I'm really excited to be to be part of!

Music has always been about connection between the performers and audiences. How do you think about music as a tool for building community, inside and outside of the concert hall?

I think music is one of the best tools to build community, because it's something that everyone can relate to on some level. Everyone has some sort of association or experience with music. I know I'm generalizing, but people who come to concerts or who are actively listening to music can relate in some way, even if it's not a piece of music that they're familiar with. And so, I think we have this incredible opportunity as musicians to find ways to connect through outreach, but also through our programming. And I think we have this gift to be able to connect with lots of different folks in the community, with students, with our ageing population, with everybody in the community. I think we're lucky with that.

Music education threads throughout your career. What is it about teaching others that keeps you motivated?

I absolutely love watching students grow and develop. And, as a music educator and ensemble leader, I am in a unique position to see students for multiple years, whereas another educator in a different subject might only see students in one class. When I taught high school, I saw them for all their years of high school. And, you know, at the university level, you tend to see students for the entire time they're doing their degree.

So you have this really exciting perspective. You get to see them when they start, and then you get to see them when they leave. And, for me, that's the most incredible thing. It’s watching students make progress on their instrument, in their musicianship, and as people – just watching them flourish and become the thing that they are passionate about becoming. For me, that's the best part. It’s certainly a delayed gratification, because it takes it takes a few years to get to that point, but it's always exciting to see where students end up and beyond.

How do you help students get to that point?

Part of it is, you know, creating authentic experiences for them in the ensemble setting, and part of it is being able to meet them at whatever point they are in their journey and to find ways to guide them to wherever they're going. Because everybody comes with a different background and a different set of experiences and skill levels – no two students are alike. And sometimes they don't necessarily come with the full complement of skills that you thought that they had, or sometimes they come with way more, so you really see the full spectrum.

We're all somewhere on this continuum; we don't all start at the same place, and we don't all end at the same place. The most important thing is that there's progress and there's growth. And I think that's the most important thing for each student to be seen as an individual, you know, as much as possible.

How do you approach building community among your students/musicians and fostering inclusivity?

You know, over the years, what I've learned as an educator and conductor at many different levels, is that everyone wants to feel as though their contributions are valuable. Nobody ever wants to feel as though what they do doesn't matter. We, as leaders, must find ways to give everyone a sense of ownership. And so, for me, that means helping students develop an independence, helping them think critically about the music, and not just be vessels that receive the knowledge and the wisdom that I have. I want them to ask questions, to be inquisitive, and to be curious, and to go find the answers.

For me, it's about creating that sense of ownership within the students, so they understand it's really about them, this is about their performance. They're the ones making music, so they have to have an opinion, they have to have thoughts.

Of course, as a conductor it can't always be democratic; you do have to make some musical decisions. But I still think there's a lot of room for students to have a voice in certain aspects of the music-making, because I think that's a necessary skill for them once they leave their studies. It's really about creating that sense of community and ownership and of belonging and knowing that each person's contributions are valuable.

As a follow-up, can you tell us about what that looks like in the room? It must take time for students to really get comfortable and start flourishing like that.

This idea of me being the “keeper” of all the knowledge and the ideas and the music, I don't know that that style is so effective anymore. I think students are different now than when I started teaching many years ago. And I think students want to actively participate in the music-making process. So, for me, it means asking them a lot of questions, asking them to think about what it is they're playing, and how their part relates to other parts. And, you know, asking them to lead from within their section, asking them to have discussions with their section mates and to talk about things. And to figure out, you know, what's working and what's not working? Being a conductor, in an educational institution like this, I think it's our job to empower students, and to allow them this kind of this ability, or to help them develop this ability to be able to think about the music.

When students come to Schulich, they’re not just learning about music; they’re learning about themselves. What advice do you have for students navigating this period of their lives?

My best advice is to view this time as one of exploration, growth, and of possibilities. I think sometimes, especially in music, we get trapped by this notion of “well, I'm here and my degree is this.” And, “my path is that, and so I'm doing this.” But what I have seen time and time again, and even in my own life, is that your path might not be a straight one. And you might start down one path, but do a slight detour and an offshoot of that path. And it might lead you somewhere really crazy and exciting.

And so, I always tell students, to those opportunities that come your way, try to do as many things as you can – of course, within reason. We're not trying to tell students to overload themselves, but take all those opportunities, even if they seem unusual, or nonconventional, or not necessarily what you thought. Take those opportunities because you don't know where it might lead you. You don't know who you might meet, you don't know how that might influence you later, or how having this one experience might help you down the road somehow.

How do you bring out the best in an ensemble when you’re working with them for the first time?

I strive for excellence. And sometimes that means I must be demanding. But ultimately, I'm going to ask students to rise to their full potential, right? I'm not going to ask them to do things that are impossible that they can't do, but I am going to ask them to, fully make music to the best of their abilities. Because isn't that what we're all here to do?

And that looks like different things in the ensemble setting. Because, again, we all come to this from different from different places. And, thinking about some students who might not have had a lot of wind background based on where they came from or might not have had a lot of wind orchestra playing experience. And some might have had a lot, depending on where they're coming from. So, it's really about everybody playing to the best of their ability so the final product is something that we are all proud of and satisfied with.

What’s your advice for students looking to be more mindful of their mental health over the academic year?

I recognize that it's real. It's a huge consideration for students now. And I think it's always been true of music students because there's always this notion that you're never done; you're never done in the way that your roommate who's in biology might be done their homework. And even if you are done with your homework or whatever assignments that you have, you're never done practicing. You're done the official assignments, but there's always something that you can be doing.

So I think that this idea of mental health is a really big one here in music. And I think the advice that I would give students is to find a way to achieve balance in a way that you can still meet all the expectations and allow yourself that breathing room to take care of yourself. And so, I think for some of us, maybe that looks like managing our time. Even myself, if I have a lot on my plate, and if I'm not well organized about how I use my time, if I don't structure my time, if I don't schedule those things in my in my kind of daily, weekly life, then that's when things start to feel overwhelming and unachievable.

I find that scheduling things in my calendar, whether that means scheduling an hour where I can go exercise, a half-hour coffee break with a friend, and for this next hour work on this task that I need to get done.

I think sometimes without structuring and scheduling things, you can start one thing, and then you end up going down that rabbit hole and spending way more time doing it. And then you don't have enough time to do the next thing, which is also super urgent and needs to be accomplished, and so on, and so on. It’s about figuring out how much time each task is going to take, putting that in your schedule, and then finding pockets where you can do some self-care, you know, whatever that looks like for you.

What would you consider “essential listening” for any music lover, across any musical genre?

I always think it's really important to find some music that you can just get lost in and shouldn't feel like work in any way. And that looks different for lots of people. But you know, I always love listening to stuff like Stevie Wonder and just kind of have fun with that, because it doesn't feel like a requirement in any way. It just feels like fun, you know? And you can just kind of lose yourself in that and have a good time. So that’s what I would say right now! If you ask me tomorrow, I might have a different answer!


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