2020-2021 Teaching Award Winner: Donny Kennedy

Donny Kennedy playing saxophone
Published: 10 June 2021

Congratulations to Donny Kennedy, winner of Schulich's 2020-2021 Teaching Award in the part-time category. 

A dedicated educator in the Jazz Area since 2004, saxophonist Donny has been the small ensemble coordinator since he started, organizing 20-25 combos annually, as well as teaching Jazz Arranging. Students remark on his leadership, experience, and understanding in fulfilling his responsibilities for a host of undergraduate and graduate courses as well as for the design and development of the curriculum for music education or performance majors.

With his organic and simple approach, Donny helps students understand even the most complex subjects, passing on a love and knowledge of music for others to enjoy and share. In student letters of recommendation, he is singled out as a motivated and supportive mentor who demonstrates the importance of being a strong role model.  They share that he excels at verbalizing and communicating his knowledge on sound matters and guides them to awareness all the different aspects of saxophone playing (technique, sound, precision, rhythm, and more), working towards precise and obtainable goals.  

In celebration of this achievement, we asked Donny to elaborate on his teaching philosophy, share a stand-out moment from this year, give advice to his starting-at-university-self, and more...

What are some elements that are important to your teaching philosophy?  

I think the most important element of my teaching philosophy is developing personal relationships with my students. I really try to get to know all of my students well in order to respond to their individual needs and learning styles. 

Has your teaching philosophy changed over time? If so, how?  

I don't know that it has changed. I would say experience has allowed for it to develop. Learning from things that did not work, or even things that did work can really help to refine your practice. 

What do you want your students to leave your classroom with?  

The ability to be honest with themselves about where they are at, what they need to work on, and how to set attainable goals. I also want my students to learn how to teach themselves and go after the information needed about anything they are curious about (if they don't already possess this skill). 

What does a future-ready musician look like to you?  

I think flexibility and versatility will be keys to success for musicians. The pandemic has changed the landscape of the music industry and it will likely never be exactly as it was before. 

What will you carry from this past year into your coming years of teaching?   

The most impressive take away for me was how resilient all of my students were. It was really inspiring for me to see students staying passionate about music even in a time when there was much that could make any of us feel down in the dumps about school and/or the music industry. 

Do you have a stand-out teaching moment from the past year (knowing that it was a pretty unconventional year, to say the least)?  

There were many. I guess if I had to choose one it would be the fact that we were able to get my Jazz Arranging students' final big band charts read by Jazz Orchestra II in Pollack Hall. I had not anticipated that this would be a possibility and was really happy for my students that they were able to hear their writing. 

What advice would you give to your starting-at-university self?  

Spend more time practicing! When I started university, it was my first time living away from home and it took me time to find a balance. Looking back, I realize now how much free time I actually had. I also would have gone to a hockey game in the Forum before it closed!! 

What is your earliest musical memory?  

I heard a student in a Grade 2 assembly playing classical piano. I loved it and went home telling my parents I needed to learn to play music. I remember that moment vividly and like it was yesterday! 

If you hadn’t ended up in music, what would your alternate career path have been?  

I was very interested in a career in medicine. I almost followed that path after my undergrad but decided to continue on my current path. 

What was the last book you read / show you watched / album you listened to?  Anything to recommend (and why)?  

I read a lot of books. The most current is Michael J. Fox's book: No Time Like the Future

As far as albums are concerned, I am always listening. Most recently I have been listening to a lot of Duke Ellington. Another album that I am revisiting is Mark Turner's Ballad Session

Anything on your to-learn list?  

Nothing specific comes to mind. I will just continue trying to improve on my instrument, write more music, and I am looking forward to being able to play music with other human beings again in the near future! 

Originally from Regina, Saskatchewan, Donny Kennedy (BMus'99, MMus'01, BEd'07) moved to Montreal, Quebec in 1995 to pursue a jazz performance degree at McGill University. He now teaches at the Schulich School of Music of McGill University and St. George’s School of Montreal. At McGill, he has taught Basic Jazz Arranging, Jazz Saxophone, Jazz Materials, Basic Materials of Jazz, Jazz Orchestra III, Jazz Philosophy and Instruction, Graduate Jazz Pedagogy and Jazz Combo and is also Jazz Combo Coordinator. Kennedy has also taught Saxophone at Bishop’s University. He has also directed the Jazz Ensemble at Camp Musicale d’Asbestos (English session) and is a regular faculty member of the annual Prairielands Jazz Camp in Regina, Saskatchewan.

Donny leads and composes for his own Sextet. The Donny Kennedy Sextet toured Mexico as part of Festival Internacional Cervantino. This group was also nominated for the GM Grand Prix de Jazz at the Montreal International Jazz Festival in 2003. In 2001, the group was chosen as one of five groups to perform in Toronto as part of a Canada Council initiative to promote emerging Canadian jazz artists. The group has released one recording entitled Horizons. The disc features original compositions by Kennedy. Donny has also recently embarked on a new quartet project (The Kennedy/McLeod Quartet). This group has one released recording entitled, Belaney’s Secret.

Donny remains active as a freelance musician, clinician, and teacher in Montreal and Canada. He is a D’Addario Canada endorsed artist. He has performed with Kevin Dean, Andre White, Kirk MacDonald, Joe Sullivan, Remi Bolduc, Josh Rager, Steve Kaldestad, Janis Steprans, Kieran Overs, Christine Jensen, Paul Nedzela, The Montreal Jazz Big Band and many other local musicians. He is also a member of the Min Rager Quintet. This group has recorded two CDs entitled Bright Road and First Steps. Donny also plays lead alto saxophone in both the Joe Sullivan Big Band and the Juno award-winning Christine Jensen Jazz Orchestra.

About the Schulich School of Music Teaching Awards

Each year the Schulich School of Music recognizes faculty members and student instructors for their outstanding contributions. The Schulich School of Music Teaching Awards recognize excellence, commitment and innovation in teaching, and the importance of these qualities in the academic experience of students at McGill. Prizes are awarded annually to each winner at Spring Convocation.

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