Music Issue: Making music for himself not enough

Editor’s note: As the Juno Awards 2013 prepare to celebrate the best of Canadian music this weekend, Western Journalism students help us celebrate the best in Western Music. Read the full Music Issue.

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With a shiny saxophone strapped around his neck, Donald George Laidlaw demonstrates conductor hand signals to his students.

“I have actually done a whole class without saying a word,” he said.

Laidlaw, who goes by George, is a saxophone teacher in the Don Wright Faculty of Music.

In 2003, he retired after being a high school music teacher for 33 years and started teaching part-time at Western. “Helping others is just part of my nature,” he said, gesturing with his right hand. “And I really get a thrill out of seeing how far a person can grow and develop.”

Laidlaw is from Barrie, Ont. His connection to music solidified when he entered Barrie Central Collegiate Secondary School. There, his music teachers greatly influenced him.

“I had a very famous high school music teacher, W. Allan Fisher. He was a pioneer of music education. And even though he wasn’t trained as a music teacher he received the Order of Canada and he was a highly recognized historian,” Laidlaw said.

After high school, he completed a music degree at Western. Then, he did teachers college in London. In 1983, he graduated with a masters of music from the University of Michigan.

“I went there because of a certain saxophonist who I wanted to study with – a guy named Donald Sinta. He had been sort of my idol as a young player.”

Why did Laidlaw choose teaching? Despite his musical talent, some aspects of the music profession troubled him.

“If you play in a symphony orchestra your whole livelihood and happiness depends on the one person who is running the whole show,” he said, laughing. “I didn’t really want my life to depend on how much my boss liked me or not.”

Simultaneously, he felt the pull of teaching. “I knew that teaching was more my thing. Making music for myself is not enough. It’s something you give to other people.”

But the late 1990s represented one of the lowest points in his career, he said. Then, the Ontario government overhauled the school system to develop a more business-focused curriculum. Funding for music programs was reduced and class sizes increased, explained Laidlaw.

“It was a very unpleasant time,” he said. “There was a year we didn’t do much extracurricular. That was very hard on me personally because I loved doing it,” he said.

His longtime musician friend and former colleague, Gary McCumber, said, “We all took the brunt of a lower status image because of the way we were handled, but George didn’t change his output. He kept himself current and creatively developed his courses with the new guidelines.”

Being modest, Laidlaw said little about his impact on students. But the facts fill in the blanks. In 2003 Laidlaw was awarded the Bishop Townshend Award for Teacher Excellence. He said he received the award for “the extra time I took with students who had difficulty.”

Although retired from teaching high school, Laidlaw’s life is as active as ever. Last year he added the flute to his musical repertoire. “One of my goals when I retired was to buy a decent, semi-professional instrument and really get into it.” More than three decades after starting his career, he still pursues his two great loves of music and teaching.