Antoinette Stuppard has run the Red Deer Youth Orchestra for over four decades with the goal of keeping kids engaged in music — and her effort has paid off, remarkably.
“Ninety-nine per cent of the kids who played in the orchestra did not quit, because they had fun,” said Stuppard. “And if you have fun, you keep doing it.”
While Stuppard has enjoyed conducting generations of young musicians, all good things must come to an end. After leading the string orchestra since about 1970, Stuppard is officially retiring.
Earlier this month, she decided to hand over her baton to two of her daughters. While her experience was fulfilling, “On Jan. 1, I got up and thought, I’ve had enough of this,” she said with a smile.
Stuppard will continue giving private harp and cello lessons out of her home, but her daughters Marcelle Nokony and Louise Stuppard, will respectively lead the intermediate and senior sections of the youth orchestra, which have cumulatively grown to about 50 members who are as young as six-years-old.
They are an extremely dedicated bunch. Many of the young and not-so-young musicians (the orchestra also has some adult novice players) drive into the city for weekly practices from as far as Big Valley, Caroline and Olds.
Stuppard started the orchestra many years ago with only a handful of players.
The retiring conductor, who is coy about her age, actually founded the string orchestra’s precursor, Tiny Tots, in the early 1960s with the three eldest of her four children and two neighbouring kids.
Nokony remembers having a blast performing with Tiny Tots, and later the Red Deer Youth Orchestra, which entertained in schools, nursing homes, Michener Centre and various city functions.
“She made it a lot of fun,” said Nokony of her mother, who had a playful way of turning even practising the scales into an adventure.
“You make a game out if it,” responded Stuppard, who prefers modern creative teaching methods to the methodical ones she grew up with.
While she took piano lessons as a child from her mother, the St. Boniface, Man., native admitted she didn’t feel overly interested until she took up the violin and joined a student orchestra at the age of 14.
Playing with a group was instantly more enjoyable, recalled Stuppard, who later performed with the Winnipeg Symphony and other orchestras before moving to Central Alberta with her husband in the late 1950s.
While Nokony was only five when she began playing with Tiny Tots, she always knew the cardinal rule: “We couldn’t quit. We had to play the violin until we were 16 or we were out of the house,” she recalled, with a laugh.
At age 52, Nokony is a violin-playing veteran who has performed with the Vancouver Island Symphony and toured with Gary Fjellgaard, Valdy and other musicians.
Her older sister, Louise Stuppard, is a violinist with the Red Deer Symphony and an occasional player with the Calgary Philharmonic.
Despite their combined experience, Nokony knows they have big shoes to fill, saying “My mother is amazing, and she has been so dedicated.”
As the youth orchestra grew, Stuppard had to constantly search out new rehearsal spaces.
There were times when the group met in various church basements.
The orchestra now leases space from Red Deer College and performs for the public three or four times a year, including an annual Christmas concert at Gaetz United Church.
Stuppard said she’s had a lot of community support over the years, including from the late Keith Mann, who conducted for the Red Deer College Symphonic Winds, and from Red Deer Mayor Morris Flewwelling, who often was MC at concerts.
While she will undoubtedly miss conducting, Stuppard said she hasn’t had a chance to feel the loss yet.
“That’s because you still come to watch” rehearsals, said Nokony.
While Nokony was initially nervous about taking the orchestra’s reins, she said she’s getting a lot of conducting tips from her mom.
“My mother’s my mentor.”