She’s Come a Long Way

Rose Bowl
Ciara Hager & the Medicine Hat Rotary Music Festival Rose Bowl

Many musicians spend a lot of time on the road. Ciara Hager is getting a taste of that… and she’s still in high school.

Hager is the violinist who was just awarded the Medicine Hat Rotary Music Festival’s top prize, The Rose Bowl.   It’s an honour she shares with the Medicine Hat College Girls’ Choir.

This illustrious success hasn’t been without its significant sacrifices. “Since I live in Medicine Hat, I drive to Calgary about every second week to attend the program, and stay from Saturday until Monday night.” she explains.  “Mr. Van der Sloot offers me two 1.5 hour lessons while I am there, to make up for two weeks of lessons,” she says. An accommodation that, according to her violin instructor Bill van der Sloot, is well worth the effort. “On the outside,” he states, “one would question the immense sacrifice that Ciara and her parents make so that she can participate in MRU’s programs.  But, when one becomes familiar with the great love, hard work, and huge growth and achievement that has taken place, it is all well worth the investment!”Ciara Hager

Aside from the highway time, Hager is committed to the craft, “I try to practice a minimum of three hours everyday regardless of anything else I have going on in my life.”  To earn the coveted prize, she played the Concerto in E minor by Julius Conus. “I love the concerto, and feel like it really shows off the talents specific to my playing.”

With poise, she describes the victory, “I am honoured to have my name put on the trophy, along with all of the other talented performers who won it before me, including my instructor, Bill van der Sloot. It’s really exciting to know that the future winners will look back on the trophy and notice my name on it as well.

Van der Sloot agrees, It’s like the Stanley Cup…it gets taller and taller as year go by. If Ciara’s name is at the bottom of the trophy, you can find mine somewhere near the top!  That’s pretty cool for both Ciara and me.”

Despite the dedication, it was only recently that she started looking at the violin as a career choice. “I wasn’t sure of my decision until about a year ago.”

That decision was shaped, in part, by the Academy Program at MRU Conservatory.  Hager paints the picture, “I play in the program with so many other talented musicians, and it’s interesting to see how they overcome their struggles and how I can apply their improvements to my own playing.” She also mentions the positive reaction she has received from her Academy colleagues at this recent win, “We are all really supportive of each other.” She admits.

On the horizon, she’s excited for a masterclass with visiting Wyatt Series artist James Ehnes and another year in the Academy program.“I’m looking forward to focusing completely on music without the additional pressures of high school.” Beyond that, the road ahead hasn’t been charted, “I would love to teach violin, or to be part of an orchestra. I always listen to the orchestra parts and the different instruments showcased in movies, and could picture myself doing something like that.” Rose Bowl 7

And for those who are not as far down the musical road, “I would advise them not to give up even if they don’t succeed at first. If violin is something that they enjoy, performing as much as possible will lead to success.”

Success can seem like a long road, but Hager is certainly well on her way.

-by JLove

What’s in a Name?

Sherwood Squeakspeare

The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.

T. S. Eliot

… but how many names must a mouse have?

As it turns out… two.

Jennifer Orr, Speech Arts and Drama Instructor and Program Coordinator at MRU Conservatory, was pleased to announce the official name(s) of the character formerly referred to as ‘the Speech Mouse. “Introducing Sherwood Squeakspeare!” she proclaimed, with the appropriate amount of theatricality.

This is the official news that over 300 entrants had been awaiting for weeks. But for some, like Orr, the wait has been much longer. Created by graphic designer David Soltess to promote the A.C.T. (August Childrens’ Theatre) program, “the mouse has been a symbol to promote Speech and Drama programs for over 20 years.” she admits. Though the program has evolved, the mouse has remained a smiling presence, ready to tread-the-boards with another generation of dramatic performers.

“Lately,” Orr states, “he’s been used to promote our Presentation MRU non-competitive Speech Arts and Drama Festival.” In fact, it was at Presentation MRU in early March that the final entries were submitted.

Among the names that were passed over, some favourites emerged including:

Speechy Gonzalez


Dr. Moustus (after Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus)

Nybalt (a cross between ‘nibble’ & ‘Tybalt’ from Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet)



Sir Peter Patter

Sir Squeakums

And Julius Cheeser

“Squeakspeare made sense.” Orr begins, noting that there were three student submissions that were entered into the draw for the prize, a $50 voucher to the MRU Conservatory. “He’s a mouse, who obviously recites Shakespeare.”

His first name isn’t quite as obvious a link.

Who is the eponym for this dubious title? Orr explains,“Sherwood was suggested by a parent in the program. She was inspired by the portrait of Mary Belle Taylor (after whom the Bella Concert Hall was named). As luck would have it, her maiden name was ‘Sherwood’.”

Orr, who had the honour of going through all submissions herself before consulting with colleagues on the final name, indicates, “Sherwood resonated with me right away. I thought it gave an echo of Robin Hood. He does look a little like a merry man with the feather in his cap.” And adds, ”But, I really liked the nod to the Bella and the Taylor family.”

“We were going to name him Sir Sherwood Squeakspeare, but that’s too many sibilants.” A clear thought well-spoken by this Speech Arts instructor.

For a mouse, he’s always been a bit unique. “He doesn’t have a tail.” She remarks of his illustration omission. “It was probably lost in battle.”

Tail or not, at least he now has a story.

-by JLove

The Legend Behind More Rocky Mountain Fairies

Bluefairy“Come away, O human child!

…With a faery, hand in hand,

For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.”

– William Butler Yeats

Yeats’ verse on the Celtic fairy culture inspires wonder, adventure and strong emotions.

Samantha Whelan (Kotkas), an equally inspiring writer, uses these notions to explore the fairies here in Alberta in her production More Rocky Mountain Fairies, playing at the Bella Concert Hall in the Taylor Centre for the Performing Arts at Mount Royal University on May 15th at 2pm.5x5yellow

“I was at the Banff Centre for a year as an artist in residence.” She begins. “I met Dave Duret, a double bass player from California.” She goes on to explain that Duret, a magical storyteller in his own right, might not be ‘of this world’. “I told him I wanted to start creating some great art for kids, but I didn’t know how to get into it.” She relays his response, “Oh Sam… he said. Don’t you know that there’s fairies that live up in the meadow behind the mountains in Canmore?” And with that idea, the Rocky Mountain Fairies were born.

Once she found the fairies, she began to write.

She found that the fairies had unique colours.

She discovered the fairies had voices that could be embodied by musical instruments.

She heard their music.

It was jazz.

5x5blue“I was looking for a composer.” She identified, “and Tyler (Hornby) had worked with me out at the Children’s Festival in Canmore as a marimbist on one of my classical concerts said he’d be interested.”

“I put lipstick on to meet him.” she confides. “If I show up at a meeting with lipstick on… I want something.”

Samantha Whelan Kotkas

The story of their collaboration was a fairy tale match-up, mostly because, as it’s known in the music community in Calgary, Samantha Whelan Kotkas is impossible to say ‘no’ to.

“It was a much bigger project than he thought it was going to be.” She admitted.

“Writing music for stories is kind of like writing movie music.” She notes, with the instruments of the compositions personifying the emotions of the colourful fairies in the text.


One of the key things she teaches is music. “Between each of the stories is a tune to showcase the (instrumental) music with no voice.” she describes. “The kids are drawn to the story, but I like to keep them connected to the music.”

“I have the kids listen to the order of the instruments playing. They’re having conversations.” she explains. “Sometimes, it’s between the guitar and the bass, sometimes the piano and the saxophone.”


The reaction Samantha gets lets her know that the teaching is getting through to her audience, “Even some of the adults come up afterwards telling me that they never knew it was a conversation with the instruments. They didn’t know that they weren’t reading their parts…that they were made-up and improvised.” Then, with the magic of a fairy who has cast the spell and solved the mystery, she disappears into the wings, getting set for another show.

Little did she know, when creating these Rocky Mountain Fairies that they would ‘take her by the hand’ to adventures in concert halls across Canada and the United States. Just thinking of it, Samantha Whelan Kotkas rolls her eyes and, with a mischievous smile, laughs, “It took someone from California to show me what was happening in my own backyard.”


-by JLove



More Rocky Mountain Fairies


Samantha Whelan Kotkas – Narrator

Tyler Hornby – Percussion

Aaron Young – Guitar

Jim Brenan – Saxophone

Rubim de Toledo – Bass

Mark DeJong – Soprano Saxophone

Pat Belliveau – Baritone Saxophone

Chris Andrew – Piano


A Sound Choice for a Juno

AM Static – Juno Nominee for Best Electronic Album of the Year

Right now, Calgary-based Juno-nominated band AM Static is working-in a new bass player. “The project (album) is studio-based,” founding member Nils Mikkelsen says, “We played DJ-style for a while. But, it’s not as much fun playing with a computer.”

There’s no substitute for live sound, and no one knows that better than Mikkelsen, whose ‘day job’ is with Event Theatre Services at the Bella Concert Hall at MRU.

Nils recently became an audio/visual technician at the Taylor Centre for the Performing Arts. “Working there has offered insight into the technical aspect of music and live production,” he says. His musical know-how mixed with his studio prowess makes him the perfect addition to the venue’s exceptional backstage production team. But, with where this Juno may lead him, the venue might not be able to keep him here for long.

AM Static is a collaborative project between Mikkelsen and Chris Austman. The partnership began in 2011. They fuse R&B and electronic influences into a self-described beat-driven vocal dark pop fantasy. A Life Well Lived is their first full-length album, garnering their first Juno nomination for Best Electronic Album of the Year.

AM Static: Nils Mikkelsen & Chris Austman

Despite their commitment to their partnership, this whole Juno thing came as a bit of a surprise. “The record was made in my bedroom,” Mikkelsen undercuts, “when I think of things nominated for awards, I think of people with bigger budgets.” The general sense of a possible Juno nomination between the pair was, “That would be really awesome, but it didn’t seem to be on the horizon in the near future.”
The band had just been passed over for the Sled Island line-up when the Juno announcement came out. “I was in a doctor’s office reading a Douglas MacArthur biography,” Mikkelsen recalls, “Chris (Austman) texted me that he had found out (about the nomination) from one of his wife’s friends.”

Recalling his reaction to the good news, Mikkelsen smiles, “the moment it hits you, you’ll always remember it. Like trauma.” “We weren’t able to accept it. It took a while to sink in.”

Now that the news is post-traumatic, they’re able to observe the new landscape as a Juno nominated band with national attention. “You’re always fighting to be heard over the ground noise,” he identifies. “This nomination helps to get people more interested in our music than before.”

And people are interested online and at shows. “We’ve seen a spike in our online analytics over our social media.” He cautiously admits. They are currently working on the follow up album to A Life Well Lived, which will be released, he estimates, in 2017. With the type of notoriety a Juno win brings, let’s hope that new bass player works out. They’ll need him.

As to what they’re looking forward to at the Junos themselves, “We’re going to go meet as many people as we can. Excited to see all the cream of the crop of Canadian talent.”

So says one of them.



It’s About Time… Indeed

Legendary trumpet player Al Muirhead is nominated for a Juno.

Al Muirhead: It’s About Time

Yes… that same Al Muirhead who, for over 60 years has played countless studio sessions, appeared on innumerable stages and accompanied award-winners like Ian Tyson, Rosemary Clooney and Diana Krall, has finally stepped into the spotlight and recorded his own album… at age 80.

That album is nominated for the 2016 Jazz Album of the Year Juno Award and the reaction from the community is, “It’s About Time.” Which, ironically, is the title of the release.

Bassist Kodi Hutchinson (Chronograph Records) was the one to persuade Muirhead to do it. So, he called long-time friends and collaborators P. J. Perry and Tommy Banks to join him. MRU drum and jazz clinician Tyler Hornby also appeared on the album.

As for which of the encyclopaedia of jazz standards they know between them they were going to include, “We went into the studio with nothing prepared,” Muirhead starts, “No lead sheets. Nothing. It was right off the top of our heads.”

I just loved the freedom of it all

This organic process is reminiscent of what brought Muirhead to jazz in the first place, “I was playing in the orchestra and military band. Then the music coming out of New York after the war… I just loved the freedom of it all.”

As to how he got into the genre, “I learned by ear,” he confesses. “You heard most of the stuff on the radio and you couldn’t afford the ‘78s of them. So, people would get together at a barn dance and give their own interpretation of them.”

Muirhead, who spends a good deal of time at the MRU Conservatory teaching workshops and clinics to lucky young trumpet players and jazz enthusiasts, thinks that jazz has evolved, and not just always for the better. “Melody seems to be a thing of the past,” he recounts, “what’s important now are the time changes and key changes. It’s an academic pursuit.”

Back in the days when jazz standards were the pop tunes of the broadcast world, “when Louis (Armstrong) was out there – everyone loves Louis – you didn’t have to be a jazz fan to love Louis. That was when everyone listened with their ears, not their eyes.”

This accessibility is something that his debut album brings back, but it’s not intended only to please the public. “Hopefully (on the album) I have the goods, but this is me. Hope you like it. That’s it.”

Al Muirhead: MRU Conservatory Trumpet Clinician

He even writes a couple original tunes on the recording. One in particular is close to his heart as it was penned for and named after his wife of forty-two years “Ida Mae.” This is one of the rare gems that features Al Muirhead’s singing voice. His assessment of his crooning track, “The guys played really well,” and, “The ladies love it.”

His wife ‘Ida Mae’ was excited about embracing the Juno announcement, but for Muirhead, “It took me a while,” he admits graciously. “It’s not something I was working towards. It’s never been my goal.”

But, Juno judges and fans alike are celebrating this nomination by echoing the sentiment of his debut offering, “It’s About Time.”

  • By (Not-yet-Juno-Nominated) JLove

A Bella Future for the Junos


site-header_0“Every Artist starts somewhere,” says Chris Herard. “When you hear them thanking people during the awards ceremony, it’s important to note they all were amateurs and learned their craft somewhere.”

Herard is the Artistic Director of the “Listening to Our City” Youth Showcase & Fundraiser for MusiCounts, a charitable foundation dedicated to keeping music alive in schools across Canada.

Chris Herard leading the band

“It only makes sense to showcase Calgary’s finest young musicians in Calgary’s youngest (and finest) concert hall,” he notes. That’s why the Out Loud 2016 Juno Awards Host Committee are having their youth-focused show at the Bella Concert Hall at Mount Royal University on March 14, 2016 at 7:30pm.

Among the ensembles featured are MRU Conservatory’s own Calgary Boys’ Choir, MRU Academy String Trio and Piano Trio. They will be joined onstage with other Calgary arts groups including the Stampede Showband, the Alberta International Band Festival High School Honour Band and the Jazz YYC Youth Lab Big Band. “It’s an opportunity for students,” Herard notes, “to perform on a world-class stage in celebration of Calgary’s Year of Music.”

When the Junos asked to have a youth-featured program, they chose the right producer. Herard has been an influential musician and music educator in the Calgary Separate School Board (Bishop Carroll High School) and many community arts organizations. As a member of Calgary’s popular comic a cappella ensemble, the Heebee-jeebees, he has the musical showmanship to ensure the event is both musically spectacular and entertaining for all audiences.

For many of these young artists, it will be the first time on the Bella stage. For some, it might be the first time on a stage of this magnitude. “We look forward to showcasing this incredible new facility to the nation both at our show and during Juno week.  We are so lucky to have the opportunity to perform in the new Bella.”

Headliner: Michael Bernard Fitzgerald

“We hope our event has the opportunity to shine the spotlight on these phenomenal student musicians, as well as on their teachers and families whom support them.” Herard adds, “We also hope to inspire them towards greatness with our headliner Michael Bernard Fitzgerald.  He is such a wonderful supporter of young people making music, and we have a special finale planned with him that will surely get everyone out of their seats, and be something none of us will soon forget.”

In this year’s Juno nominees, many hail from right here in Calgary which is an inspiring notion for all of these Calgary-based artists performing on March 14th. Will this performance be the beginning of a career that will achieve Juno Award success in the future? Herard is confident, “Without question – we will see future Juno nominees here.”

So, support them now to make sure you are thanked in their Juno victory speech in the future.

For tickets click here.

-by (Juno Award Not-yet-nominated) JLove