Donny Kennedy: Living his childhood dream

“Learning to play music is a lifelong endeavour… You never stop wanting to improve”

The Principal’s Prize for Excellence in Teaching recognizes the commitment of outstanding teachers who are the very core of the academic experience of McGill students. During Fall 2021 Convocation ceremonies, six of McGill’s exceptional educators will be awarded a Principal’s Prize. Donny Kennedy, a member of the Schulich School of Music, is this year’s winner of the Principal’s Prize in the Course Lecturer category.

Donny Kennedy started taking saxophone lessons with the Regina Lions Junior Band at the age of eight. “By the time I was 11 or 12, I was pretty sure that music was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life,” he says.

So far, so good.

Pursuing that dream, Kennedy came to McGill in 1995 to earn a jazz performance degree. Funny this is, he never left.

“This is my 22nd year teaching at McGill,” he says. “To be honest, I did not really want to be a teacher. I sort of fell into it. I was asked to teach a few courses in my graduate degree and I realized I really liked teaching – especially connecting with students and helping them towards their goals.”

“It is ok not to have the answer to a question,” says Donny Kennedy to new teachers. “But go find the answer before the next class.”Evan Shay

Now a Schulich School of Music stalwart, Kennedy teaches Jazz Arranging, Jazz Saxophone, Jazz Combo, Graduate Jazz Pedagogy and Jazz Philosophy and Instruction (Music Education course).

In addition to his one-on-one teaching, Kennedy is also the Jazz Combo Coordinator, a role that sees him organizing and coordinating 20-25 ensembles in the jazz program every year.

Award-winning teaching aside (on top of the Principal’s Award, Kennedy also earned Schulich’s 2020-2021 Teaching Award in the part-time category), Kennedy remains a musician at heart.

He leads and composes for the Donny Kennedy Sextet, which toured Mexico as part of Festival Internacional Cervantino. The group was also nominated for the GM Grand Prix de Jazz at the Montreal International Jazz Festival in 2003.

Kennedy says he has been “lucky” along his journey to have met many mentors who have proved instrumental in his development both as a musician and as an educator.

“Some of the most notable are Kevin Dean, Joe Sullivan, Andre White, Remi Bolduc and Janis Steprans. They are all professors at Schulich (except Janis who is now at Laval University) and have always been supportive and great influences in my life,” says Kennedy.

“I was also lucky to have four amazing teachers in my youth. Brent Ghiglione, Luther Appel, Brenda McAlpine and Larry Natrasany. All four of these people had a massive impact on me during my years as a young musician. A lot of the ways I approach teaching have been shaped by the influences these people had on me.”

Nurturing that all-important connection

One of the pillars of Kennedy’s approach to teaching involves the trust that comes with a strong teacher-student connection.

“That [strong connection] has always been at the core of how I approach teaching,” he says. “I suppose my ability to try to help that connection develop has probably improved. I have always tried to prioritize getting to know the students well on a personal level.”

“Teaching on Zoom was a challenge,” says Kennedy. “It is a lot harder to develop a personal connection with your students through a computer screen. The pandemic really reminded me how important the in-person interaction between teachers and students is.”

In the end, Kennedy tries to pass on the lessons he’s learned over the decades since first picking up that saxophone as a boy in Regina.

“I want students to learn and leave with an understanding that learning to play music is a lifelong endeavour. You never stop wanting to improve, and/or develop,” he says.  “Also, it is important that students learn to become their own best teachers. Being curious and knowing how to go after information they need to succeed in pursuit of their goals is vital.”

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Marian Siminski
2 years ago

Congratulations Donny! So honored to be able to say that I know you and have worked with you as part of the teaching staff during summer band camps. You make us all proud!

Mark Simons
2 years ago

I agree with Marian! I’ll never forget your tennis racquet trick for My Funny Valentine. Bravo for your passion for teaching!

Kenneth Mund
2 years ago

Interesting story Donny. We are influenced through many people in our lives. If you are talking about Larry Natrazany originally from Swan River, Mannitoba, he and I spent many hours together as undergraduates, practicing and performing in various groups and just hanging out. He was a defining source in my life musically and as a great friend.