Prof composes signature piece to mark 10th anniversary of Ontario Provincial Honour Band

William Thomas (left) at an honour band rehearsal at Jackson's Point on Nov. 1

York University music Professor William Thomas, a long-time champion of band music in secondary and postsecondary education, was recently accorded a significant honour. He was commissioned to compose a new work to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Ontario Provincial Honour Band, an audition-based ensemble of 50 elite players from high schools across the province.

Thomas took inspiration for his composition, including its title, from the natural beauty of northern Ontario and the ancient Celtic concept of “thin places”: mystical or sacred places where the boundary between this world and “the world beyond” is very slight.

“The melodic material for Thin Places comes from Lowell Mason’s music for Sarah Adams’ hymn text Nearer My God to Thee, and from melodies of Ontario’s indigenous peoples,” said Thomas.  “In combining these themes I hoped to reflect a little of the heritage of our province and show the universality of the notion of ‘thin places’.”

“I approached Bill [William Thomas] to write this piece because of his vast knowledge not only of wind band music but of high school students,” said band director Scott Harrison, a current master’s student in York’s Department of Music and a music teacher at the Markham District High School.  “He knows what they want to play and has the talent to make it challenging and interesting.  He was the only choice for such a project and he really came through.  Thin Places is a William Thomas (left) at an honour band rehearsal at Jackson's Point on Nov. 1  work of art and I think everyone needs to hear it.”

William Thomas (left) at an honour band rehearsal at Jackson’s Point on Nov. 1

After a few intense days of rehearsals, the honour band gave Thin Places a double premiere on Friday, Nov. 2. Under the baton of guest conductor Alain Cazes, tuba soloist with Montreal’s l’Orchestre Métropolitain and a professor of music at McGill University, they performed the piece to enthusiastic applause at the Markham Theatre for the Performing Arts in the morning and the Cardinal Carter Academy for the Arts in the afternoon. The band then reprised the work at the keynote address for the delegates of Vibrations 2012, the conference of the Ontario Music Educators’ Association (OMEA), on Saturday, Nov. 3.

Thomas’ affiliation with the Ontario Band Association, the organization that coordinates the honour band, stretches back over a decade, and he is much in demand as an adjudicator for the group’s annual band festival. He is likewise a familiar name and face around the OMEA, having served on its board, delivered numerous clinics at past conferences and chaired the conference in 1998.

The honour band prepares to perform at Vibrations 2012 under the direction of Alain CazesThe honour band prepares to perform at Vibrations 2012 under the direction of Alain Cazes

This high level of engagement with music in the community also informs Thomas’ academic activities at York, where he teaches music education, directs the York University Wind Symphony and coordinates numerous outreach initiatives.

Prior to joining the full-time faculty in York’s Department of Music, Thomas taught for more than two decades with the York Region District School Board, principally as head of music at Markham District High School. There he established a Jazz Ensemble and an annual Jazz Combo Festival, which he has continued at York with the collaboration of colleagues in the jazz program. The Music Department now welcomes 24 high school jazz bands each year for clinics and the opportunity to play and hear each other perform in the Tribute Communities Recital Hall. Along with the adjudicator’s comments, participating groups receive a recording of their performance.

Thomas is also the driving force behind one of the Music Department’s key student recruitment events: the annualHigh School Musical Showcase. Later this month, c. 150 young musicians in the process of making decisions about their post-secondary education will gather on campus for a free concert that showcases York’s world, jazz and classical music areas. Current students in the Music Department will be on hand to chat with the visitors about university life and what drew them to York’s program.

In the winter term, in partnership with a number of local high schools, Thomas also coordinates invitational junior and senior band festivals, where four or five ensembles participate in clinics and perform for each other. Now in its fifth year, the senior band fest is associated with OBA’s Wind Conductors Symposium by virtue of a shared guest clinician who works first with the bands and then with experienced and emerging conductors the following day.

Thomas and graduate music student Gordon Shephard co-organized a similar clinic/performance festival for community bands at York last spring, an event they hope to reprise this year.

This all adds up to a veritable mountain of activity that Thomas has both pioneered and developed into thriving programs. He is grateful for the ongoing support of students and colleagues in the Department of Music who have helped made the events so successful.

“I think outreach to the next generation of musicians is part of our purpose as leaders in music education,” said Thomas. “And it’s absolutely vital to furthering our connections within the music community.

“On a personal level, this is my background and I find the work deeply gratifying, because I know what it means to the people who participate. I believe that, collectively, we are making an important contribution to the musical development of everyone who takes part.”

“Many people look at Bill as being a guru of music education in Ontario,” said Harrison. “He has inspired many people and I can say that I know that I would not be where I am if it were not for Bill’s teaching and guidance.  He is looked up to by many teachers and future teachers all around the province.”