Heroes- Gord Sweeney

I’m starting a new section on heroes — my heroes. So far, they’re all in the music profession, but who knows where it may lead eventually.
First up, is retired long-time Principal Trombone with the Toronto Symphony, Gord Sweeney.

Gord Sweeney and Scott Irvine
Gord came to Toronto from Dallas to take the position of Principal Trombone of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in the mid 1970s, around the same time that I was a student at the University of Toronto. In the U of T Concert Band, we were preparing the Berlioz Grand Funeral and Triumphant Symphony, and newly-arrived Gord was asked to play the extended solo trombone funeral oration in the second movement. I will never forget the first note he played at the first rehearsal. I had heard really beautiful brass tone before, but nothing like this. Effortless, ringing and huge, his gorgeous sound filled the entire rehearsal space and left an impression on me that is still there forty years later. During his tenure, Gord was never really into playing trombone sonatas or concertos. What he DID do was play the living snot out of the trombone orchestra repertoire — best Mahler 3 ever, Saint Saens Organ symph., Bolero, Sibelius 7… the list goes on!
Over the years, I’ve gotten to work with Gord on many occasions. A highlight was a 1986 recording for CBC with the Toronto Brass Society and the Elmer Iseler Singers called Welcome Yule. The quintet included other Toronto Symphony principal players. I can now say that it’s some of the best playing I’ve ever done — it’s really hard to play badly when there’s that kind of playing going on around you!
Gord has, in my estimation, one of the greatest sounds that it’s possible to produce on a brass instrument. Through the ensuing decades, other players have come along since I first heard him — I can say that he has been equalled, but never bettered.
The photo is from last year after a Hannaford Street Silver Band concert that we had both attended. The drinking establishment is The Jason George on Front Street East in Toronto.

The Joan Watson Scholarship

VICTORIA, BC – Yamaha Canada Music has announced the Joan Watson Memorial Scholarship, for first-year students entering the University of Victoria. Beginning in the fall of 2016, and continuing for the next three years, a Canadian brass player accepted to the School of Music will be eligible to receive a $1500 cash award.

Joan Watson, Canada’s foremost horn virtuoso and educator, was a Yamaha Artist for over 30 years.
She studied at the University of Victoria and began her career with the Victoria Symphony before moving to Toronto in the 1980s.

“Joan’s extraordinary legacy as a horn player and teacher will live on through the Joan Watson Memorial Scholarship,” says husband and long-time musical partner Scott Irvine, also a Yamaha Artist. “It is particularly satisfying to see that U Vic will be the recipient. Joan spoke very highly of her years there with her horn teacher, Dick Ely. Representing the family of Joan Watson, I am grateful to Yamaha Canada Music for their vision and leadership in making this happen.”

Joan made an immense contribution to music in Canada, with her unrivalled passion for performance and a dedication to music education. In 2008, Joan was the first female brass player in Yamaha’s global history to be featured on a poster.

“Joan was one of the rare artists that was always keen to share ideas and collaborate on exciting new projects,” says Inderjit Mudhar, Communications Specialist at Yamaha Canada Music. “She was relentless in her devotion to developing young talent, so I am certain that she would be proud to have her name on this important new award.”

“The University of Victoria’s School of Music wishes to express its profound thanks and gratitude to Yamaha Canada Music for their establishment of the Joan Watson Memorial Scholarship,” says Arthur Rowe, Acting Director of the School of Music. “We are proud to remember her as a student, and to have her memory live on through this award to assist other young musicians who attend U Vic.”

Joan leaves behind a musical legacy that will be an inspiration for generations, and this award recognizes her commitment to young musicians and the art of brass playing.

Favorite Joan Watson

On March 12th, 2015, I lost the love of my life, my best friend and my muse.  Joan Watson was an exceptional person, teacher, musician, horn player, woman, mom and inspiration for some of my compositions.

One of those compositions is Shapeshifter for French Horn and Brass Band.  Check it out here in a recording made by Joan and the Hannaford Street Silver Band while looking at a slide slow of lovely Joan.


The Flintstones Tuba

Imagine getting to play Heifetz’ violin, or Rubinstein’s piano or Casals’ cello or…..


Living the dream at Jim Self’s house in Los Angeles.

I have to admit that I really didn’t know what to think of playing the tuba after being first handed one in 1967, but one thing was clear – this was the instrument that I heard on my favourite TV show from my youth; The Flintstones!

. In fact, I have to say that watching the reruns of those Flintstones episodes from the early 60s afforded me the opportunity really pay attention to the background music. Whoever that tuba player was, was my inspiration! Many years later I would discover that the tuba player was an LA studio musician named George Boujie, who was the go-to guy for most stuff before Tommy Johnson began his legendary career. On a visit to LA in 2007, I got to fulfill a dream and play Boujie’s CC York tuba used on MGM movie scores in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s as well as on the original Flintstones background music. (a big thank you to tuba legend Jim Self, who now owns the horn.)



Bull kelp is one of the largest brown algae. It grows attached to the sea floor by a specialized root-like structure called a holdfast. From this, a long stem-like stipe extends to the surface of the sea, terminating in an enlarged, spherical, hollow float from which the linear leafy blades emanate. It occurs on rocks in the upper sub-tidal zone to a depth of several fathoms throughout coastal British Columbia.

Al Kay: Friday, July 18th &emdash;

The kelp harvest

Never a group to miss a performing opportunity, True North Brass took the kelp challenge in beautiful Bamfield, BC during our residency there in the Summer of 2009. Trombonist Al Kay went out early one morning with local kelp harvesters and brought back a number of “instruments” for our concert.

Al Kay: Saturday, July 19th &emdash;

Trying the new kelphorns

Al Kay: Friday, July 18th &emdash;

Richard Sandals looking for the perfect horn (again)

Al Kay: Saturday, July 19th &emdash;

The concert

Here are some pictures of our performance and even a post-concert photo with the harvesters. (BTW, Al Kay took these great photos. You should visit his site at alkayphotos.com – a great place to spend an hour or two!)

Al Kay: Saturday, July 19th &emdash;

True North Kelp with the kelp harvesters

After selecting particularly good sounding horns, we experimented in finding some common notes and chords. We then worked out the form for the piece, and that was about it. It’s basically a TNB group improvisation — and it came off rather well!

But best of all, you can actually hear and see the performance right here.  (Unfortunately, most of the camera time is focused on the portly tuba player. Note that hornist Joan is playing a “double kelp”!)  Note also the “kelperidoo” at one point.

Kelpaphonics from MusicByTheSea on Vimeo.