Finding Their Voice: OrKidstra’s KidComposers

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Finding Their Voice: OrKidstra’s KidComposers

Margaret Maria Tobolowska, OrKidstra Cofounder and Teaching Artist, in collaboration with the OrKidstra Team


KidComposers’ Jayden explains Samar, Ring of Time 2022. Photo: OrKidstra.

When a dedicated youth music organization starts brainstorming, the sky opens with possibilities. Such was the lead-up to the creation of KidComposers, a natural extension of OrKidstra’s online Improv Explorers program. Born out of the challenges of the pandemic, the two programs empowered children and youth to explore their creativity. Truly, the sky is the limit for these young people. Confident that there are no mistakes and that every sound has meaning, our kids have been thriving in the world of music composition.

Inspired by Venezuela’s El Sistema, Tina Fedeski, Gary McMillen, and I founded OrKidstra in Ottawa in 2007. At the organization’s heart is a beautiful combination of musicianship and citizenship that encourages kids from marginalized communities to find their voices through music. OrKidstra started with 27 children and now includes over 700 children and youth, ages 5–18, from over 62 linguistic and cultural backgrounds. Each day, the students demonstrate how the power of music gives them a voice and a confidence that transcends differences and celebrates diversity, community, and excellence.

Like many, we were extremely challenged by the onset of the pandemic in March 2020. Making music together is fundamental to OrKidstra—what would it look like when we were distanced? Determined to keep music and community alive for our students, we modulated to an online environment with our “OrKidstra @ Home” online programming. With virtual programming also came the opportunity to reflect more deeply on how we could continue to create positive change in our community.

KidComposers came out of a special December 2020 meeting that addressed OrKidstra’s repertoire. In light of world events, the OrKidstra team felt it was important to consciously build on our creative, inclusive repertoire choices and continue to honor our student’s incredible diversity in the world of music. It was vital to us that we expand its repertoire and encourage the creation of music with a new roadmap. The result was “OrKADDstra”: Kid-Powered, Alive Composers, Diversity & Gender Inclusion, Dead Composers (I invite you to refer to the included graphic for more information). Our OrKidstra Teaching Artists have implemented this framework since January 2021.

KidComposers has been one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had while guiding groups through the creative process. Our first composition project was created and inspired jointly with Dr. Sera Smolen, who participated in our workshop process (in turn, I worked with her students virtually in Ithaca). At first, it took place exclusively online. We worked with an online collaborative software called, which helped me plan all the classes and allowed the kids to open scores and start creating and sharing their work. Each class began with sonic discovery, whereby we listened to music that would inspire the week’s creativity. The kids then jumped into exploration. And thanks to their enthusiasm, music started coming forth. We created storms, rhythm machine-like music, and pitched and non-pitched compositions, along with music idiomatic to their instruments and ensemble music.

The whole process, like OrKidstra, is kid-powered and kid-inspired. We flowed through the year and culminated in a project that still takes my breath away today. Each child presented their compositions with one of our talented OrKidstra Teaching Artists as their performers. The exchange between composer and performer is what struck me the most; the youth—ages 10-18—could articulate their creative process, take ownership of their ideas, and interact with their performers with confidence and pride. They were beaming! It was such a beautiful closing of the circle for our inaugural year, with our Teaching Artists performing the pieces for our final presentation. After all the work we had done together, seeing these young people share the magic of music with others was a feeling like no other. You can watch some of this magic yourself in our 2022 Virtual OrKidstra Showcase!

KidComposers’ Colin explains piece to Teaching Artist Ms. Sonia. Photo: OrKidstra.

One of the KidComposers, Jayden, spoke with me about the magic of hearing his own composition performed by live musicians. “Now that it’s brought to life,” he said, “I can hear the emotions of the music in front of me, and it is very nice.” I was so moved by his framing; even as we create music, we learn from and respond to it. It is nice. And it is alive.

As we slowly return to a fully in-person environment, the sky continues to open with possibilities for the future of KidComposers. So long as we continue taking cues from our students’ creative energy, we know the program will be in good hands.

If you’re interested in learning more about Margaret’s creative journey, please visit her YouTube channel or her website at To learn more about OrKidstra, please visit or contact and


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