The New Brunswick Youth Orchestra’s Ken MacLeod embraces a social mission
Tuesday, March 27, 2018
The New Brunswick Youth Orchestra’s Ken MacLeod embraces a social mission
Ken MacLeod, President & CEO of the New Brunswick Youth Orchestra and Founder of Sistema NB



On his instrument, Woody Guthrie scrawled a message: “This Machine Kills Fascists.“ That was an acoustic guitar. Imagine what he could have done with a kettle drum and a tuba or two.

Or, instead of imagining, look at what one man has done with the New Brunswick Youth Orchestra (NBYO). Starting in 2002 as a volunteer and continuing as the orchestra’s president and chief executive since 2009, Ken MacLeod has spearheaded initiatives that grew the NBYO from a barely viable organization with one orchestra, two part-time staff and an annual budget of less than $200,000 to one that now has 15 orchestras, more than 70 full-time staff and a budget of $3.7-million.

And while the five-decade-old orchestra made a big sesquicentennial splash this past summer with the premiere of its Howard Shore-commissioned anthem Sea to Sea, the efforts of MacLeod and the NBYO go beyond symphony and song. Guthrie sang This Land is Your Land; MacLeod, when it comes to musical education, preaches the same spirit of inclusiveness.

“We’ve embraced a social mission,” says MacLeod, on the phone from Moncton. “Because making good sounds just isn’t good enough anymore.”

In addition to his NBYO post, MacLeod heads Sistema New Brunswick. Since 2009, nine Sistema centres for music education have been established in the province. “The experience of learning is far too valuable to limit it to 70 kids and one orchestra,” MacLeod says. “I knew we could do better.”

MacLeod is a former scientist, postsecondary instructor, one-time member of the provincial legislature and the founder of KMA Consultants, a firm specializing in fundraising and communications for non-profit organizations. Blessed with no melodious gifts, the man has no ear for music. But, as a money-raising dynamo, he can hear the sound of a wallet opening a mile away.

He came to the NBYO as nothing more than a parent with a child in in the orchestra. In 2003, the orchestra was invited to a festival at Carnegie Hall. It was an honour, but a relatively luxurious one, well beyond a shoe-string symphony’s means.

Aghast that such an opportunity would be passed up, MacLeod offered to raise the money required for the appearance in New York himself. Knock yourself out, he was told by orchestra leaders. Which is what he did, raising $145,000 for the festival field trip himself.

That was 15 years ago, and MacLeod is still knocking himself out. Enthused by Venezuela's publicly financed El Sistema program of social development through music education, MacLeod and the NBYO broadened its mission. They grew from musical training for the youth who could afford musical instruments to an organization that sought to inspire children and youth of all demographics to achieve their full potential through learning and performing orchestral music.

According to MacLeod, now some 1,100 kids are engaged in musical education on a daily basis under Sistema New Brunswick. Regional youth orchestras for middle-school students have been established, as has a professional orchestra (Tutta Musica), made up of instructors. All told, the NBYO program has grown from one orchestra to 15, with more than 50,000 patrons attending almost 100 performances in 2017.

The numbers all look good when MacLeod’s proposals are made to the provincial government – public funding accounts for 65 per cent of the budget – but not all the goals are easily quantifiable.

“We deliberately want to deliver impact in the wider society,” MacLeod says. “It’s not only about making better musicians, it’s about becoming better citizens.”

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