Every year, we are honoured to recognize members of the SMUS community as they retire and take on new adventures. Read the 2021 Retirees series to learn more about their outstanding contributions to the school. In this story, we recognize Senior School strings teacher and Head of Music Donna Williams.
After 30 years as a Senior School strings teacher and Head of Music at retirement, Donna Williams has set off on an epic new phase of her life. She bought a well-established art studio in an old church in Wells, BC, one hour east of Quesnel. Music always centre-stage, Donna’s transforming the space into a recording studio, classroom and performance venue. Why Wells, a town of 217 (now 218) people? She’s stayed there before on holiday and it is very close to her son, Brin, his partner, Kate and her young granddaughter, Carys.
Donna moved to Victoria from Winnipeg in 1987 when she was pregnant with her son. She taught voice at the Victoria Conservatory of Music and violin on Galiano and Maine Islands. She was deeply involved in the local arts scene, including VOS Musical Theatre and Theatre Inconnu. Then, she saw an ad to teach strings at SMUS. “I had no intention of being a high school teacher, but it [ended up being] the most fun I could have had.”
Teaching wasn’t new for Donna. Before studying for a Masters in viola performance in Calgary she had spent several years teaching in Grades 4-6 classroom strings in Winnipeg.
Over the years her approach to teaching adapted from being performance based to focusing on ways of ensuring that music would stay a part of a student’s life after they left school.
“I find it quite reassuring that music has remained a robust program in the school considering the many new and exciting courses now on offer. What changed is the level of talent blew up,” reflects Donna. She attributes the surge in musical ability to invitro listening and the unprecedented access to music, composers and writers now that endless music is readily accessible online. “If they like a song, they can just download it, learn who wrote it, listen to more of their work immediately.” This is evident in the marked rise in the number of students with perfect pitch. “When I began teaching it was very rare, now it’s not. Their ears are so much better now.”
Donna is hesitant to pick a favourite experience during her three decades at SMUS, partially because she is very present-focused and there were so many positives. The European trips every few years with students were memorable, but then so were all of the musicals. She does concede that it was pretty magnificent when she had the opportunity to conduct her son when he played the lead role in Jesus Christ Superstar. She also says the vocal jazz program, which she launched in 2000, was wonderful. As were the Concerto Concerts, where young proteges played professional repertoire accompanied by the school orchestra. “So many incredible times,” she says.
Donna dubs former Head of School Bob Snowden a “knight” for the music program for his unquestioning belief in it. “We were able to grow to the program we have because he was so adamant that music was part of a well-educated human being. I have every confidence that Head of School Mark Turner will continue the work.”
Fourteen years into her tenure at SMUS, Donna moved into boarding as a houseparent with her dog Jizo. She entered this role with a bit of trepidation, but once she realized that “the nights you are on duty, nobody is going to die,” she says with a laugh. “The 48 girls actually know what they are doing.”
Donna was a surrogate mom to hundreds of girls who passed through boarding, and found they were phenomenally self-sufficient. She was amazed that for the first half of her time at SMUS, she had no real idea what happened in boarding. When the school day is over, it’s “almost a whole other personality of the school appears – it transforms into a home. They are never without their friends and others. … It’s pretty magical.”
In her 14 years in boarding, she says she noticed an uptick in boarders’ understanding and implementation of their self-care needs and their prioritization of good mental and physical health regimens. This is good to see, she says.
As Head of Music at the Senior School, she was always focused on maintaining a large ensembles program to ensure as many students could participate and enjoy music. As many other schools went the small ensemble and private study routes, Donna’s goal and vision were always big choirs, concert bands and orchestras.
Donna’s best friends are all at the school, she says. SMUS has been her life and every part of her life has been intertwined with SMUS. She went through a battle with cancer in 2016, with Jizo the malamute as her companion, and “music directed Phantom with no hair.” Jizo came to all her classes and would curl up under the piano, sometimes with a student tucked in with him. When Jizo died, she got Molly the mutt, also a school sweetheart, who’s joined her in Wells.
“It’s really surreal when something is done. I’m curious to see what it will feel like in September. I will miss that interaction with students and colleagues,” she admits. Her new Cariboo mountain town has a little ski hill, lakes, and she has to drive an hour to get Molly’s food. It’s a dramatic change, but worth it because “grandma-ing is awesome,” she says.
“I am so honoured to have been a part of the SMUS music program, and am very grateful to all the music teachers who have made it the program it is, and who are carrying the legacy forward, now and into the future. It has been such a joy working with these people in the music department, and in the school.”