Kiwanis Music Festival preparing to celebrate 75 years

Eileen Richards has an extensive scrapbook collection of newspaper articles and photographs of the Kiwanis Music Festival beginning from 1961 when she began serving as secretary for the annual event, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. She is seen here in her Chatham home on Friday. Ellwood Shreve/Chatham Daily News/Postmedia Network Ellwood Shreve / Ellwood Shreve/The Daily News

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For 75 years, the Kiwanis Music Festival has provided an opportunity for local youth to showcase their talents.

Many young people who have competed in the annual event have gone on to successful careers in music, including Dr. Benjamin Smith, Jordan Clayton and Ryan Nauta.

All three will be in Chatham on March 7 for the 75th Anniversary Homecoming Concert, being held at the Kiwanis Theatre at 8 p.m.

“They’ve agreed to come back and share their talents with the community here,” said George Service, chair of this year’s Kiwanis Music Festival. “We’re hoping to fill the Kiwanis Theatre for that concert.”

Smith holds a doctorate in piano performance from Stony Brook University, along with degrees from Julliard, the Glenn Gould School and the University of Toronto, where he currently teaches.

His education and skills have resulted in Smith being in high demand as a solo performer and adjudicator throughout North America.

Clayton holds a master’s degree in violin performance from Western University in London.

Nauta holds a master’s degree in vocal performance from the Schulich School of Music at McGill University in Montreal, making him in much demand as an operatic tenor throughout Canada.

Tickets for the homecoming concert are $25 and will be available at the door or by emailing

Organizers have been working since shortly after last year’s festival ended to prepare for this milestone event.

“It’s very exciting, of course, to have any event like this carry on for 75 years that’s a big deal,” Service said.

He credits the volunteer effort for the longevity of the festival, noting they are mostly Kiwanis Club of Chatham-Kent members.

Service said club members enjoy working with the youth.

“Our motto is ‘To make the world better one child, one community at a time,’” he said.

Eileen Richards, 90, remembers participating in an event called Kiwanis Musical Day, held at Tecumseh Park in Chatham in the spring of 1945, which led to the creation of the annual music festival.

She recalled being part of a student choir with the former Chatham Vocational School that performed in Tecumseh Park.

“None of us knew it was going to turn into an annual music festival,” she said.

In 1961, she was asked to serve as secretary for the festival, a position she held for 10 years.

During that time, she kept an extensive collection of newspaper clippings, noting the festival was covered daily by The Chatham Daily New as well as the London Free Press and Windsor Star.

Richards is amazed the festival is going strong after 75 years.

“Music is something that lasts — it’s eternal,” she said.

Janet Braddon, 80, has been both a participant and volunteer with the local Kiwanis Music Festival.

She started competing at age eight in piano.

“I was really nervous to play in front of people,” Braddon recalled.

She competed alone as well as in a two-piano number.

“The keyboards were at the opposite ends of the stage and you couldn’t see over the top of the piano to look at the other person,” Braddon said. “To get started at the same time . . . was very exciting.”

Braddon also spent time helping organize the festival but recently stepped back from those duties.

“It was a lot of fun meeting all the different people that were involved,” she said, adding people with many different talents, training and backgrounds are required to make the festival a success.

Having been both a competitor and volunteer, Braddon laughed, “It was much easier to be a volunteer.”

There are 599 registrations for this year’s festival, which takes place from March 23 to April 3.

Service said several participants enter a number of classes of competition, but the numbers are also bolstered by the bands and choirs that take part.

“There’s a lot of talent there,” he said.

The competition classes include classical voice, musical theatre, speech arts, piano, stringed instruments and wind instruments.

Adjudicators are brought in from across Ontario to assess the performances of participants. At one time, they were brought over from England.

“The adjudicators, actually, part of their job is to teach,” Service said, adding it’s like a master class for participants.

“They get a lot of good teaching here, but this just gives them another viewpoint on what they’re doing and how they’re doing it.”