Kiwanis Music Festival 

One of the oldest traditions of the St. Catharines club is that of the Kiwanis Music Festival. With a nearly 100 year history, it has the mission to encourage, nurture and support performances and educational activities within St. Catharines, where musicians can enhance their interpretive and musical styles as a means of strengthening character development and celebrating the enjoyment of the arts. Summing up the widespread impact of the music festival in just a paragraph wouldn’t do it justice, however. This event has always aligned with the mission statement of the Kiwanis club, to be a positive influence in the lives of children throughout our community. Since its inception, the goal was always to give young people in our community a chance to have their talents be heard. Give them an opportunity to perform in front of people and build new skills that they wouldn’t learn otherwise. Not to mention the friendships they would make and connections they could gain throughout their neighbourhood and community.

The roots of the festival come from Niagara’s rural areas where music festivals wouldn’t normally be hosted. The first ever festival was hosted in Beamsville after Arthur Hannahson, the founder of the festival, started teaching music in rural schools. With some help and encouragement from a friend Ernie Neff, agricultural representative for Lincoln County, they decided to gather up a variety of music students to participate in the first ever event. By 1933 two schools from St. Catharines had joined and they had begun to receive the support from larger urban centres, it wasn’t just a festival for the farmers any longer. Within the next three years they had convinced early supporters to allow them to move to St. Catharines to accommodate more participants as the festival continued to grow.

For many years the festival was financially supported by various Women’s Institutes throughout Niagara townships, but it was in 1976 that the Kiwanis Club took over to develop it into a hugely successful event which at its peak had thousands of young people participating. It was around this time that John Collins became involved with the music festival. His involvement started out small, he sold ads inside the music festival to garner yearly financial support. It wasn’t long however until he was tasked with running the festival himself, to which his efforts earned him the nickname “Mr. Kiwanis”.

“You can’t always be taking out of the community, sometimes you have to give back.”

That’s what longtime Music Festival chair John Collins had to say about his motivation to continue doing the music festival year after year. After twenty five years spent in the army, he moved to St. Catharines and was eager to help the Kiwanis club in their mission to empower young people in the community. Surprisingly enough, it was his experience in the military that he believes helped him improve upon the festival in its formative years and shape it into what the event is today. Collins explains how he appointed department heads for each function of the music festival and their hard work in their own sections allowed him to focus on providing the best overall festival possible. Throughout his time as chair, he tried to bring in a variety of new programs to the festival, including the speech arts for example. He also made a point to never raise the price of entry.

“I wanted to give young people an opportunity to perform in front of an audience…do something they wouldn’t normally have a chance to do.”

The festival was also a good way to expose children to different kinds of music outside of what was popular at that time. It exposes young people to new opportunities and allows them to meet new people throughout their communities that are also involved with music. John Collins expressed his desire to work with his colleagues towards a common goal, one that brought together the community for a shared experience of music. His involvement with the music festival went on until 1997, when he felt it was time to let someone else take over as chair. He acknowledges that he doesn’t have all the answers or ideas, but rather someone else might be able to come in with new suggestions to make the music festival event better. His philosophy lives on with the music festival as it continues to impact the lives of youth in St. Catharines to this day.

“Children and the arts, they are important in this country. You have to maintain these things, they don’t remain on their own. They have to be nurtured.”

The festival still continues on to this day with strong fundraising efforts and a goal to show young people new experiences through music and getting them adjudicated. Throughout the 2000’s, Peter Brown was integral in the continued success of the festival and after applicant numbers went down he was determined to get the festival closer to its former strength. One year in particular he increased applicant numbers by over one hundred and several of those participants placed in provincial competitions as well. His assistance in with Music Festival was integral for the eight years he was involved. Jane Wood, the only person in the club who has remained on the Music Festival committee throughout her entire time with the Kiwanis, says the hope moving forward is to bring the festival onto a regional stage. Being able to include all of the municipalities in this vital community event which covers piano, violin, vocal, guitar and speech arts can achieve the goal of better lives for young people in our communities throughout all of Niagara, not just St. Catharines.

Written by Will Foran

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