By Stephania Romaniuk

For Calgary Philharmonic patron and visionary supporter Judith Kilbourne, being introduced to orchestral music is inseparable from the people who were a part of the experience. A long-standing advocate for volunteerism with a diverse background and skillset, Judy was invited to join the Board of Directors of the Calgary Philharmonic Society in 1992, shortly after moving to Calgary with her late husband, Bill. Family and work obligations in Toronto had focused her time for the better part of 25 years, and with her adult children grown, she was thrilled to attend concerts more regularly — an excitement, she says, that hasn’t dissipated. “I feel transported when I sit in my seat and listen. I grew up playing piano and have classical music going on all day long in my house, but to be able to go and see a performance — it’s the human contact, the extraordinary exchange between audience and performers.”

For the following two decades, Judy continued to serve the Orchestra in various volunteer positions when an opportunity presented itself to invest significantly in the organization. She couldn’t bear the thought of capital gains earnings on the sale of a property being taxed and looked for a way to invest them locally in an important cause. With an irresistible carte blanche for the Orchestra, the PhilKids after-school music education program was born. “With the absolute dynamic help of [Assistant Principal Horn] Heather Wootton, we got the program together and launched,” recalls Judy. “It was just such an exciting way to build something with the Calgary Phil team and create an opportunity for kids who would not experience music otherwise.” 

Judy would sit in on the PhilKids classes and final concerts, which included “Show What You Know” recitals in jam-packed school gymnasiums and even performances at the Jack Singer Concert Hall and Lobby. And she noticed that as the children progressed on their instruments, their behaviour also began to change. “They were talking with each other. They were performing better in their classes. They were excited and proud of themselves and taking responsibility for their own learning,” Judy beams. Parents and school communities served by PhilKids were very supportive and saw the benefits of the program on academic and socio-emotional learning outcomes for their students. Teachers at middle schools even commented that the instruction students received helped them as they progressed in later grades. 

Alysha Armanious, Education + Outreach Manager for the Calgary Phil, underscores the impact of Judy’s contributions to the lives of young people. “Participating in music education is not only integral to student achievement and social-emotional learning but prepares students for a lifetime of music participation. Like Judy’s own experience shows, students who have positive encounters with musical mentors in childhood develop creative and personal benefits that last a lifetime.” 

With children surrounded by screens and digital sounds, introducing elementary students to orchestral music through music-making is vital now more than ever. “If you’ve been to PhilKids, then you know how valuable this music is to the children, how it stirs their souls, and how it makes them proud. That’s the greatest outcome I could ask for,” Judy shares. PhilKids is entering its eighth consecutive year, having served approximately 2,500 elementary students (including online during the pandemic) in high-needs communities.

Judy and Bill were awarded the Golden Baton — the Calgary Phil’s highest honour for non-musicians — in the 2009/2010 Season for their remarkable contributions together. Since her husband’s passing in 2013, Judy continued building on their legacy together through PhilKids and securing funding to buy the Orchestra’s new Hamburg Steinway concert grand piano. Even after learning about the significant costs involved, Judy, undeterred, committed to the project and secured funding partners within two weeks. “I’ll never forget the day when the new piano was delivered to the stage in Calgary. It was magic,” she says. 

World-class pianists like Katherine Chi, Krzysztof Jabłoński, Janina Fialkowska, and Kevin Chen have performed on the new Steinway, and hundreds of young PhilKids students who are just discovering the world of orchestral music have benefitted from Judy’s ability to identify a need and her willingness to listen to and serve those around her. “It’s a fantastic adventure,” she says. “It’s been a sheer joy. None of it’s been work. And if I can help, that makes it even better.”