The Leading Note - Gary & Tina

The Leading Note - Gary & Tina

The Leading Note


370 Elgin St, Ottawa, ON K2P 1N1
(613) 569-7888

Interview: Nikki Gillingham, Blue Whale Communications Photography: Marianne Rothbauer, Rothbauer Studio


Tell us a bit about yourselves and how you got started.

Music has been the catalyst for pretty well everything Gary and I have done in our lives together. Gary begin his love of music as a rock drummer and continued this passion past high school with a professional band, before finally heading off to university to obtain a Master’s degree in electrical engineering. Many of Gary’s former band members are some of Toronto’s most respected players and teachers. After listening to CBC while driving to work, Gary fell in love with the sound of classical music and at the age of 29 took up the cello.  He has been an active amateur chamber musician and orchestral player – most recently with Ottawa Chamber Orchestra - ever since.

I started playing the flute at the age of 8 and fell totally in love with music once I joined a phenomenal youth orchestra in England.  This passion led me to study at the prestigious Guildhall School of Music in London and then on to play principal flute in the Tenerife Symphony Orchestra. At the invitation of a 6-month residency at the Banff Centre, I came back to Canada (my place of birth). Following that extraordinary experience, I visited my sister in Ottawa … and the rest is history!

Gary and I met at a CAMMAC – Canadian Amateur Musicians / Musiciens Amateurs du Canada – at a chamber music camp where Gary was playing and I was coaching.  It was an instant connection on many levels!

The foundation of the creation of The Leading Note and OrKidstra actually began when we bought and renovated our first – and only – home. We did everything together – completely gutted it down to the studs, re-wired, re-plumbed, built an extension +++ We did 95% of the work ourselves and realized we worked well together!


Did you always know you wanted to run your own business?

I have entrepreneurship in my blood, so yes, I always knew I wanted to run my own business one day. This opportunity became apparent when the local classical print music store in downtown Ottawa, Place Muzik, closed in 1998, leaving a huge hole in the market with teachers and the music community bereft.  At the time, Gary was working for Nortel as an electrical engineer and I was freelancing as a professional flute player and teaching. We decided we were ready for a change and wanted to work together. While neither of us had a background in the publishing or retail industries, we figured if we could learn how to build a house together, we could learn how to run a business by asking questions and working hard.  

Many incredible musicians in Ottawa helped us choose our initial inventory of music for the various instruments. After finishing renovations at our chosen location at 370 Elgin St., just three blocks from our house, we opened on December 4, 1999.


Sheilah joined the team just 6 months after The Leading Note opened. How important of a role does she play in helping to manage the day-to-day aspects of the business?

Our success has been a huge team effort. After 18 years with the business, 11 of them as our full-time manager, Sheilah has become a national expert in the print music industry.  Thanks to Sheilah’s passion for choral music, supplying music to choirs across Canada has become a central part and pride of our work at The Leading Note and, over the past few years, we have established close relationships with university music libraries and music schools across the country. With the dedication of our all-musician staff, The Leading Note’s trademark of specialized, caring service has developed from a dream into a reality.

You’ve been on Elgin Street for almost 19 years. How has the neighbourhood changed over time?

Elgin is not just where we work, it’s also where we live and play. There are certainly a lot more restaurants and bars and fewer retailers on Elgin Street compared to 1999, and the street is always changing. We’re focused on significant changes that are ahead with the major road construction due to start on Elgin Street in 2019, but we remain optimistic. We’re excited for the end result, which will revitalize of the neighbourhood. It has given us an opportunity to meet other business owners on the street, and discuss ways we can work together to keep the street lively and businesses healthy during the construction.


Tell us about Orkidstra. How did the idea for the charity come along, and how has it grown since starting?

Before ever opening the store, Gary and I promised each other we would make a difference in the music-making community in Ottawa, particularly for youth.  We undertook a few fun initiatives, like hosting busking outside of our shop but, in 2006, we found out about El Sistema – a life changing moment. El Sistema is a music and social development program founded in Venezuela that has shown the world that music can be an agent of social change.  

We began OrKidstra, known then as The Leading Note Foundation, in 2007 along with Margaret Tobolowska, former cellist with the NACO. We believe it was the first El Sistema-inspired program founded outside of South and Central America. There are now Sistema-inspired programs in over 65 countries!  

With the passionate belief in the transformative power of music, OrKidstra started with 27 children in 2007.  It now has 650 children, aged 5 to 18, from 42 linguistic and cultural backgrounds. OrKidstra is a charitable social development program with the mission to empower children and build community by teaching life-skills (such as teamwork, commitment, respect and pride in achievement) to kids from under-served areas of Ottawa through learning and making music together.  OrKidstra’s students demonstrate – both in performances and in their day to day lives – how the power of music gives them a voice which transcends social, linguistic, cultural and age differences and fosters a community that celebrates diversity—all while having fun and making joyful music.  The impact over the past eleven years has been outstanding: Students enjoy music-making 1-5 times a week; 94% of OrKidstra students attend for free; 0% have dropped out of school; 100% of graduates go on to post-secondary education.

In the early years of OrKidstra, Gary, Tina and Margaret volunteered countless hours to set up OrKidstra – and Sheilah was the founding Secretary on OrKidstra’s Board of Directors. As the organization became more established, Sheilah stepped into the role of managing the shop and Gary stepped back from his intense involvement and re-focused his energies on the shop – and revived his passion for drumming as OrKidstra’s timpani and kit player! Tina works (way more than!) full time as OrKidstra’s Executive & Artistic Director and has less involvement in the day to day operations of The Leading Note. In recognition of the creation of OrKidstra, Tina was awarded the Governor General’s Meritorious Service Medal in 2017.

The Leading Note is the only print music specialty store left in Canada. The industry is changing – how does that make you feel as musicians?

The extraordinary music community in Ottawa helped and inspired us to become the print music specialist that we are today: we find music from publishers in every corner of the world, bring it to Ottawa and help musicians of all ages, levels, and instruments to find what they want to sing or play.  It is awe-inspiring to think how much music has been performed over almost 20 years that has been accessed through the shop – imagine that much melody and harmony coming from one place! The Leading Note has become a destination, a hub for musicians in Ottawa.

However, the change in all things print began taking its toll and, in the last decade, most print music stores in the world have closed their doors – even the two biggest establishments in New York City shut down!  However, the reality is that print music is still in high demand; what has changed is the nature of the market and concentration of the demand.

Anticipating this change many years ago, Gary, calling on his engineering background, created our website and developed an online store for print music that is unmatched in Canada.   This online presence has expanded our customer base across Canada and beyond. As with any change, the change within the industry it has a good and not so good sides: from a musicians’ point of view it is exciting for us to reach more of our nation’s choirs, orchestras and musicians, but it is sad that regular print music, along with most other products, has been swallowed by the big box mindset and one stop shop to buy anything immediately. Fortunately for us this soullessness and lack of specialty cannot work for musicians wanting expertise and are interested in building a personal library of music that can be enjoyed for life.

Our creative energy is bubbling again with another new initiative: we’ve just opened two studio rooms in the space adjoining the shop for teachers and musicians. This is yet another way we build community through music at this vibrant hub called The Leading Note.

We are proud of our “corner store’s” success and recognize it really is against all odds!  


Where do you love to go to listen to music in Ottawa?

Being classical musicians, we would of course have to say the National Arts Centre. Having our world-class NAC orchestra here under the direction of their wonderful and (relatively) new music director, Alexander Shelley, is a real treat.  Maestro Shelley has been incredibly supportive of our OrKidstra program, to the extent that he is now one of their official ambassadors.

Irene’s Pub on Bank St. in the Glebe is a favourite place to see live bands. And, Gary would have to give a special shout out to the fabulous Ottawa Jazz Festival.

What is Ottawa’s music scene like?  Any favourite local musicians?

Some of our favourite bands in the city just happen to feature musicians who are associated with OrKidstra in one form or another.  Teachers Ed Lister and Zac Frantz play in the Prime Rib Big Band, an amazing group that features the very best of the Ottawa jazz scene.  Board member Ray Murray, along with Zac Frantz, are members of the extremely popular Soul Jazz Orchestra, who regularly tour Europe (and he just happens to be a successful lawyer in his spare time!). And OrKidstra’s program coordinator, Andrew Gesing, plays in a wonderful jazz/rock band called Cloud City.

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